I would always assume that feeling like shit was just part of the process and feeling this way all the time was an indicator that I was working hard and must be improving. In reality, I was overtrained, fatigued, and hardly making any progress. It wasn’t until years into my career that I would understand the physiological principles that underpin the use of a deload, why we should take them, what they do, and how I am actually supposed to feel after taking one.
What is a deload?
A deload, also known as a recovery week, is a planned week of easier training aimed at reducing fatigue, while maintaining fitness and technique. The main reason why you use deloads is to reduce fatigue after a period of hard training so you can then continue to train hard in the weeks that precede it. I look at them as a way to take one step back, but multiple steps forward. After weeks of hard training, your body will accumulate fatigue, this fatigue will be spread out through your body. Found anywhere from your muscles, ligaments, tendons, central nervous system, and psychologically. Furthermore, each of these components takes different time frames to recover and return to baseline.
“A deload, also known as a recovery week, is a planned week of easier training aimed at reducing fatigue, while maintaining fitness and technique.”
What happens if you don’t take a deload?
As your training progresses from week to week, your body will be adapting to the stimulus you have provided it. If you are following a program and each week is more intense than the previous, in adherence to progressive overload, you will hopefully find that you will be getting stronger and able to push more and more each session. However, as your performance increases, as does your body’s fatigue levels, this is shown in the fitness/fatigue model. Should you decide to not take a deload, you will eventually reach a point that you are no longer able to increase your performance, as the levels of fatigue are too high. If you continue without a deload for an extended period of time, you may reach a point of non-functional overreaching, or worse, overtraining. Non-functional overreaching is a point whereby you have a short-term reduction in performance that does not lead to improved performance after a period of sustained rest. The worst-case scenario is that you reach a point of overtraining, at this point you need to take a dramatic step back from regular training for a longer period of time (greater than 1 week) in order to reduce your fatigue levels and return to baseline. Both scenarios convey that your training did not benefit you, which is likely a waste of precious time and energy if you have a sport you are trying to train for. On the other hand, if you had taken a deload, you would have experienced functional overreaching, whereby you have a short term reduction in performance that you recover from and leads to an improvement in your performance. This is also known as supercompensation.
Below is a graph displaying the fitness/fatigue model, in conjunction with the effect on performance that I am trying to explain above. You will notice that as fitness and performance increase, so does fatigue. Taking a deload allows for the dissipation of fatigue while maintaining your performance levels.
Why should you deload?
The main reasons can be found below:
- To reduce fatigue so performance can continue to increase
- Give the various components that make up the body (ligaments, tendons, bones, muscles, joints, cellular messengers, CNS) and its actions time to recover and return to baseline
- Have a mental break from intense training
- Prevention of injuries caused by overtraining
How to deload?
The most ideal way to deload will vary from person to person, as factors such as current training phase, experience, age, size, skill level, will determine what is best for the individual. An easy way to go about it is to look at the current phase you are in and make a reduction based on what you are currently doing. For example, if you are currently in a volume phase, meaning you are doing lots of sets, reps, or total work per session, then it would be a good idea to reduce your volume during your deload. If you are a powerlifter and you are doing 5 sets of squats in a session, then your deload week may only be 1-3 sets in that session instead. This conveys a reduction in the volume you are doing during your current phase of training. Another example could be if you are in a strength block and you are lifting heavy weights, greater than 85% 1rm, you could reduce your training intensity, bringing the weights down to 50%-70% 1rm for each exercise. Again, conveying a reduction in the intensity of the exercises you are currently performing. The most important thing is that you are still training, however, you are doing less (sets, reps, weight, intensity, etc) than what you have been doing. The purpose of the deload is to bring down fatigue, you are not trying to hit a PB this week, you just want to maintain all of the improved performance levels you have worked so hard for.
“The most important thing is that you are still training, however, you are doing less (sets, reps, weight, intensity, etc) than what you have been doing.”
When to deload?
The need for a deload could surface in a variety of ways, such as an inability to finish your workout, missing reps, feeling weak, getting poor sleep, slow mental function, low appetite, low libido, or feeling run down. It is likely that you will experience one or more of these things at once, therefore you would want to deload sooner rather than later if you get to this point. Various factors contribute to your overall fatigue levels, therefore, I believe the best time to deload is whenever you feel like you need it. There is no program that will know exactly when this will be for you, however, using some of the symptoms outlined above as a guide may help you make an educated decision. If you have a good understanding of your body and how it is feeling, this may be easy for you to figure out. If you don’t (which is normal) as it can take a lot of time to intuitively feel what your body requires, the most commonly used time frames are 3:1, 4:1, or 5:1, meaning 3,4 or 5 weeks of regular training, followed by a deload week.
I hope I have made it clear that you don’t need to be going balls to the wall all the time in order to improve. If you want to be competitive in whatever sport you choose, deloads is something you must consider for longevity. I made that mistake of not utilizing them and was stuck in a training plateau for years! It wasn’t until I was forced to stop training for an extended period of time to realize that I was overtrained. Progress does not always need to come in the form of hard work, if you are following a calculated plan and working hard week after week, your deload week should be something you feel like you need. If you haven’t taken one yet, try it out and watch how successful the next few weeks of training will be.