In this article, I want to come back to a basic concept that you can rely on whenever you're struggling to decide what to do.
The answer is always rest.
If you have a series of spectacular performances, back off. If you have a series of decidedly unspectacular performances, back off. Seriously. The recipe is always rest. Of course, this wouldn’t be good advice if it was easy to do. It’s really hard to do. However, the discipline to go against your instinct is what will ultimately allow you to be successful. It’s a mistake that just about everyone makes, particularly those that are really motivated to accomplish their goals.
Whenever your performance is headed in the wrong direction, and you seem to be moving backwards, most people try to turn up the volume and intensity because they perceive they’re not working hard enough. As your performance is likely going downhill because of accumulating fatigue, doing more is going to make the problem much worse. As hard as it is to believe, the solution is rest. Performance is the sum of fitness and fatigue. As fatigue begins to accumulate, it starts to ‘mask’ your fitness.
The only way to alleviate fatigue is to stop creating more and rest. The only way to believe this reality is to try it. There is nothing to lose. Once you see your performances return following a brief period of rest, you’ll to start to buy in. When it happens a second time, you’ll be converted. While it’s frustrating to rest when you want to train hard, you’ll be more frustrated for longer periods of time if you continue to push through it.
On the other hand, it’s even more counterintuitive to rest when training is going exceptionally well, yet just as important. When you’re performing really well, you want to continue to ride the high. It feels great. Unfortunately, you’re riding blind up the front of a roller coaster and you don’t know when you’re going to go over the top. It’s better to get off the ride before it goes over the crest. Two weeks too early is better than two minutes too late. The reason this is so important is that taking a step back, especially when you’re doing really well, is actually what allows you to take 3 steps forward.
When you’re performing at a higher and higher level, you’re incurring higher and higher recovery costs, even if you can’t feel it. At some point, those costs get too high and your performance starts to come back to earth. Then you’ll be forced to take break. That’s why resting BEFORE you need to is the right way to go. That way you’re in control of the process, able to act preemptively and no reactively. You always want rest to be your choice, rather than forced upon you.
Unfortunately, both coaches and athletes alike fall into these same traps, and you can’t always rely on a coach to make the decision for you, particularly if you’re in a large group setting. You need to make the call. You can drop the intensity, drop the volume, or a bit of both. You could also drop a training session. There’s no ‘right’ way to do this, outside of what’s going to be right for you. The best way to learn is to experiment. Whenever you decide to take your planned rest (see above!), take one of those approaches. Whatever approach leaves you able to better transition back to ‘normal’ training is the way to go.
Accept life and adapt training accordingly.
If you’re stressed, not sleeping, traveling, etc., more so than normal, drop the intensity, drop the volume, or skip a day. If you know you’re going to have an upcoming period where these events are going to be happening, back of ahead of time instead of trying to power through it. Why dig yourself a hole? The best bet is to continue to train at a lower level, and ironically, you may find that you make progress with that approach. Marching on as if nothing has changed is a recipe for stagnation.
If you believe that it is a VERY short-term situation, and you KNOW that you’ll be able to get EXTRA recovery after the short-term challenge, feel free to proceed with caution. However, if it doesn’t work out and you run into problems over the next week or two, remember that lesson for the next time around when you find yourself in a similar situation.
It’s important to state that adapting training doesn’t mean NOT training. It means backing off. When you do choose to train, make sure that you choose to do something that you feel good about and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment. Try to make ONE simple aspect of your training really effective so that you feel like you’ve kept yourself in the game and made progress. Sometimes, just having done something that day might be a major victory and an accomplishment in and of itself. That’s okay, too. Place a focus on leaving the training session feeling better than when you started, and pay attention to whether you still feel that way several hours later. If not, you likely did too much.