Training: The truth about recovery weeks and time off

rest days and recovery

Last week I wrote an article about how the musculoskeletal system actually repairs but what does that actually mean in terms of training well that’s what I am going to explore in this post. I have to admit I am slightly injured and partly writing this post in order to try and inject some rational scientific thinking into my now rather unreasonable and illogical brain. I often tell my patients that they need to rest and recover and think of the big picture. I have seen too many cases where a simple injury develops into wide spread problem involving not just the original area but also the joints above and below it. However turns out I’m not as willing to following my own advice as easily as I am at giving it out.

Lets face it when people talk about their training/workouts they are often going on about how they did some crazy insanity class or bench pressed a ridiculously silly weight. It’s very rare to hear someone brag about their easy session or the fact that they gave their body an extra rest day. Coaches and elite athletes do purposely schedule in a week or several days break even when they are not injured in order to let their body recovery physically and mentally. My coach is always telling me that rest and recovery is often more important than the training sessions themselves and that one week off is no big deal but pushing through will ruin your season.

What is a Recovery Day?

Recovery days mean different things to different people. It often means an easy session, cross training or a total rest.  Rest and recovery also allows the body to restore your glycogen (energy stores) as well as physiologically giving yourself time to relax. This should mean when you go back to training you will be able to fully focus rather than feeling like you have to do it. As you build up your training you can naturally become more fatigued as you start to work harder and harder, the danger is that your training may start to stagnate or suffer. Also with a repetitive training schedule no matter if you do try to mix up the sessions, the more mileage/workouts the higher your chance of you getting inured. Three days of rest after a training session actually shows an increase in performance not a decrease.

Recovery sessions:

The theory behind recovery sessions to be stimulating enough to get the fitness benefits by maintaining strength and developing your stamina. However at the same time not challenging yourself enough to need additional recovery or increased risk of getting injured. It also helps to train your muscles to perform in a pre-fatigued state so it knows what its like to partially push though when you are more fatigued. This is the main reason why I have supplemented them into my training. Recovery sessions in theory should loosen off the muscles or reduce delayed muscle soreness (DOMS) to prevent being tight or sluggish before your next major session. An active recovery normally consists of recovery session or cross training.

Cross Training:

Cross training is great for an active recovery, it allows you to maintain and build fitness without putting the same pressure on the muscles that you use the most in your individual sport. I have written a blog post already on the use of cross training as well as which sports are best to develop different muscles. Cross training is also great if you are a beginner and want to increase your fitness but don’t want to have to do that sport continuously. If you have a look at different training plans especially for longer events they often have at least 1 cross training session built in every week, to help build up fitness.

Should you build in a lower intensity week or down week?

Depending on your training schedule it may not be necessary to add this in, normally training comes in two categories one that’s building up slowly and the other that is a mix of lots of different types of sessions.

If all your sessions are roughly the same intensity and your gradually building your training up then it’s not as necessary to take a down week. In this case its more important to focus on building up your training slowly no more than 10% at a time. When I was building up my millage my coach suggested to build it up around 500m every week and no more. However this is completely up to you, the most important thing is to listen to your body and go with how it feels if you feel alright to keep going then go with it. On the other hand if you feel tired or tight then wait till next week and increase it then nothing is not set in stone.

So how much should you decrease your intensity or mileage in down weeks?

This will completely depend on the individual the general guidelines state that the week’s mileage should be around 15-20% less than your highest mileage week. It is also suggested to have a down week around once every three to eight weeks. It is normal to feel sluggish during this week however when your back to normal training you often feel you get more from the workouts as well as perform better.

So why take a recovery week?

All of the scientific process I have talked about in my previous article: Recovery:how the musculoskeletal system actually repairs, don’t actually happen when your doing the exercise. If you think about it logically when your doing the exercise, your body is too pre-occupied and busy trying to push yourself and complete the workout to your maximum ability. Therefore it doesn’t have time to do any of the processes enable it to recover.

Therefore if your not having a proper recovery, you won’t be getting the benefits of the hard work your putting in. You will only be digging yourself into the ground. Recovery weeks are a way of avoiding having to take longer breaks from training in the future. It;s similar to most thinks you need to find the perfect balance between putting in all the hard work and allowing yourself to recovery from them.

If you have taken part in a race or long training cycle then it is a good idea to take a break for a little bit before getting back into your full training again. Even Mo Farah will take a holiday from time to time and do very little or no training what so ever for that two weeks.

So if you are injured, what are the effects of taking time off to your fitness and your muscular strength?

Cardiovascular fitness:

It’s not till a complete week off that any changes actually start to occur to your cardiovascular fitness at all. After a week your overall blood volume (the amount of blood that is pumped from your heart around your body and to the muscle), will be decreased by 5-12 %. This means that you will be receiving less in terms of nutrients to the muscles via the your blood, this includes oxygen and glucose (blood sugar/energy). In turn this will make your body work harder and use up more energy as a result to complete the workout. Not only does having less blood volume mean you’ll have fewer nutrients available but will also mean it will be harder to get rid of the harmful metabolites that build up as a result of exercise. As your body is less able help to get rid off of the build up of lactate acid and other metabolites the amount will also build up faster. If your heart isn’t pumping out as much oxygen and nutrients your overall heart rate will also increase as it has to pump more for the same effects.

The main changes to your cardiovascular fitness will occur after 2 weeks off exercise. The changes that occur are the following your endurance will have decreased by 50% and your VO2 max will have dropped by 7%. VO2 max, is how people measure the body’s ability to taken in and utilize oxygen and its effects which I explained in the previous paragraph. Coyle et al 1986 The average VO2 max is between 30-60 and the higher the score the better. If you have read my article on recovery and effects of exercise on muscles you will know that endurance exercise actually increases the number of small blood vessels that grow deep into the muscle however by not exercising these changes will start to reverse.

Joo (2016) recent study has shown that the sprinting performance in footballers that take a week off will actually increase their time, agility and co-ordination. However it can affect their speed endurance if they repeat the reps of their sprints. Also Madsen et al proved that detraining had no effect on VO2 max levels and actually increased the efficiency of oxygen transfer to the muscles however the endurance capability an vary but again its depends not eh individual.

This is all great but what does this mean to my times:

Well here is some research that shows the effect of taking time off on 5km times for someone who runs 5km in 20 mins. These stats are based on runners that have had a decent block of around 4-6 months of training before hand, if your just starting then the effect of not training will occur faster than if you have training behind you, makes sense really.

Days of not running Reduction in fitness

Increase on time 5km time (based on 20 min baseline)

1-7 days

Negligible reduction in VO2 max and muscle power

10 seconds

10-14 days

6% reduction in VO2 max and minimal reductions in muscle power  1 min 5 seconds

14-30 days

Estimated 12% reduction in VO2 max and decrease in muscle power

2 minutes

30-63 days

19% reduction in VO2 max and significant decrease in muscle power

4 minutes

63 days +

25.7% reduction in V02 max and significant decrease in muscle power

5 minutes 30 seconds

Gaudette, J


Research by Ogasawara et al(2011) has also been done to show that 3 weeks of no training does not have a significant effects on your muscle strength. This was proven in a study where one group continuously trained for 15 weeks and one group had 3 weeks off in the middle. Research by Mann et al(2010) shown in a 6 week trail that altering your training based on how you feel meaning sometimes you may do less if you feel tired or tight rather than pushing through the session will actually increase your strength in regard to bench pressing and squatting. However prolonged absence from exercise does have its effects and you will loose some muscle mass and fast twitch fibres. Furthermore your muscles will be less efficient at working and producing energy to keep going.

Research has proven that taking three weeks off of training alone doesn’t affect your metabolism or signifiantly change the proportion of  muscle mass or fat in your body Laforgia et al (1999). It takes around 4-6 weeks for there to see any changes to how your body metabolises fat. These changes occur as the decrease in oxygen available which I have already mentioned will cause your metabolism to slow down and therefore increase your fat storage. Also your adrenaline levels will drops as your body is not expecting or prepared to do exercise in the first place.


So maybe having to take a break from training for a week or period of training at a lower intensity level isn’t the worst thing in the world. May I even suggest that maybe it is a good thing in disguise, if you have to ease off it for a bit for whatever reason. Taking a period of rest does take confidence and if I dare say it, a lot of courage. Its easier at least on a mental level to plod through and keep going than to say you know what I am going listen to my body and give myself a break. I know with me that I am my worst enemy and my poor coach often has to work hard to rein me in. Though that’s another important thing, trust your coach, family member or whoever you turn to for support as often they will be able to objectively see when you need a break, easier than you will. We may not like to admit it but we are not a machines or super heroes, we do actually need a break from time to time so here’s to having a cuppa and piece of cake.


Barder, Owen. VO2 max. Running for fitness.

Gaudette, J. Why Planned Down Weeks are Important. Runners Connect 

Gaudette, J. Losing Running Fitness: A Scientific Look at How Much You’ll Slow Down When Not Able to Run Runners Connect

Sisson, M. The Deload Week: What It Is, How to Do it, and Why It Might Help You Get Stronger. Marks Daily Apple

Cycling weekly. (2015) Detraining: The truth about losing fitness

Neufer, PD. The effect of detraining and reduced training on the physiological adaptations to aerobic exercise training. Sports Med. 1989

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