Let's talk about structure! As a verb, the word structure means to "construct or arrange according to a plan; give a pattern or organization to." This verb is the core of endurance athletes' fitness regimes, because quality structure is the key to building to peak performance. However, this structure and progression come with a price: cumulative physical and mental fatigue.
Why we need a mid-season break
As we train and add stress to the body, we respond with two types of fatigue: acute and chronic. Acute fatigue is easy to recognize; do a really hard workout one day, and the next day we "feel it in the legs" when climbing stairs or jumping on the bike. This acute fatigue is typically driven by micro-trauma to muscle and metabolic effects (lower muscle glycogen), and we recover quickly with some rest and proper nutrition. Chronic fatigue is much more difficult to feel. Chronic fatigue is the slow buildup of the impact of training stress on the body's systems, such as the central nervous system and endocrine system. This fatigue is incremental and hard to detect until it’s too late. A mid-season break ensures that we take a proper rest period and recharge and reboot our whole body and all its systems.
So how do we take a mid-season break?
Plan it into the season
When planning annual training and racing programs, we tend to focus on the timing of one key area: peaking for big events. This is a great starting point, but in order to perform well throughout the season, we also need to plan periods of longer rest. I like to break the season into two parts to ensure I schedule a well-timed mid-season break.
Plan into season
Following peak/A event
Building the mid-season rest week
Once our mid-season break is scheduled, what should it look like? There should be little to no structure. There should be some guidelines and/or some activities, but these should not be heavily structured.
Here is a sample mid-season break period:
Schedule 7-10 days
4-5 days totally off bike
Walking is okay, but not hiking uphill or carrying weight
Gentle stretching and/or light yoga are okay, but no strength work
Followed by 3-5 days of short (one-hour) easy rides under 50% of FTP
Do not structure the break beyond a simple outline
Keep things light, with just some general guidelines like above
Listen to your body. If it feels like a light walk, do it. If it feels like lying on the couch, do it.
Focus on sleep and nutrition, using this week to improve both
Do we lose fitness when we take a week off?
No. There will typically not be a measurable decline in aerobic or anaerobic capacity, as long as the rest period is under 8-10 days, at which point there will be some minor declines. What does change is your performance fitness. As we unload the system, our body's race readiness changes as we downregulate our systems by removing the daily strain. This will come back quickly as we return to training, but it tends to make people think they lost fitness, as RPE will initially be higher after a rest week.
Returning to training
So once we have your mid-season break planned, how do we return to training? I suggest 10-14 days of aerobic riding with a mix of endurance and tempo work, just to help turn on all systems and prepare for harder training. Once this phase is complete, we can push toward our second peak of the season.
A well-structured annual training program is key to peak performance, but a well-placed mid-season break will help us extend that peak performance. This mid-season break should not be viewed as time off or detraining, but rather as an important physical and mental "reboot" to allow us to keep building toward our goals.