Spring marathon season is coming to an end and many of us are already signing up for fall races and laying out our training plans! I don’t know about you, but I get excited when my coach’s training plan arrives loaded with solid chunks of mileage and challenging workouts. But I also like to look ahead to see when I might get a little break from the effort, the little break known as a cutback week that I look to as an oasis nestled in the weeks of tough training.
Sometimes called “down” or recovery weeks, cutbacks are weeks during which you reduce your training load. The intention of the down week is to allow some physical recovery while still continuing to train. Some coaches suggest cross-training to replace less running, but that defeats the purpose of taking rest time. During a cutback week, you can decrease your mileage, intensity or both. An extra day off running is another possibility.
Confused about how or when to incorporate cutback weeks into your training plan, particularly if you don’t have a coach to do it for you? I’ve got some tips and instructions for making sure you can train strong, plan rest weeks, and not burn out before race day!
Most coaches recommend a cutback week after two to four weeks of regular training. You should take a cutback on the shorter end of that range if you are in the process of increasing mileage or intensity, are a less experienced runner, or have a history of injuries. If you’re maintaining mileage and intensity at a sub-peak level, are an experienced runner, and have minimal injury history, you can get away with scheduling cutback weeks at longer intervals.
When I am running a comfortable level of mileage with just a couple moderately intense workouts per week, I will often go five to eight weeks steady before taking an impromptu cutback based on feel.
Mileage vs. Intensity
To cutback by reducing my mileage, I might reduce up to 25% of my total miles. For example, instead of running 80 miles in seven days of running (10-11 total runs), I will aim for 60 miles on six days (9-10 total runs) with most runs shortened as well. Lower mileage runners benefit from cutback weeks, too. Someone running 40 miles a week might cut to 30 miles per week.
To decrease intensity, replace a tempo run with a progression run, shorten the amount of tempo miles (do six instead of eight) or the distance of intervals you do (800m instead of 1000m), or back off the workout pace. And if your body needs a break, it’s really not a bad idea to just sub out the speedwork in favor of an easy run with strides.
Not all coaches, however, prescribe this series of up and down weeks. Mark Hadley, for example, writes that needing a recovery week may indicate that you are not recovering properly between hard efforts during your “up” weeks. Personally, I find that I crave a recovery week more for the mental break than a physical one and I consider that a very valid reason!
But if you’re anxiously awaiting your cutback weeks to revive your aching legs, I would advise you to consider an overall decrease in training or a complete break from running. A cutback week will not cure overtraining, but it can help prevent you from getting there!
How do you fit cutback weeks into your training?