Posted On:
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Updated On:
Sunday, December 3, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

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Wise Jedi Master Yoda.

As the calendar shifts from November to December, many endurance athletes are in Maintenance Phase, which is one of several training phases that make up an athlete’s training year.  While you are assessing how the past year went from a training and racing perspective so you can plan authentic goals and training time buffers for the upcoming season, it’s really important to embrace Maintenance Phase and the immense value it offers from a physiological and psychological standpoint.  

A True Paradox

Many athletes may not believe it when they are presented with this idea, but in order to get the most out of yourself in the coming year, you must go through a planned period of training cessation and/or detraining.  Training cessation is a complete stop of all training-related activities.  Detraining is the partial or complete loss of training-induced adaptations in response to an insufficient training stimulus.  

Detraining will occur if an athlete goes through a period of training cessation, no matter what the reason for the training cessation is.  Detraining can and will also occur if an athlete scales back the volume, frequency, and/or intensity of their workouts.  There are some instances where training cessation is absolutely the right call for athletes.  I most commonly deploy it with the athletes I coach immediately after an A-Race for 5-7 days.  However, even though it has incredibly valuable physiological benefits, training cessation isn’t always the right choice for athletes from a mental perspective, and thus I don’t include it in the training plans of every athlete I work with.  What I do do for each athlete I coach is include Recovery Weeks (which are essentially microcycles of planned detraining) and Maintenance Phase, which is a longer period of time where we plan for a larger amount of detraining to occur.

I know, I know.  It doesn’t seem “right” that doing less or intentionally causing detraining will yield better gains and results over time.  But it’s true.  In essence, to quote Jedi Master Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”  More is not better.  Better is better, and we get better by following the growth equation of Stress + Rest = Growth.

What Training (And Detraining) Does to the Body

It is probably obvious to every endurance athlete that training elicits changes in the body.  But what exactly are those changes?  There are simply too many to list out here, but there are two main categories of adaptations that training elicits in humans: Biochemical and Structural.  To illustrate the difference between them: A change in stroke volume (how much blood the heart is pumping with every beat) is a biochemical adaptation.  A change in the size of the heart’s ventricles is a structural adaptation.

Biochemical adaptations are stressful for the body and can take the body out of homeostasis.  The body can tolerate this for a period of time, but attempting to keep biochemical adaptations for too long (aka attempting to keep the body out of homeostasis too long) leads to a risk of injury.  What’s hard for athletes to see is that this risk of injury is not acute; it builds over time.  Neglecting to manage a Maintenance Phase well now may not result in an injury in the coming weeks or months, but it may very well lead to one manifesting later next year.

While we do seek to reduce the amount of time we spend out of homeostasis (aka we seek to limit how long we are inducing biochemical adaptations), structural adaptations remain in place as long as the period of detaining is not too long.  This is why Maintenance Phase is 6-8 weeks in length.  When we exit Maintenance Phase and transition to Base Phase, the body will be in homeostasis if this phase is managed well, which opens the door for measurable performance gains in the coming season.

Detraining by the Numbers

Numerous studies have been conducted on detraining, recovery, and its impact on athletic performance.  Dr. Iñigo Mujika conducted one such study on a group of elite swimmers.  In the season he studied, half of the swimmers in the group achieved personal bests, while the other half did not.  After examining their training and personal characteristics, Dr. Mujika couldn’t find anything distinguishing there that accounted for the difference in their performances.  The only thing that was different was the level of detraining that each group had gone through prior to the start of the season.  One group had detrained by about 10% and the other group had detrained by 4-5%; the group that detrained by 4-5% is the group that achieved personal bests.

It’s important to note that the entire group of swimmers all saw performance gains above where they started at the beginning of the season.  The difference in their final performances had to do with where they started from at the beginning of the season.  The swimmers who detrained by 10% had too “far” to go between the performance level where they started and where their personal bests were to make up that difference in a single season.  So while they saw performance gains, they were not close enough to their personal best to exceed it.  In contrast, the swimmers who detrained by 4-5% saw performance gains, and where they started from was enough of a “runway” for them to surpass their previous best performances.

What Dr. Mujika learned from this study is that (like all things), there is a bit of a “Goldilocks” equation in play; more is not necessarily better.  So just because some detraining is good doesn’t mean that a lot of detraining will yield even greater performance gains.  The “Goldilocks” or sweet spot seems to be right around 4-5% detraining.  Over a period of several seasons (aka after a few of these post-Maintenance Phase “runways” are experienced), gains get stacked on top of each other and progress is seen over time.

How to Properly Detrain

What does detraining look like?  There are two basic forms: Planned and Unplanned.  As mentioned earlier, planned detraining takes shape in the form of Recovery Weeks, Weeks Off, and Maintenance Phase.  Unplanned detraining happens when an athlete gets injured, sick, or otherwise takes time off from training (common reasons include work or family happenings).

It’s not uncommon for athletes to resist the idea of planned detraining.  In fact, one of the most common things I hear from athletes is that they want to “maintain” their peak fitness from the current season.  The hard truth is that it is not possible to maintain that high level of fitness all the time (due to the aforementioned exit from homeostasis that such peak fitness requires).  Instead, we need to take one step back so we can take two steps forward in the next season.

No matter the reason for training cessation, it will take a healthy athlete at least twice as long as they ceased training to get back to their fitness levels from before they started the training cessation.  This means if you take two weeks off of training, you can expect it to take at least four weeks to get back to your fitness levels from before.  If you take three months off, it will take you at least six months.  You get the idea.  If you have to cease training because of an injury or illness, the timeline will expand and will be greater than two times the length of time you were in a training cessation.  It is as simple and as hard as this, folks.

Detraining, as outlined above, is different from training cessation.  For a planned period of detraining such as Maintenance Phase, there are a few best practices.  Group workouts and interval workouts should be eliminated for the first 2-4 weeks of the Maintenance Phase to really bring down the intensity level of training and ensure that the athlete is going easy.  This proves to be mentally challenging for many athletes, so it’s not something I always plan.  That being said, this is definitely a best practice.  Volume can also be scaled back during this time, but if the intensity is really ratcheted back, that isn’t always necessary.  (For athletes who train for longer endurance events such as an IRONMAN or a marathon, a scale down in training volume is needed along with a reduction in intensity.)

Beyond those first 2-4 weeks, athletes should seek to maintain the frequency of workouts that they had during the main season and other phases of training.  What those workouts are, though, can (and should) vary during this phase.  Trying out a different sport, cross training more, or reallocating the individual volumes of disciplines for multisport athletes is a way to help keep things feeling interesting and engaging.

The Bottom Line

More is not better; better is better.  You cannot retain the exact gains you made this past season indefinitely, but by properly planning and executing Maintenance Phase, you can leverage those gains and use them as a springboard for gains in the coming year and years.  Be brave enough to take a step back so you can allow yourself the opportunity to take several more steps forward.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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