Cutback weeks

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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When you’re in hard training, do you ever get to the point where you’re just dragging? You’re dead tired and nothing you do can get you feeling good again?

While sometimes we need to work through fatigue in order to come out the other end stronger, we also need to be careful to not get too deep into this fatigue tunnel. This is why I believe most runners benefit from cutback weeks.

What is a cutback week?

A cutback week is pretty simple. The typical suggestion is to reduce your weekly volume by 10-20%. I often find myself reducing volume by even more but that’s probably not necessary if you haven’t been overreaching in your normal training.

In addition to reducing weekly volume, you should also reduce the volume of any workouts you’re doing and your long run by at least as much as you’re reducing the weekly volume.

One important thing that people often get in trouble with is that we want to reduce volume without increasing paces. Reducing volume but increasing intensity might be beneficial at times but it does not help you accomplish the goal of a cutback week, which is recovery.

Though many benefits can be listed, there are two primary benefits to the cutback week.

Benefit 1: Prevent "overtraining"/under recovery caused by an aggressive plan

Even the best plans sometimes leave us doing a little more than we should. Maybe we’re expecting to be ready for more than we really are. Maybe we didn’t account for a surprise life event and we didn’t back off adequately when the event did come up. Maybe one of hundreds of other things played a role.

The bottom line is there is a multitude of reasons that we may extend ourselves a little too far, even if we’re following the plan to the letter.

Planning some intentional recovery time is a great way to make sure our hard work isn’t too hard.

Benefit 2: Protection for the ambitious runner

Distance runners are naturally ambitious. While that’s normally a great trait, it can get us into trouble.

Do you ever do a little more than planned/intended? Be honest with yourself. I’ll admit that I do.

When we do more than planned, we are placing added stress on our bodies or not allowing the planned amount of recovery. Do that once or twice and it’s probably not going to catch up with you. Do it a few more times and, if your training plan had you pushing pretty much to your limit, you just went too far.

Plan in some weeks of focused recovery and your occasional overachieving won’t become a problem.

What should a cutback week look like?

The best way to show what a cutback week might look like is to show an example. Let’s assume we have a runner heading into a cutback week. This runner just completed a 40 mile week that looked something like this:

Monday: 7 miles easy

Tuesday: 8 miles with a 4 mile tempo run at half marathon race effort

Wednesday: 6 miles easy

Friday: 6 miles easy

Saturday: 13 mile long run

To reduce volume by 10%, we might do something like this:

Monday: 6 miles easy

Tuesday: 7 miles with a 3 mile tempo run at half marathon race effort

Wednesday: 6 miles easy

Friday: 5 miles easy

Saturday: 12 mile long run

To be honest, if this were me or a runner I was coaching, I’d probably go more like this:

Monday: 5-6 miles easy

Tuesday: 6-7 miles with a 2 mile tempo run at half marathon race effort

Wednesday: 4-5 miles easy

Friday: 4-5 miles easy

Saturday: 10-11 mile long run

As you see, that’s roughly a 15-30% reduction, with flexibility built in to allow the runner to rest more or less based on how he or she is feeling during the week. My message would be make sure you’re feeling strong and ready to go for another block of hard work by the end of the week.

Scheduling cutback weeks

Typically, I find that a cutback every fourth week works best. So you push hard in training for three weeks, then give yourself a one week break. Of course, every individual and every circumstance is different. I’ve personally had success with a three week cycle (push two weeks, cutback on the third) as wekk as 5-6 week cycles. I’d recommend starting with a four week cycle and adjust as necessary.

Discuss

What do you think? Do you use cutback weeks? Why or why not? If so, how do you implement them?

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