We punish ourselves daily, sometimes multiple times in a day to reach higher heights on our way to goals we once may have deemed unobtainable. Realizing these goals are obtainable we tend to harp on the grueling regimen of heavier lifting, longer metcons, or a more strict diet, sometimes forgetting the most crucial ingredient… A deload.
Simply put, a deload is a break. It is a time to let the body recoup and rejuvenate. Since first being observed by Hans Seyle in 1936 to even more current times, it is well understood that stress and recovery work in 3 stages:
- Stress the body using stimulus (exercise)
- Remove the stimulus
- The body will adapt to the stimulus and handle it better on reoccurrence.
The problem – people often neglect step number 2, only to then leave step 3 struggling to play catch up. It should be understood that training does not build muscle, in fact it is 100% catabolic (breaking down). This catabolic state is not just to muscle, but connective tissue as well. Big time spoiler here is that connective tissue doesn’t recover as readily as muscle, making a deload even more essential to the health of your ligaments and tendons. Without proper recovery you are setting yourself up for aches and pains to your joints and/or ligaments. Even though your muscles may seem up to par, your ligaments and tendons may not be, making inflammation almost a ‘for-sure’. This inflammation can often come in the form of a new onset, or can often play the role in aggravating an old injury.
Intense training taxes the central nervous system heavily, leaving you fatigued and beat down. If we decide to train through this time of fatigue with the same intended intensity, this is where we find injuries. Understanding neural fatigue is easier than you may think. Tim Noakes wrote a great paper titled “The race against time” where he pieces together a lot of gaps people tend to leave unaddressed. What helped me understand neural fatigue was discarding all the fancy talk and putting it in Layman’s terms:
Your muscles just follow orders, while your brain makes sure things stay in order. The brain patrols around on high alert during extreme efforts monitoring your capacity of work, and will lay down the law when capacity is met… Making sure you don’t over extend and move in to actual exhaustion.
It is here Noakes says that the brain pulls the plug on everything, commencing the onset of neural fatigue. We have to understand that the body can and will do amazing things, but everyone has a “governor” or a ceiling. With correct training and recovery we can gradually elevate the ceiling and extend the governor, but we have to respect the current settings we have.
All in all you can see that recovery works on a couple different levels, all of which need to be addressed and respected. It is said that the central nervous systems can recover in 12-24 hours, but that is 100% relative from person to person, and workload to workload. Muscular recovery is also relative depending on volume, intensity, nutrition, and ironically who you talk with. A bodybuilder may suggest 2-3 days for a specific muscle group, whereas a crossfitter may argue 1-3 days depending the workout. This is where listening to your body and mental cues make the world of difference.
Every person is different, so every form of recovery and its regularity will be different. A deload week is most generically taken every 4th week of training, and is dedicated to active recovery. Active recovery is removing a significant amount of stimulus while still maintaining activity. This doesn’t mean you can’t lift weights, it just means you keep the weights around 50-60% of your 1 rep max. In my opinion the best form of active recovery is something low impact while still elevating the heart rate. Rowing 2000 meters, swim 1600 meters, yoga (regular or hot), a deep tissue massage, or some mobility work compliments of Kelly Starrett (mobilitywod.com) serve as tools to use during these 7 days to help the mind get fresh and the body reset its ceiling.
Nutrition is a no brainier during your weeks of intense training, but what about active recovery on a deload week? Just as important. While being equally as important, the same rule applies – Eat for fuel. Keeping that phrase in mind at all times should serve as a reminder that while your work capacity has decreased, you still need to feed yourself for adequate work. Don’t think for one second that just because your work load has decreased you do not need to eat and hydrate – you do! While the body is actively repairing and setting a higher threshold it needs a source of energy, so make sure you are still eating quality food, and for a reason. This week of recoup isn’t a reason for you to sit down and smash on Oreos while watching ‘Maury’ all day, but don’t be afraid to enjoy the foods you eat. Eat clean and train dirty… but sometimes eat cupcakes (compliments of @beckyfit_).
Outside of a deload being important, I’m writing on it because I was smacked in the face with neural fatigue recently. I reached a point of being tired, lacking any and all interest in lifting weights or moving quickly, and I was sore and achy. I had done well about planning a deload in recent months, but found myself caught up in personal goal. I was full steam ahead with the intention to blow right past my ceiling, only to realize there was a wall there. A “deload week” isn’t meant to replace the weekly rest you take, it is meant to be a week taken to be solely dedicated to rest and recovery.