Stewart Athletic Development

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A beginners guide to deloading – How to take your foot off the gas without ruining progression

Last week we looked at the progressive overload principle, and how this can be achieved to ensure progressive adaptation in the desired fitness parameters. If you missed it, the article can be found here ( Understanding the progressive overload principle is important as it is directly linked to the discussion point today, so I would recommend familiarising yourself with it first.

So,you have taken your training to the next level through a heightened understanding of how adaptation occurs.  You have successfully applied progressive overload to your training and things are going great. Everything is looking promising, you are ready to take over the world! Nothing can stop you! … oh. Wait a minute. Why are things slowing down? Why do all your warmup sets consistently feel crap? Why are your running times stagnating or even decreasing? Why are you not sleeping?! Why are you suddenly irritable?!

Sound familiar?. Unfortunately, you cannot keep the throttle welded to the floor when training. Eventually you are gonna have to take your foot off the throttle and coast. This is referred to as a deloading, and it will not ruin your progress IF you deload correctly. Deloading is an important part of training, however it often confuses people and is easily overlooked. This article will hopefully clear up any confusion you have on the area!

In the previous article, I mentioned deloading, highlighting it as an option to take when we approach the stage of training where we begin to plateau. When this plateau occurs we are faced with one of 3 possible outcomes. The first 2 options are preferable depending on your situation (Discussed later), and the final scenario will occur if you fail to choose one of the two options.

Option 1) To deload and facilitate recovery. Option 2 to functionally overreach (also known as super compensation / peaking) where the body is deliberately overreached so that when they do recover they are at peak performance. This is typically done before a big competition. The final outcome is if you try and push on despite your body screaming “slow the fuck down” at you and is known as non-functional overreaching. Anyone who has been in a state of non-functional overreaching knows that it is a very bad day at the office. It is bloody miserable

Regardless of choosing option 1 or 2, the purpose behind it is to facilitate phase potentiation. This is where phases of training are systematically linked together in a sequence, where the previous block is designed to enhance or potentiate (hence the name) the next block. This is evidenced through periodised programming, and important for athletic development. An obvious example of phase potentiation would be in block periodisation, where the pattern follows: accumulation phase > Transmutation phase > Realisation phase & then repeat. Whether you choose option 1 or 2, will be dependant on your current situation regarding competition schedules, stage of season etc.

What is deloading, and why should you do it?

Deloading in short, is a systematic reduction in training to allow for physiological, endocrinological and psychological recovery. Training is a stressor, and the body does not like stress. Despite training having a plethora of physical and psychological benefits, it is still a stressor. Stress accumulates over time, and regardless of how much you love training, your body will get to the stage where you cannot adapt to the stress you place upon it. By deloading, you are reducing the amount of stress you are subjecting your body to, by reducing training in some way.

This allows for recovery, a crucial part to training. Ashley Jones, the former head of S&C at Edinburgh Rugby put it perfectly “The ability to train, is dictated by the ability to recover”. You cannot train hard, day in day out all year round. It is a sure-fire way to get a one way ticket to snap city. You spend far more time recovering from training than you do actually training, so recovery (Which will be discussed in a later article) is hugely important. But in short, you need to recover to elicit the adaptations you are trying to improve.

When should you deload?

Like most answers in S&C, there is no “one size fits all” for deloading. When you need to deload is pretty individualistic, The amount of volume / work that you can handle, varies from person to person. Some people may need more regular deloads i.e every 4-6 weeks, whilst others can keep pushing for weeks on end with no need for a break. The training status of the individual also plays an element within deloading, however this is related to volume tolerance which develops over time.

There are a couple of things that indicate you are needing a deload week however, including:

  • Consistent decrease in performance – This could be seen in continually missing programmed repetitions, consistent decreases in sprint / run times etc
  • Decreased drive to train – If you are consistently in a “slump” with training, and everything feels like an effort to get yourself in the mood for
  • If everything consistently feels like an actual physical effort, even the warm up sets just feel really tough going
  • Decreased appetite – If you are finding your appetite is consistently lower than normal, despite no real changes in diet
  • Decreased mood / increased irritability – If you are finding your mood is generally suppressed, that you are having a lower outlook on things and generally just feeling down. You may also find you’re becoming more irritable / things are getting to you more than normal
  • Poor sleep – Despite being pretty worn out, you may find issues with sleep. This may be in terms of total sleeping time i.e you aren’t sleeping as long, sleep quality i.e your sleep is more broken / less REM sleep or a combination of both
  • Decreased sex drive – Training is a stress and ca have an impact on cortisol (Stress hormone) levels. Increased cortisol can decrease testosterone & progesterone levels in the body. Both can have an effect on sexual drive

The above are some possible symptoms which indicate you may need to deload. Looking at the training ones, it is important to look at it objectively as possible. The key word is consistent decreases / impact on performance. Having one bad / off session does not mean you need a deload. If you have a week / 2 weeks where things are consistently (Or even completely) a bit shit, then it might be time to deload.

How should you deload?

Deloading is achieved by a systematic reduction in training, deloading is not a week off. Training can be reduced in 3 manners 1) A reduction in volume 2) a reduction in intensity 3) a reduction in both volume and intensity. The most common ways to achieve a deload are generally option 1 or 3. Volume is generally the thing that is reduced the most, because volume work creates larger fatigue accumulation than intensity. Volume, or mismanagement of volume is often the cause of non-contact, repetitive strain style injuries in training. As a result, reducing volume over a week is one of the easiest ways to deload. It needs to be a reasonable reduction in volume, ranging from 20-50% reduction depending on phase of training, the previous block etc. It may seem like a lot, but it is worthwhile.

Sometimes a reduction in volume will be coupled with a reduction in Intensity. More caution needs to be used when reducing intensity however, as too great a reduction may result in some decreased training adaptations. For example, if you were looking at sprint training / high speed running you may want to decrease the volume to allow recovery. However, the training residuals (how long it takes for a physical quality to decrease) indicates that max speed drops off around 5 ± 3 days. Looking at a deload week, if you reduce both the volume and the intensity of your sprint training, you might actually have some detraining effects which you definitely do not want.

There are also some neural factors you need to consider when deloading. Looking at a quality like maximum strength, the detraining time is approximately 30 ± 5 days, so theoretically you have more wiggle room when deloading. However if you arbitrarily drop the intensity just for the sake of deloading (i.e going from 75% 1rm in training to 55%1rm during a deload week) when you return to the next phase of training around 80%, you are likely to see a reduction in Neural drive and decreased movement efficiency.

Opportunities within deload weeks

I get it, deload weeks are boring. No 2 ways about it! But there are a couple of things you can do to help break up the monotony. Looking at the psychological aspect of deloading, athlete’s often find deload weeks boring. They want to push themselves and feel like they have worked hard. One way to help with this, is to try and reframe our view on deloads. Viewing deload weeks as boring and easy, starts to reinforce a negative thought pattern around it. Reframing it and thinking of it as an opportunity to rebound and come back stronger, and also a chance to practise things like movement technique etc can help with the monotony of deloading. Even with lighter loads / volumes, you should treat a deload session like a normal session and not something you just need to rush through.

Secondly, you will be spending time doing less training. Time is the only resource in this world you can never get back, and with a reduction in training volume & / or intensity you are getting a little of it back in this week. Use it! See your friends, go out and socialise, do things you enjoy that you may not always get the chance to do under normal weeks. Mental well being and enjoyment of life plays a large part in recovery and maintaining homeostasis. As a species we are also hardwired to be social, so capitalise on that. You don’t need to be living that “hustle and grind” life 24/7, there is more to life than training!

Until next time, and as always: Stay safe, stay strong


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