"When is the last time you took a break from training?" - Max
"........does after childbirth count?" - me
Recently I took a week off from training. It wasn't planned ahead of time, and it certainly wasn't my idea. I use the word 'certainly' because, barring any major injury to myself or my children, there aren't many reasons I can think of to stop working out. When we are traveling out of town I will always check out the hotel fitness center or search for a place with open gym hours. On vacation? I will work out. On our honeymoon? I worked out. Visiting family? Be back in an hour, I need to work out.
Can you relate? You know who you are. The thought of taking more than two days off in a row has you feeling anxious and nervous, let alone taking an entire week break. You start picturing shrinking muscles and decreased aerobic capacity. There's a good chance you will lose all your gains in that week so you best stay the course! Get your butt to the gym! Keep lifting! Maybe your mind or body is whispering something different; you've been pretty tired recently or feeling unmotivated, but you ignore those thoughts and feelings in the pursuit of your goals. That type of thinking can head into unhealthy obsession territory. I flirt with that line often. My husband is well aware of my -slight- preoccupation with training, so when I was faced with a week without programming and wondering what to do about it, he ever so gently suggested, "why don't you take the week off?"
I may have stared at him for a bit, my mind completely blank. What did he say? Take a break? But I did it and I learned a lot. Whether you believe in over-training, under-recovering, the existence of adrenal fatigue, or you think everyone just needs to shut up and lift heavy shit, a short hiatus from training can have many positive impacts on your body, mind, stress levels, relationships, family time, and overall energy.
Let's start with the facts and address any fears of muscle atrophy. The Principle of Reversibility in regards to sports training states that the physiological effects of training - whether that training is mobility, strength, endurance, etc - diminish over times of rest/recovery, and eventually if the time period is long enough the body will revert back to its initial pre-training condition. This seems like a common sense assumption; basically if you don't use it, you lose it. The longer you've been working out, or the higher your training age, the longer it will take to "lose it". Again, this seems like common sense; if you've been building strength and endurance over a period of 8 years, it will take a lot longer to become detrained when compared to someone who just started working out a month ago.
While there is little research on the speed of the detraining process when it comes to resistance training, short-term breaks of up to 14 days appear to have little effect on muscle strength in experienced athletes as well as recreational lifters who have a relatively high training age (NSCA's Essentials of Personal Training, p82). As I mentioned above, if you've been training a long time (ie, years), it will take a long time (ie, longer than a week) to undo all of the progress you've made. Sure, those first few days back will seem like the world is ending and everything is so.freaking.heavy, but you'll bounce back quick.
Still unsure about this whole "take a break" thing? There are many many more benefits to an extended recovery period, most of which come from unmeasurable qualities like a decrease of overall stress levels (training stresses your body out; I don't care how "great" or "energized" it makes you feel afterwards), being able to spend more time on your relationships with friends and family, or just giving you the forced perspective one gets when they are removed from a situation they've been in the middle of for so long. During my week off, I was kind of amazed at the extra hours I had each day. Of course, with two kids and job responsibilities, you never have just an hour or two to sit in front of the tv and do nothing. I was always busy, but it was busy spending time with my family or busy getting work done during the day so I could go to sleep at a reasonable hour. By the end of the week I was actually amazed at how I managed to make time to train in the first place.
Now you may be asking yourself, should I take a training break? I know it can be a difficult decision to make, especially for those of us who view those sessions as an ingrained part of our days and weeks and months. You may be considering this yourself or perhaps you have someone - ever so gently or maybe not so gently - suggesting you need a break. A few questions I want you to answer are the following
Have you ever thought about skipping a training session (for any reason) and then felt guilty for even considering it?
Do you often feel tired in the hours leading up to your session?
Are there not enough hours in the day to do everything you want?
Do you feel like you are spread too thin and can’t focus your energy in a productive way on important things?
Has your overall fatigue level been lower than usual?
Do you have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep?
Are there times you ask yourself WHY? Why are you doing this? What is your goal?
For me, I was definitely tired and feeling spread too thin. I HATED the thought of skipping a session, but honestly that thought right there is one of the biggest justifications I would give to a client if I were recommending they take a break. Unless a lot of money or fame is involved (are you are a legit Games-level athlete??), do you really think an hour of lifting is more important than your job? Your family? Your well-being? A lot of what I was feeling would make it an easy decision to recommend to someone else to take a break, but I was having trouble following my own advice. Throughout my week off, I was able to pare down my list of responsibilities to something more manageable. I felt less anxiety and less need to schedule out our entire day to fit in workouts. I had always viewed training as a break from my day-to-day home life, but in reality it wasn’t as much stress relief as I thought. As the days went on, I felt more energy; I wasn’t stressing my body during workouts plus I was sleeping more. On top of that, I relaxed a bit in my diet and just allowed my body a complete break from the pressures I was putting on it. It was definitely something I needed but had been ignoring for a long time. I came out of that week with a new, invigorated view on training. I was excited to get back to the gym but it was within a new structure of priorities.
Now here’s the real talk. My first workout back was rough. While my joints weren’t achy anymore and my energy was high, the weights felt heavy. I was sore after the first day. And the second. And third. I’m a week back into training now, and I feel good. Strong. Excited to lift. I think a lot of that has to do with the mental reset that took place during my break and my new outlook on it - I’m doing this for fun and to make myself better. The most important thing I learned was the path to getting “better” isn’t a straight line - train, train, train - it’s peaks and valleys - train, train, break, train again.
Now are you ready to take some time off? I think an ideal amount of time is anywhere between 5-10 days. Less than that won’t give you enough time to remove yourself from your attachment to training or give you an objective view of what your priorities need to be. You want to be able to get into a routine without it. Experience what your life is like. If you go longer than two weeks, though, you will probably lose a lot of motivation to get back into it. You’ll be so far removed from the situation that it’s actually easier to just continue on the current path. Along that line, I think taking a break once or twice a year is ideal. Most people take vacations in the summer...make that a vacation from training as well.
I think we all are unaware of just how much stress we accumulate from our training. Plus we have so much OTHER shit to deal with - job, family, just life in general sometimes - and we get so used to our daily hustle and the stress levels associated with it, that it becomes routine for us all. For most of us "non-elite" athletes, training is ranked a bit lower on the list of priorities and when something needs to give, it's ok to take a break. It's ok to take 5 days or 7 days or 10 days off from the gym to center yourself. All of your cumulative fatigue kind of melts away in that week off, and you will feel energized during your sessions again.