Running has a few downsides that no one tells you about when you first put on a pair of trail shoes.
On a rainy-day race, you will get nipple chafing so bad that it looks like your chest has a face that’s crying red mascara. At some point, you are going to have no choice but to defecate in a semi-public location. And, worst of all, one day you’ll be running along feeling perfect when some appendage will have a sudden pain, and you’ll find yourself injured for the next month or two.
All three of those things build character. But trail runners already have an abundance of character. How can we avoid those pitfalls?
The answer for the first two is simple: You won’t (sorry nipples and neighbors). But you might avoid the third, if you plan down weeks.
Strategic use of down weeks—where you reduce training volume by anywhere from 15 to 75 percent—can help keep injury at bay and lead to fitness and health breakthroughs. Here’s how to use them.
Why Take Down Weeks?
Running training, like following the presidential election, is an accumulation of stress. The goal is to get the body to adapt to the stress, getting stronger so that what was once stressful becomes second nature. That is how a person with a seven-minute mile PR can run a three-hour marathon—sub-seven-minute pace—if they train intelligently in the long-term.
However, if the stress outpaces the adaptations, the body breaks down. Breakdown can take many different forms, from bone injuries to tendinitis to more worrisome things like plummeting hormones.
Combining rest days with down weeks helps you avoid too much of a good thing. During a down week, bones can heal before you ever feel them stressed, muscles can rebuild before performance declines and hormones can rebound before you start crying while watching sitcoms on TV.
On down week runs, relax and focus on enjoying the process of training. Photo by David Roche
What Is a Down Week?
There is no set definition for what constitutes a down week, but most coaches agree it is reducing training volume by anywhere from 15 to 75 percent once every three to eight weeks.
That variability is due to the varying goals of different athletes. In general, high-volume runners—those over 50 miles per week—can decrease by a bit more, and a bit more often (since they are still at relatively a high volume), while lower-volume runners should decrease less and less often (to avoid extremely low-mileage weeks).
Some intensity should stay in the program during a down week; reduce it proportionally along with volume. So if you would usually do 20 x 1-minute intervals and are decreasing volume by 25 percent, do 15 x 1-minute intervals.
You can still chase sunrises on down weeks. Photo by David Roche
How Should You Use Down Weeks?
When planning down weeks for my athletes, I think of it like baking a cake with butter. You can use more butter than the recipe suggests, and it will probably still be amazing. Use less, though, and it may crumble into an unappetizing mess.
The traditional recipe for down weeks is three weeks of full training, then one week with a 15-to-30-percent reduction in training load.
However, I usually like to add a few extra pats of butter. For most of the pro- and high-volume athletes I coach, we do two weeks of max training, then one week with a 25-to-50-percent reduction in training.
For time-limited athletes who aren’t pros, we’ll do three weeks of max training, then one week with a 20-to-40-percent reduction in training.
How Will Down Weeks Make You Feel?
You may be a bit lethargic as volume decreases—this is normal, kind of like a race taper. Don’t sweat it. As your body heals, you’ll probably notice a pep in your step and a jump in your rump.
When you start back on your next week of full training, you should be readier to roll than ever, using the adaptations of past training to reach new levels. Run less now; run stronger, longer and faster later.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David’s daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.