In Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy: Part 1 I talked a little bit about the idea of hard days and easy days, pointing that, in order to make the hard days hard, it’s fairly crucial to make the easy days easy. Rather, most people end up making the easy days too hard which leaves them too tired to make the hard days really hard. So everything ends up in this medium intensity zone. Too easy to stimulate fitness gains, too hard to allow for optimal recovery.
In that post, I also mentioned at least one exception, that of block training. A concept that has primarily been applied to cycling (at least that I’ve seen), this has athlete performing multiple days of hard training in a row (the idea being to accumulate fatigue to stimulate fitness) which is then followed by several days of easy training. I’ve done this in my own cycling training and even used it with one advanced bodybuilder (I had him training the same body part hard three days in a row before taking several days off).
But I want to expand on the concept a bit more than even that since the alternation of relatively harder and easier time periods can be expanded to much more than just a single day of training.
Many athletes will alternate training weeks in terms of overall hard and easy stresses. So over the course of a month you might see an alternation of relatively easier and harder weeks within the month. This seems to be quite common in the training of Olympic lifters, harder weeks (where harder may mean more volume, a higher relative intensity, or both) are followed by much easier weeks.
Even the Bulgarians, who were infamous for loading to daily maximums week-in, week-out are reported to have taken at least one week per month at a lower level of loading to allow recovery to occur.
This concept an be taken even further as well. Early periodization texts talked about using double shock microcycles (a microcycle is usually taken as a single week of training) essentially two weeks of hellish loading followed by 2 or more easy weeks. The idea was to seriously overload the athlete to stimulate further gains once they had stagnated with more standard loading.
The most excellent book, Practical Programming (by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, with contributions from Glenn Pendlay) describes a similar idea but formalizes it. After two weeks of break-in training, the athlete is loaded heavily for two straight weeks, followed by a multiple week deload to allow improvements to occur.
I’d note that while this approach can be valuable for high level athletes, it will ONLY work if the athlete takes the required easy after the heavy loading. This is where most go wrong, they’ll go hard for two weeks and then won’t want to cut back training after that and they’ll blow up completely.
It can go even further than that, of course: easy months can alternate with harder months and I’ve even seen it mentioned that some elite athletes will often take the entire YEAR following the Olympics easy to allow the stress of that previous year to dissipate.
I’d also note that, while I’m making it sound like the hard periods and easy periods have to be equal in length, that certainly isn’t the case. Some people can string together several hard days and only need one to two easy days to recover,
I’ve seen particularly hard workouts (usually involving the setting of personal records) require nearly a week of recovery (easy days) before loading can be increased. This is often true of competitions as well, there can be a week or more of just complete exhaustion following the meet, necessitating either time off or easy training for recovery before training is ramped up again.
As well, some systems of training (the Russians were notorious for this and swimming still seems to do similar things) have an athlete training hard for months on end, before pulling way back (tapering), with the hopes that the cumulative fatigue developed during the months of hard training will dissipate at just the right time for the athlete to peak. You also hear about folks ‘missing their peak’ all too often in these systems so I’m not sure it’s an ideal way to train for most.
So what’s my point?
I guess, if I had to make one, I’d suggest that even the recreational trainee consider how wise it is to try to train at the same level (whether high, low, or in-between) year round, which is usually what see in the gym. The intensity is unvarying on either a day to day basis, a week to week basis, or what have you. And the individual simply stagnates. There are no easy periods to allow for recovery to occur, which would allow for periods of harder training to stimulate further fitness gains.