During a cross-country skiing race in March of 2003, Steve Waitt took a major tumble, badly injuring his shoulder. He finished the event anyway, skiing the final eight miles in enormous pain. A few days later he began to suffer stomach problems.
A seasoned athlete, Waitt, then 48, wasn’t surprised. He knew that extreme exertion and trauma could impact immunity. He’d been training hard for months and figured his fall and final push had put him over.
What Waitt wasn’t prepared for was a double whammy: What seemed like a stomach bug soon developed into a serious digestive disorder that stopped him in his tracks, causing the already-lean athlete to begin losing weight precipitously. Alarmed, he sought help from a series of doctors and was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which devastated the health-conscious Waitt. “I’ve always been very careful about tracking and maintaining my health,” he explains. “But it seemed like my body got pushed past some limit and went sort of haywire.”
As a result of injury and illness, Waitt was forced to seriously scale back his training activities. He took it easy for a few months, forgoing his regular training regimen of running and roller-skiing in favor of walking and long, easy road cycling. He also included some strength and flexibility work.
By late fall, with his health improving, Waitt resumed serious training, faced with what he thought could be the long and frustrating task of rebuilding his fitness. Early snow in Minnesota allowed him to hit the trails in November. The first time he stepped into his skis, he didn’t know what to expect.
Waitt was surprised and delighted to discover that he felt better than ever. “I had this new level of endurance,” says Waitt. “I didn’t tire as easily, and I was amazed at how strong and full of energy I felt.”
According to Waitt, it seemed that his body had just been waiting for time off in order to do some much-needed repair work. Apparently, it made use of the opportunity to do upgrades. “I’m finding now that I’m able to ski faster with less effort,” says Waitt. “Laying off and resting after so many years of hard training seems to have really paid off.”
Waitt’s story is no anomaly, according to many expert trainers. In order to get stronger, faster and more powerful, they explain, sometimes rather than bearing down, an athlete needs to lighten up.
Closed for Repairs
Clearly, your body requires a certain amount of stressful stimulus to grow stronger. In fact, that damage- recovery cycle is the whole basis of fitness training: You break your body down, and it responds by building itself back up better than before.
But if you’ve been putting your body through its paces without opportunity for full recovery, or if you’ve been under additional stresses (physical, mental or emotional), you may not be giving your body a chance to restore itself. To do so, you may need to change your routine, pare down your training load or, in some cases, walk away from training altogether — at least for a little while.
“You can only make fitness gains when your body has time to recover from the training loads you put it under,” asserts Chris Carmichael, founder of Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, Colo., and coach of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong. That means the harder you push, the more carefully you must observe the low points of your periodization schedule.
For an elite athlete like Armstrong, Carmichael not only inserts rest days into a training schedule, he also prescribes rest weeks, even months. After every three days of hard training, he instructs all his elite athletes to take a 24- to 48-hour break. After every three weeks, he recommends one week at half the normal training volume and intensity. Carmichael advises many of his clients to take anywhere from one to three months off from formal training after they peak for a big event. During this time off, they can run or walk, bike or swim, but they are not supposed to time themselves or monitor their heart rates.
This type of regeneration period allows your body to recharge not only your energy stores, but also your mental focus. You start fresh, with a more positive and confident outlook on what you want to accomplish.
The Effort Addiction
If a world-class competitor like Armstrong takes a step back sometimes, why do we mere mortals feel so guilty when we opt for a power walk over an intense sprint session?
In many cases, it’s because we put so much emphasis on our effort as a means to an end that we don’t trust anything but effort — and lots of it — to get us there. We forget that training is not an either/or proposition, where you have to choose between always pushing hard or quickly falling behind.
We’re also creatures of habit. “It’s easy to get sucked up into the routine of training rather than the goal of training,” says Ian Adamson, a three-time Eco-Challenge champion from Boulder, Colo., and author of Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing (Rodale, 2004). It’s important, says Adamson, to always keep in mind why you are training and to remember that strategic periods of rest and recovery are part of every good training plan.
Dare to Desist
If you have a consistent workout regimen, you needn’t live in mortal fear of losing all momentum the instant you take your foot off the pedal. It takes much longer than a day or two for the body to detrain. As long as you’ve been training consistently for six months or more, it would probably take at least two weeks of complete bed rest before you’d see your muscles begin to wither. (For more specifics on how time off from exercise affects your fitness, see the Web Extra!, below.)
If you do even a little work on a weekly basis, you can stave off significant losses for months. “Train hard just one day a week and you can maintain your fitness almost indefinitely,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. Sothern is not suggesting that an untrained person will make fitness strides with this approach, or that seasoned athletes will want to embrace this sort of training plan long term. Her point is simply that most athletes won’t lose ground nearly as rapidly as they fear.
That’s important to understand, says Sothern, because failing to take breaks — going too hard for too long, too often — can negatively impact your performance, immunity and mood, and deplete your energy reserves, setting you up for other problems like illness, depression and burnout. And, of course, it can take all the fun out of fitness. Many athletes put themselves in a near constant state of overtraining, notes Sothern, and needlessly sacrifice energy and vitality as a result.
While most hardcore athletes pride themselves on being able to work through pain and pathos, the smart ones also understand the value of backing off once in a while. Knowing when and how to moderate your training plan is critical to your athletic success — as well as your health. Failing to reduce your training load when your body needs a breather can set you up for the following problems:
Compromised immunity. Pushing your body to its limits causes it to release stress hormones, including cortisol. As this hormone rises, immunity takes a nosedive — it can’t adequately repair your muscles, nor can it effectively fight off bacteria and viruses. “Periodically lowering your training load reduces cortisol levels, allowing your body to recover better from your training,” says Shawn Talbott, PhD, research director for the health education company SupplementWatch and author of The Metabolic Method (Currant Book, 2008). It also reduces your chances of sustaining an injury or getting an illness that could sideline your training for an extended period.
Reduced strength, power and endurance. A tough strength-training or cardio workout inflicts small tears along the outer coating of your muscle tissue. During your downtime, your body treats the tiny tears much as it does an injury, and satellite cells rush in to patch them up. The repair process creates longer, thicker muscle fibers. When you train too hard, too often, however, your repair system falls behind. Many of the torn muscle fibers remain tattered, and thus, your athletic results may begin to plateau.
Another sign of overtraining is an impaired heart rate. In some athletes — usually sprinters and power athletes — the heart refuses to speed up with exertion, and you feel as if you are exercising while half-asleep. Blood doesn’t circulate through your body as quickly as usual, preventing oxygen from getting to your working muscles and keeping wastes from getting cleared.
In others — usually endurance athletes — the heart rate is elevated, both first thing in the morning and during exercise. No matter whether the heart rate speeds up or slows down, the effect is the same: early fatigue during a workout.
As a precautionary and maintenance-oriented step, some athletes measure their heart rates in the morning to assess their bodies’ status. If your heart rate is at least 10 percent above or below normal, the rule goes, you should forgo training.
Reduced energy and motivation. If you’re overtraining, or if some other aspect of your life is exerting a significant toll and you haven’t adjusted your workouts accordingly, there’s a good chance you’ll see your outlook and enthusiasm suffer.
Part of this may be psychological (you feel pulled in too many directions, for example, and can’t get satisfaction from your workouts). But another part of it could be physiological — a biochemical reaction to nutritional and hormonal depletion. Stepping back from training allows you to rebalance your body chemistry, reduce stress and recharge your mental batteries.
It’s your body-mind’s call for a break, says Talbott, and you’ll likely emerge feeling energized.
Getting the Message
So how do you know when you should take a break, and how long it should last? Ideally, your training plan should include a formal periodization schedule that calls for “light” periods and days of rest (see “Chart a Course to Fitness” in the December 2007 archives). But even then, particularly if life throws you for a loop, there may be times when you find that the plan simply isn’t panning out.
In those cases, it helps to be able to recognize your body’s warning signals. Here are some of the most common indicators that suggest you need to take a step back, along with strategies for when and how to step it up again.
Symptom No. 1: You’re feeling tired, strung out and crabby.What your body is trying to tell you: It may be maxed out. Generally, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. But when you’re clocking 80-hour weeks or planning your wedding, intense exercise can become one more stressor in your already-stressed-out life. It can also further destabilize your body’s levels of amino acids and neurotransmitters. A lot of busy people find time to exercise by cutting back on sleep, but it’s during sleep that your body repairs and restores itself.
What to do: Focus on quality rather than quantity. Instead of training six days a week, switch to an every-other-day schedule, suggests Talbott. Sleep in on your days off. “The rest and recuperation will reduce cortisol levels,” says Talbott. “It’s better to have three good workouts during the week than to have five or six so-so workouts.”
How to come back: Once you’ve completed that merger or said your wedding vows, go ahead and add additional training days to your schedule. Just make sure to continue to get your seven to eight hours of sleep.
Symptom No. 2: You’re sick — again.
What your body is trying to tell you: If you’re getting sick a lot, it’s a sign that your immune system is struggling and that it may need more attention than your workouts for a while. Regular (moderate) exercise usually boosts immunity, but intense sessions, particularly those that last two hours or more, can lower it — especially if you don’t rest adequately between sessions or you aren’t getting adequate nutrients.
What to do: Take stock of your illness. It’s OK to continue to exercise through a cold, as long as you lower the intensity and duration. Go at a slower pace and hold yourself to just 30 or 40 minutes, max. Don’t overload congested or infection-weakened lungs, though. As a rule, if your symptoms are below the neck — or you have a fever, are vomiting or have diarrhea — stay in bed. Exercising with a fever will raise your body temperature even more, putting undue stress on your immune system and allowing the infection to flourish.
How to come back: The effects of flu or other illness may linger long after your fever subsides. During your first week back, train at no more than three-quarters of your normal intensity and duration, says Talbott. After a week, if you feel energetic during and after your workouts, resume your normal training load. During longer sessions, consume some carbohydrate in the form of a sports drink, energy bar or energy gel. Research suggests that regularly ingesting carbohydrate during endurance training can bolster immunity by stabilizing blood-sugar levels.
In one study, conducted at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and published in the Journal of Sports Science (January 2004), marathon runners and triathletes who consumed a carbohydrate beverage during their race had improved blood-sugar levels, stress-hormone levels and immunity after the race compared with athletes who did not consume the drink. For exercise sessions lasting an hour or longer, consume between 30 and 60 grams of carbohydrate (the amount in either one or two energy gel packs) for every hour of exercise.
Symptom No. 3: You’ve hit a stubborn plateau.
What your body is trying to tell you: After six to nine months on any exercise program, everyone hits a plateau. In many cases, this indicates the body needs a new challenge. But in some cases, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too far, too fast, and not giving your body’s repair systems a chance to keep up. Remember also that your maximum muscle size and metabolism are both partly genetically determined. Trying to overcome genetics by cranking up the intensity and duration of your workouts can backfire by suppressing immunity, which in turn suppresses your metabolism, according to Talbott. High cortisol levels also increase appetite, which may interfere with weight loss.
What to do: Evaluate your periodization schedule to see if you might be overtraining. Look at how much support you’re offering your body in return for the demands you’re placing on it. Consider adding more rest days or recovery workouts to your schedule. Also consider switching to a different fitness pursuit. If you were running, try stair climbing. If you were rowing, try the elliptical trainer. In the weight room, switch up your regular routine. “Mixing it up can often provide enough of a change to stimulate weight loss and increase strength,” says Sothern. “It’s like slapping your metabolism in the face and waking it up. It keeps your body adapting.”
How to come back: As long as you’ve stayed reasonably active, you’ll probably find that you can return to your original fitness pursuits without much trouble. Changing it up and following a periodized program can help to improve your results.
Symptom No. 4: Your workouts aren’t making you happy.
What your body is trying to tell you: A negative mindset is often the first sign of overtraining syndrome, says Carmichael. With a symptom list that includes grumpiness, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia and low immunity, overtraining syndrome results from going too hard and too often without adequate rest.
Keep overdoing it, and you can expect to see stress-hormone levels rise, testosterone (the hormone in charge of muscle building and repair) levels fall and immunity plummet. You may feel tired as soon as you roll out of bed in the morning, or get more short-tempered as the day wears on.
What to do: If you have the bummed-out mindset — but without any physical symptoms — exercise at one-half your normal intensity and duration for one week. If your physical health is already suffering, you may need to stop exercising altogether for one or more weeks. If your physical symptoms have lasted for only three or four weeks, then a week off should do the trick. If you’ve been dragging around for months, take three weeks off, going for easy walks and doing yoga, tai chi or light stretching when you feel like it.
Also, consume more brightly colored fruits and vegetables (at least eight to 10 servings a day), fatty cold-water fish like salmon (at least twice a week), and healthy protein, such as beans, chicken or turkey breast (at least twice a day). These foods will help bring down cortisol levels, reduce muscle inflammation and help bolster immunity, says Talbott.
How to come back: Exercise every other day at half your normal training volume. Do this for two to three weeks, and then begin adding intensity and duration to your workouts. Keep rest days a regular part of your schedule. For every three days of hard training, take off one or two days.
More Rest for the Weary
If you’ve been turning a deaf ear to your body’s requests for time out, maybe it’s time you took notice. Keep in mind that taking a break doesn’t necessarily relegate you to lying on the couch and vegging out with DVDs. In fact, in most cases, you can and should continue to exercise at a lower intensity and duration during your power-off periods.
The important thing is that you learn to be observant about the signals your body is sending and that you see your workouts in the context of your whole life. Exercising harder isn’t going to do your athletic capacity much good if it undermines your physical or mental health. If it helps, think of your reduced training load as you would a trip to a spa: You’re still doing something healthy for your body by giving it the time it needs to rejuvenate.
As a fitting conclusion to his year, Steve Waitt had his two best races ever. “What I learned from that experience — taking a break from intense training and getting such good results — is a lesson I’ll benefit from for the rest of my athletic career,” says Waitt. “I just wish I hadn’t had to learn it the hard way.
Wondering what you can expect to lose in case of an extended layup? According to exercise physiologist Melinda Sothern, PhD, here’s what goes on during a complete layoff from training.
If an illness, injury or frenzied work schedule has kept you out of the gym, don’t despair. Do what you can, and trust your body to ask for what it needs. Your rate of repair depends in part on how depleted your system is to begin with, but unless you’re seriously ill, you’ll probably notice some improvement within just a few days of treating yourself more gently. The good news: Movement of any kind — even walking the dog — will help prolong your fitness.
Amount of time off: 48 hours
What happens: Catecholamine and other fat-burning enzyme levels drop
What it means: Your body is burning fat at a slightly reduced level. Fit people burn fat at a higher rate than couch potatoes, so this slight reduction probably won’t show up on your waistline, assuming you head back to the gym within the next few weeks.
Amount of time off: 72 to 120 hours
What happens: Insulin response drops
What it means: This hormone shuttles sugar into your muscle cells. Insulin works extremely well in fit individuals, so this slight drop is nothing to worry about.
Amount of time off: 1 week
What happens: Flexibility declines
What it means: Of all fitness variables — strength, endurance and flexibility — flexibility is the hardest to maintain and easiest to lose, which is why it’s a good idea to stretch every day, even during a layoff.
Amount of time off: 2 weeks
What happens: Endurance and strength begin to drop
What it means: Once your endurance and strength begin to drop, they continue to do so rapidly. After three weeks of rest, you’ll have lost 50 percent of your strength and endurance. After four weeks, you’ll have lost 75 percent, and after six, you’ll have lost most everything.