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The Importance of Recovery Weeks and Rest Days

By Dave Burgess | Oct. 13, 2020, 12:30 p.m. (ET)


It’s a common misconception among athletes: More volume and miles equal a better workout and better fitness.

This is simply not the case.

There are two things to consider. First, a shorter, higher quality workout will almost always be a better option than a workout based on the quantity of miles. Second, a training plan that includes periodization recovery weeks is always going to provide better improvements in fitness and performance compared to a training plan that focuses on increasing mileage weekly with no down or easy weeks.

Why? 

A training plan with periodization — two to three weeks of increasing intensity with a week of recovery and adaptation — will, if done properly, allow for a steady improvement in performance over time. A plan that just builds volume week after week will see the athlete fatigue, with no time to recover, and eventually, a decline in their performance will be encountered.

The keyword to focus on is adaptation. It’s common for an athlete to think that their down or easy weeks are about recovery. While this is true, there’s a more important aspect at play.  During a rest or recovery week, when the training load is reduced, the body adapts to the work that’s been done. Muscles heal and get stronger. All the work that’s been applied can now be taken advantage of in future high-intensity workouts or an upcoming race. At the end of an easy, or down, week your body has adapted to the training volume and intensity that was previously applied and is now ready to continue training and work towards its next adaptation.

How much time and volume should be reduced during a recovery week? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. A lot depends on the athlete, what their training volume is currently, what training is forthcoming, and where they are in their yearly training plan.

On average, I reduce the volume of my athlete’s training plans by approximately 30% compared to the previous week. If the previous week was more intense or had more volume for a specific reason, I might take a little more volume and time off. If it wasn’t too taxing of a week, I might take a little less volume off — or keep a little more intensity. But on average, I use the 30% rule.

I also incorporate an additional rest day in the recovery weeks for my athletes. That means they’ll have at least two days where there is no training planned (all dependent upon the individual needs of the athlete). Full rest days are critical as it helps facilitate the physical recovery process and allows the muscles to rebuild and repair more effectively. Rest days are important no matter the period of training that the athlete is in. You cannot train continually over a long period of time without full rest days as you run the risk of high fatigue requiring forced downtime. Or worse, as the body wears down you have an increased chance of injury.

Once the recovery week is complete, you can begin to do your two or three-week build again.

Volume isn’t the answer. The focus should be on quality and intensity, paired with properly periodized recovery weeks and rest days. Combined with a full yearly training plan that includes periodization, the chances of success and seeing improvement will be much greater.

Dave Burgess

Dave Burgess is a USAT level 2 coach, a USA Swimming level 2 coach, and a ASCA level 3 coach. He is the founder and head coach of Podium Training Systems, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Dave works with athletes of all levels from Kona qualifiers, AG world championship team members, and first time triathletes  For more information visit www.podiumtraining.com or email Dave at dave@podiumtraining.com.