In distance running, the deload is one of the most resisted concepts by coaches and athletes alike. The argument often sounds something like this: “If I drop my mileage a bit this week, I won’t average 75 miles per week this month.” My opinion is usually that “75” is just a number and an athlete can keep hammering away, but the accumulated fatigue will prevent optimal performance and quite possibly lead to illness or injury and the unplanned time off that follows.
While taking a deload week will indeed result in a lower average volume in the short term, what many coaches and athletes fail to consider is the benefits of deloading in the long term. Think of it this way, every step of every run imposes a stress each on the many systems of the body, which depletes the body and leads to a decrease in performance over the short term (known as overreaching or prescribed performance suppression). When a deload is implemented at certain points in the training cycle the body is able to recover and thus become stronger leading into the next cycle (supercompensation), where stress will again be increased. This constant ebb and flow of increasing training stress then systematically reducing it to allow for a performance rebound is the key to improvement over the long haul.
Implementing deloading periods is quite simple. For most, a simple decrease in total volume of about 25% every third to sixth week would be a great place to start. It is important to remember that the volume of intensity work must drop proportionally to the total volume as well. For example, if an athlete is doing 4000m total volume of 3k paced work, he would then need to drop the volume down to around 3200m at the same pace during a deload week.
Some coaches advocate increasing or maintaining the total volume but dropping the intensity of training sessions to deload. For example, if in the first three weeks of a training cycle an athlete was performing three sessions at 800, 1500, and 5k pace respectively and covering 60 miles in those weeks, the volume would be held constant but the athlete may drop a session altogether or do three sessions at 5k, Tempo, and 3k pace. While I think that this type of deloading can be effective, I believe that it is best fit for those of a more significant training age.
Lastly, there is the idea of planning periods where you won’t run at all-complete deloading. Typically this lasts for a period of days or weeks and is best planned following the competitive season. During this period, athletes may consider a few cross training sessions to get the blood flowing. It may be a good idea to even take several weeks off and focus on other exercise modalities, but that might cost an athlete part of the holy “base” phase.
The bottom line is that by occasionally doing less work athletes will be able to stave off illness and injury, train harder, run faster, and be able to do so more consistently. That’s a pretty favorable compromise!