Cutback Weeks: Stair Step Your Way to Running Success!

The Great Wall of China might just be the perfect visual representation of successful weekly mileage progression! Image via Wikipedia.
The Great Wall of China might just be the perfect visual representation of successful weekly mileage progression! Image via Wikipedia.

Pssst. I have a secret. Recovery weeks are key to getting faster. I learned this the hard way. In 2014, as a new-to-serious-training runner, I increased my mileage week after week and piled on the speed work. I improved very quickly: I saw my training paces jump from running for 8 miles at an 8:15 pace in early April to logging a 15.5 mile run at 7:20 pace on June 1, 2014. With few days off and no down weeks, I soon suffered a series of injuries and found myself in the proverbial penalty box unable to run for most of the summer. After much cross-training and rehabbing and only eight weeks of outside running, in November 2014, I ran the NYC Marathon in 3:43.  I barely felt strong enough to do it.

Quite the exercise in humility, but I still hadn’t figured out how to improve while avoiding injury.

After the 2014 NYC Marathon, I started to train for a late May 2015 marathon. I thought I had it all figured out, increasing my mileage gradually. At first, I successfully avoided injury, but by March 2015 found myself frustrated that I was almost always sore, and not getting faster.  Things came to a head for me when, a few days after a successful 20 mile run at an 8:29 average pace, I found myself struggling to run at a 9:41 pace, and my speed work the following week slipping.  My body wasn’t properly recovering.

I finally decided that I needed to do some research and quickly became intrigued by “stair-step” training, a few weeks of higher mileage followed by a week of down mileage. It went against all my instincts, which begged me to keep piling on more! But what I read really sunk in.

For instance, the advanced marathon training plan in Matt Fitzgerald’s book 80/20 Running includes a “down” recovery week every third week of training.

Robert Chapman, coach of Team Indiana Elite also notes (full article):

“Training is a progression,” he says, “essentially a stair-step pattern where after each block [athletes] are more fit and performing at a higher level. So the down week is a very important part of the overall training plan. It allows them to absorb the training they did during each block and prepare for even better training in the next block.”

And the thing that sealed it for me? This visual of Deena Kastor’s training before the 2004 Athens Olympics especially stuck with me as striking and instructive:

Each column is a week’s worth of miles. Click the image for the full article on


So I decided to do something that felt radical to me; I added frequent cut back weeks to my training schedule.  The cut back weeks left my legs feeling fresh, and finally responding to speed work.  In fact, I soon found that my own body often responded best to cutting back on my training every other week. My training mileage since March 2015 has looked like this:

  • Mar. 2-8 – 41 miles
  • Mar. 9-15 – 56 miles
  • Mar. 16-22 – 61 miles
  • Mar. 23-29 – 50 miles
  • Mar. 30-April 5 – 62 miles running, 12 “miles” cross training
  • April 6-12 – 49 miles
  • April 13-19 – 63 miles running, 8 “miles” cross training
  • April 20-26 – 50 miles running, 11 “miles” cross training
  • April 27-May 3 — 61 miles running, 8.5 “miles” cross training
  • May 4-May 10 — 51 miles running, 3.5 “miles” cross training

Since adopting the practice of cutting back my mileage every other week in late March 2015, comparable effort training paces for 20 mile runs have improved by 15 seconds per mile, and my speed paces have improved by about 20 seconds per mile.  At the same time, my body feels much less sore and far from injury.

Do you use cutback weeks?

40-something marathoner frequently found on running paths in New York and Connecticut. Running habit supported by work as attorney/law firm partner. Cheered on by husband and two children.

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  1. I look forward to down weeks, which I’m told means you’re training right You want to be tired, rest, then repeat the cycle to achieve gains. Interesting chart of Deena’s training. Thank you for sharing that. I will sometimes watch the last five minutes of that race on YouTube…so inspiring!

  2. I need to incorporate cutback weeks into my training. This spring I was following the Hansons Half Marathon Method training plan, which does not feature cutback weeks. So, I am thinking of following Fitzgerald’s 80/20 half marathon plan, which does.

    Caper, where did you find your training plan? Is it from Advanced Marathoning?

  3. After reading several of the major books about training (Hanson’s; MacMillan’s You, Only Faster; Jack Daniels and Fitzgerald’s 80/20), studying the components of their plans and learning my body’s strengths and weaknesses, I designed my own.