Detraining: How to Dial Back Your Workouts for Greater Gains, Fewer Injuries

Exhausted young man in gym having a break
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On the quest to get bigger, faster, and stronger, athletes are realizing more isn’t always better. In fact, many trainers argue lowering your intensity or switching up your go-to form of fitness could be pivotal in reaching your goals, making new gains, and sticking with fitness for life.

But detraining doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt. Here, how to cut back the right way—and why it works for any kind of dedicated fitness enthusiast.

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Why Athletes Need to Detrain

If you have a chosen form of fitness—maybe you’re a big-time runner or weight-rack loyalist—chances are both your mind and body are a little bit shot.

Detraining between intense training periods offers an opportunity to reset goals, include some easy days, and simply enjoy your sport for what it is, says Michael McGrane, the Boston Athletic Association’s running club coach.

Take runners, for example. Taking off the GPS running watch or music, and just listening to your body and breathing allows you to run based on feel rather than time and distance, he says. You can pick up on bodily cues you might otherwise miss and also plug into your surroundings, boosting enjoyment.

As he puts it: “A period of detraining is often followed by a renewed interest in training with new enthusiasm and motivation to put in the hard work to hit new race goals.”

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Intense training also involves continuously breaking down certain muscles and repeatedly exhausting your body—of course in an effort to create adaptations that help you improve, says Reid Eichelberger, C.S.C.S., head trainer at EverybodyFights’ Financial District location in Boston, MA.

“Intentional active recovery or detraining, helps avoid injury and prevents burnout or overtraining,” he says. Physically, you might notice a temporary dip in performance, but this kind of a recovery period allows you to train harder for a longer period of time.

How to Detrain the Right Way

Detraining does not mean being inactive, notes Eichelberger. And there are plenty of ways to go about it.

“Depending on how competitive your goals are, or what you’re looking to accomplish with your training, there are a lot of ways to execute a detraining plan,” Eichelberger says.

To make an effective plan, start by cutting back on how often or how hard you work out for a few days or a week—an amount of time that won’t considerably cut overall performance, he notes. “Cross-training, or doing something completely different, is another great way to stay active while you allow certain movement patterns, muscle groups, and mental processes to recover,” he adds.

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That’s why a good time to try an episode of detraining is right after a big event, says Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an Atlanta-based run coach. “Shifting to some other activity like biking or swimming if you did a running race, for example, helps give overworked muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones a little break.”

Otherwise, listen to your body to find a good time to slow down, suggests Hamilton. “Subtle aches and stiffness can signal it’s time for the periodic step back to allow your body to catch up to your spirit.”

Just make sure you maintain some level of cardio endurance, muscular strength, and stay within a reasonable weight range during your detraining period, notes Eichelberger.

After all: “It’s a lot easier to get back on the wagon if you never fell off.”

How Often Should You Detrain?

Well, that really depends on the intensity, volume, and frequency of your workouts. But, generally speaking, during a long-term program, you want to build in a few days or a full “unloading week” once every three, four, or five weeks depending on your efforts, notes Eichelberger.

But note that this varies from person to person and training plan to training plan. McGrane notes that one or two solid periods of detraining a year might be enough for serious runners. It’s important to aim for whatever kind of a break allows your body to perform at its peak while also allowing you to find some enjoyment in the activity.

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