The Importance of a Down Week in Running

One of my close running friends got a new running coach. She was training at a very high level—more than 100 miles a week with VERY intense workouts. I’m talking ten one-mile repeats cutting down to 5:20 pace. Just writing about it makes me feel tired… During one of her workouts, she lamented that she hadn’t had a down week in months. I was astonished. A down week in running is a non-negotiable part of training in my view.

Whitney heins running
A down week in running is a staple of any solid run training plan.

Perhaps, that’s because I have battled many injuries in the past several years trying to train at a high level while doing all the things moms do. Down weeks are insurance against injuries, illness, or burnout.

What are down weeks in running?

Essentially, they are a slight reduction in your training to prevent injury and allow your body to absorb the training.

For many runners, especially new runners, down weeks, also called cutback weeks, or recovery weeks in running, are a strange phenomenon. They’ve heard of the 10 percent rule. You should increase mileage no more than 10 percent week over week, not thinking about the importance of allowing your body to recover from this consistent building of volume and stress.

Related: How I Stopped Being an Injury-Prone Runner

For experienced runners and elite runners, they may view cutback weeks as a threat to their momentum—that taking a down week in mileage will hurt their progress and steal away opportunities for fitness. Indeed, as a runner, there is a lot of fear when it comes to taking rest days or recovery. But it’s crucial to remember that it is in the rest or recovery that we get stronger and fitter.

The actual running breaks us down, actually creating microtears in our muscles. It is during our time of rest that they are allowed to rebuild stronger. It’s during rest that our bodies secrete hormones that spur physiological adaptations to make our bodies fit, energy-efficient specimens.

Related: The Importance of Sleep for Runners

With that in mind, I want to de-mystify the notion of down weeks in running so you can apply them to your training to get stronger, faster, and stay healthy.

down week post
Down weeks in running are a slight reduction in volume with a big payback.

In this article, I will review:

  • What is a down week in running?
  • What is the purpose of a down week?
  • How much do you reduce training volume in a down week?
  • When do you apply cutback weeks or down weeks in running?
  • What should you do in your down week? and
  • How to mentally embrace down weeks

Ok, let’s get the low down on down weeks!

What is a down week in running?

A down week in running, also called a cutback week or recovery week or deload week, is a purposeful reduction in your overall training volume for the week. These reductions happen at regular intervals throughout your training plan.

What is the purpose of a down week?

A down week or recovery week in running has two main purposes. First, a down week is mean to prevent injury, illness or injury. Second, a down week allows you to absorb your training. Taking just a little bit of a reduction in your running allows your body the opportunity to rebuild itself physically and mentally.

Related: Signs You Are Running Too Much

If you’re used to running a long run for like three hours on a Saturday morning, only running for an hour and a half will feel not only like an easy day but a walk in the park. This break will give your soft tissues, muscles, and bones the chance to catch up to the stress you’ve been putting on it for weeks. It also gives your brain a break so that you will likely be excited for your next big long run. It also gives your body time to make those physiological changes that improve running economy like increased mitochondria and capillary density.

A down week is sort of like a mini-taper in which your body bounces back stronger so you can tackle the next few weeks of training.

Related: What is Supercompensation in Running?

How much do you reduce training volume in a down week?

Most down weeks have a reduction in overall mileage by 15-30 percent depending on factors such as the overall training volume, your running background, injury history, training cycle, and goals

I typically program a reduction in training by about 20 percent for my athletes. If a runner has had an intense few weeks or is showing signs of mental or physical fatigue, I will give them a larger cutback. If I am training a pregnant runner or postpartum runner, I may also give them a larger recovery in their recovery week. 

When do you apply cutback weeks or down weeks in running?

Most cutback weeks or down weeks are applied every 3-4 weeks in a training plan. Different variables such as overall training volume, your running background, injury history, training cycle, and overall goals will influence how often you take a down week.

For example, my runners coming back from an injury or with a stout injury history will have a down week every three weeks on average. I program down weeks every three weeks for my pregnant or postpartum runners as well.

Some running coaches believe that down weeks happen organically (e.g. you get sick, or a niggle, or your kids get sick and you miss training) so they do not deliberately program down weeks. I do not subscribe AT ALL to this method of training. I believe down weeks are insurance against things like getting sick or potentially injured—in addition to being a performance enhancer.

down week pin
Pin these tips on down weeks in running for later!

If my athlete has to miss training due to things like illness or their kids getting sick, etc. we may move our recovery week to that week and adjust the subsequent weeks. But down weeks should be built into a training plan. If they aren’t, I would ask why.

Personally, I believe not having regular recovery weeks is playing with fire.

How do I know if I need a down week?

If you feel like you need a down week, then you need a down week.

If you are working with a running coach or following a training plan and your down week isn’t scheduled for the next week or so, ask for it or take it.

Also, if you are feeling rundown, easy runs feel hard, you’re unmotivated to run for several days in a row, you feel a niggle (little pain) coming on, overall fatigued, resting heart rate is higher, these are signs you need a down week pronto. It’s not a weakness to take a down week. Taking breaks as needed are what smart (and healthy!) runners do! 

(By the way, my friend ended up getting injured and not being able to race her marathon. She told me she regretted not asking for that down week…)

Related: Should I Run on Tired Legs?

What should you do in your down week?

You don’t need to do anything different in your down week except enjoy the few extra hours of time you may have that would otherwise be spent running. However, if you want to squeeze some extra recovery out of your down week, treat it as you would a taper week (since it is like a mini-taper).

down weeks pin
Pin these tips on down weeks in running for later!

By this, I mean, sleep extra if you can, work on your mobility, do a yoga session, be sure you are eating plenty and hydrating well, (DO NOT CUT BACK ON CALORIES BECAUSE YOU ARE RUNNING LESS!!!!), take an Epsom salt bath or four…and do something that is relaxing to you not related to running. Do not use the extra time to lift harder or try a new exercise habit. The point is to RECOVER, not add a new stress.

See this as a little vacation from your training so you can come back feeling fresh and ready to tackle what’s on your schedule.

Related: How to Taper for a Marathon

How do you mentally embrace down weeks?

Some runners struggle with taking recovery weeks. Many runners tend to be type A and have a tough time relaxing if they feel like they aren’t training as much as possible. I find that it is helpful to remind myself that I am allowing my body and brain space to become stronger so I can train harder the next few weeks. I think about all the hard training I have done and the hard training ahead and view this break as a special gift that I will probably miss when I’m hammering out mile repeats on the track.

All runners should remember the key equation that STRESS+REST=SUCCESS. If you don’t rest, you can’t get success. Instead, something will break and your goals will slip out of reach.

The Low Down on Down Weeks

  • Down weeks are a deliberate slight reduction in training volume by 15-30 percent. 
  • Take them every 3-4 weeks on average. 
  • They help prevent injury and absorb training. 
  • Treat them as a mini-taper and embrace the extra rest that week. 
  • Down weeks are crucial for allowing your body and mind to build back stronger so you can tackle the next weeks ahead.

If you want guidance with your running goals, including run/walking goals, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

 

 

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