All work and no play makes Jack an underperforming athlete

It’s strange, but true: if you gave a tired, achy athlete the option of either conducting a very intense workout or taking a nice, relaxing day off, most would choose the rugged training session over recovery. Even though most of us pay lip service to the principle of balancing work and rest during training, we tend to overtrain – and fear what might happen to our fitness levels if we are ‘too easy’ on ourselves.

Part of the problem is that endurance athletes have listened closely to the ‘scare’ stories – the investigations which have documented such misfortunes as 7-per cent drops in VO2max after just three weeks of greatly reduced training (Sports Science Exchange, vol. 2(23), March 1990), 10-per cent falls in stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped by the heart per beat) after only three weeks away from workouts (Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 60, pp. 95-99, 1986), and 25-per cent reductions in muscle-enzyme activity after 21 days without serious exercise (Running Research News, vol. 6(6), pp. 1-7, 1990). And troubling indeed is the research which shows that if you take 10 days off, it can sometimes take about 30 days to restore the full fitness you enjoyed before the break (ibid). Taking time away from training just seems to carry too much cost,

But wait!
Unfortunately, most athletes forget about the other key part of the rest story, which is that although complete breaks can put a significant dent in your fitness, doing a rather modest amount of good-quality work during an extended rest period can totally prevent fitness fall-offs. That’s of course because the intense work preserves fitness or nudges it upward, while the added rest permits the repair of muscle cells and the synthesis of new enzymes, mitochondria, and capillaries – things which make you a better athlete! That’s why up to four weeks of ‘tapering’ can boost your performances dramatically – and why longer stretches with reduced work don’t automatically lead to fitness fall-offs, even though the total training stimulus is reduced.

In fact, research tells us that a typical athlete can reduce either the frequency (number of workouts per week) or volume (number of miles covered per week) of training by up to 67 per cent for 10 to 15 weeks without losing any fitness at all, as long as the remaining workouts are fairly high quality (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 13, pp. 13-16, 1981 and Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 53, pp. 225-229, 1982).

What exactly do we mean by high-quality workouts? For runners who must cut back on training because of conflicts or niggling injuries, the best workout would simply involve three to five one-mile repeats at current 5-K race speed, with four-minute recoveries (30-mile-per-week runners should do three repeats, 40-mpw runners can do four reps, and 50-mpw people five). Carry out that session twice a week during [after 10 weeks, even if you do no other running. [by focussing on a workout which contains four to eight five-minute repeats, carried out at an intensity which could not be sustained for more than 15 minutes (rest periods between repeats should last for three to four minutes).

Science tells us that fitness can be preserved in the face of reduced volume and frequency, as long as intensity remains. Stranger still, in some instances cutting way back on training AND forgetting about the intense work for three to five weeks can improve your fitness.

Studies with first-timers
How can we say that? The key thing to remember is that many of the investigations concerning the effects of reduced training have been carried out with athletes who were training seriously for the first times in their lives when they took part in the studies. Often, the actual training periods lasted only eight weeks, after which the newcomers sank back into a life of lethargy while their physiological sags were monitored. One has to interpret the results of such studies with caution; they are unlikely to represent the exact changes which would take place in more experienced athletes.

Those investigations which have utilized veteran athletes have usually – for good reason – included only those athletes who were moderately trained and performing well at the time of the study. Naturally, if you take training completely away from such people, their fitness will decline.

However, it’s also important to look at the impact of rest on athletes who have been training extremely heavily – so heavily, in fact, that performances have fallen below usual standards (we’re thinking here about athletes who are simply very worn down – not the truly overtrained ones who have managed to throw their physiological systems into absolute chaos). What would happen if such individuals took a nice, three-week rest – with very little training and no quality work?
Well, some pretty good things, according to recent research carried out in the UK (‘Rest in Underperforming Elite Competitors,’ The British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 24(4), pp. 248-252, 1990). In the study, 12 tired and underperforming Olympic competitors from five different endurance sports (middle-distance running, rowing, cycling, swimming, and race-walking) took three to five weeks off, participating in no competitions or strenuous training at all for the entire period. They were matched with 12 control individuals who continued their normal training.

Were the athletes in bad shape after their 21- to 35-day holidays? Hardly! In fact, VO2max was up by 4 per cent after the layoff, heart rate at lactate threshold rose by 3 per cent, and endurance time (the length of time the athletes could sustain exercise at a high intensity) jumped by 4 per cent. The athletes felt much better, too: feelings of fatigue dropped by 55 per cent, and vigour soared by 50 per cent.

What are the bottom lines here? The quickness with which detraining can strike us has been overestimated, and the value of resting and recovery has been greatly underestimated. The truth is that one can greatly cut back on total training while emphasizing quality work for up to four weeks – and dramatically IMPROVE performances. That’s just plain old-fashioned tapering.

The truth is also that one can carve a big chunk out of one’s total training load for rather extended periods (10 to 15 weeks) and still PRESERVE performance quality, as long as a couple of really good workouts are carried out each week.

And the truth is also that three to five weeks of increased rest – and sometimes even COMPLETE rest – can improve the performances of experienced athletes who have really been hitting their training hard.

As always, it’s the combination of work and rest – not just the work – which makes us better. At certain times in our training cycles, we need to cut way back on the work and inflate the rest to nerve-wracking proportions. If taking a break, resting, and recovering make you nervous, remember that rest and recovery are what make tapering periods work so well, and the line-up of scientific studies which have demonstrated the tremendous benefits of tapering is very long indeed.

Jim Bledsoe

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