How To Take A Cutback Week

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Kick back during your cutback week!

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?

I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. Love the advice. I’ll often go on a rotation of one week at 100% volume, one week at 125% volume, and one unloading week at 75% volume. Repeat. For 2016 I’ve been averaging about 9-10 weekly hours of running, so that will look like 10 hours during a week, then about 12-13, then about 7-8 for the unloading week.
    Kyle @ SKORA

    1. Hi Kyle! I love that you track hours over miles. Makes so much sense.

      The 3 week rotation is an interesting g option I’ve never tried! Do you do this during just steady training or also when you’re in a phase of increasing training? (Hope that question made sense.)

  2. I love a good cutback week, the mental break feels so nice. Having a down week also allows me to run with friends a bit more & just have fun again, after weeks of having such specific workouts that I stick to mainly to myself. This training cycle, I got really sick during a scheduled cutback week… nice timing, body!

    1. I really think the mental break is the biggest benefit! I also tend to get sick or feel extra fatigued during cutback weeks. I wonder if it’s a delayed reaction to the hard work or what.

  3. This is such a great post – very informative! I swear by cutback weeks – I even use them in the CFE plan. Every fourth week, I don’t do any CFE workouts, just easy mileage and strength training plus reduced mileage on my weekend long run. Like you said, I think it helps me to stay healthy physically (especially since my CFE workouts are all high intensity) but also helps me mentally as I think my constant hard workouts take a lot of mental energy for me to complete.

  4. Another vote for the mental benefits of a cutback week. I don’t plan them on a regular basis, but it is nice to occasionally not worry about how I’m going to get the run in.