After a decade and a half in gyms, weight rooms, coaching, and as an athlete myself, I’d say that there is one nearly over-reaching pattern that I have observed: most people train at too high of an intensity far too often. More accurately, they end up trying to train at too high of an intensity but, for reasons I’ll soon explain actually end up training in a medium intensity no-man’s land.
In this article, I want to argue fairly strongly for the inclusion of both hard and easy days in training. The key in this approach, and this is what I’ll address, is that the goal should be to keep the hard days hard and the easy days easy. This will make more sense shortly.
Alternating Hard and Easy Days
The original idea of alternating hard and easy days appears to have come out of early running training (probably the Oregon system under Bill Bowerman). That’s at least the first modern appearance of the concept I’m aware of. I suspect a lot of this had to do with keeping the runner’s joints from exploding while they were running on a hard track. In any case, alternating harder workout days with easier workout days worked better than trying to go hard all the time.
As I detailed in the articles about interval and steady state training, most of the work that most sprinters do is fairly low intensity, what I didn’t get into much detail of was sequencing but, generally speaking, they too follow a hard day/easy day approach. So if maximum speed work is done on Monday, this is followed by lower intensity (e.g. extensive tempo work) on Tuesday. Speed endurance (hard) might be done on Wednesday with more extensive tempo on Thursday, another speed session is done on Friday, easier work is done again on Saturday.
There are various and sundry reasons for this approach to training. The Bowerman runners were likely trying to avoid injury. With sprinting, it’s usually explained by the high intensity work causing some type of neural fatigue that takes at least 48 hours to subside. There is also an impact issue with track sprinting, too many high intensity days leads to joint injuries and an injured athlete is one who isn’t making any progress.
I’d say that most athletes train more or less in this fashion for the simple reason that it’s difficult to give a workout high quality and full effort under conditions of fatigue. In terms of getting the most out of the hard workouts, it’s necessary to be rested, and that usually means interspersing them with much easier days to allow recovery.
Exceptions, of course exist. A current trend in cycling for example is something called block training (which I mentioned in passing in The Ultimate Diet 2.0) where several high intensity days are strung together followed by an equal number of easy days. So three days of hard workout might be followed by three days of very easy work or even taken completely off. The hard/easy concept is still being adhered to, just on a slightly longer time frame. Cycling also has no impact and generates none of the neural fatigue of sprinting so they can get away with it. Some distance runners will occasionally ‘block’ train in this fashion but it seems to be more the exception than the rule.
Please note: there are a variety of different approaches that are currently being referred to as “block training” or “block periodization” these days and what I’m talking about above is not the same as, say, Issurin, Verkoshanksy or Bondarchuk’s “block training’.
Athletes Don’t Like Easy Days
And that sort of leads me into my main point in this post: most athletes (and I’d say this tends to include a lot of obsessive fitness and dieting types) don’t like easy days and either fail to include them at all or don’t perform them properly.
Why? Because they are so easy.
Let me put this into some real-world and personal perspective. On the bike, my maximum power output is somewhere in the realm of 300-330 watts. On a moderate aerobic level ride, I’ll typically be around 180 watts. For a harder aerobic ride I’ll be around 200 watts. For intervals, it can range from 270 watts to 350 watts or more depending on the duration and how much I feel like suffering (and what I’m trying to improve).
On easy days (of which I have two, Tuesday and Thursday. I take Sunday completely off from training) I might ride at 140 watts or less hitting a heart rate of about 120. It feels like there’s no pressure on the pedals, I’m just going through the motions, moving a little bit of blood through my legs, it’s meant to be active recovery and makes them feel better than doing no training at all.
I usually ride for 40-45 minutes of easy spinning (simply because this is the length of an episode of most tv shows), normal workouts are generally 1-1.5 hours which is about the most that my butt and my mind can handle on the trainer. So I’m doing around 50-75% of my normal workout volume at a piss-easy intensity.
If I can’t stand the bike, I’ll go walking on the treadmill (or, if need be, outdoors) and my heart rate rarely goes above 100. Just a little bit of movement, a little bit of blood flow, burn a few hundred calories.
But most people aren’t satisfied doing that kind of training. They don’t like doing the short duration (an easy/active recovery workout might only take 20-30 minutes). They figure that if they took the time to drive to the gym, they should do a full workout session. So the duration starts to climb.
Then there’s intensity. Proper “easy” training should feel utterly easy, like there’s no effort at all. And the obsessives don’t like that, not at all. It doesn’t feel like it’s accomplishing anything (No pain, no gain, right) so the intensity starts to climb. Where it should be an easy 130 heart rate or lower, it’ll start climbing to the aerobic range or higher. Suddenly, what should have been easy days start becoming medium days.
The Consequences of Avoiding Easy Training
But it’s even more insidious than that: these medium days end up being too easy to really stimulate fitness, but too hard to allow complete recovery. It’s this weird no-man’s land that doesn’t accomplish anything good.
Which has another major consequence, without the ability to recover sufficiently, the hard days can’t be as hard. Because you can’t do a quality session when you’re tired. So the hard days start becoming medium days as well. And it all goes wrong.
The hard days can’t be hard enough, the easy days are too hard and the whole week ends up being this weird sort of medium intensity across the board.
Now, this isn’t an absolute and will depend somewhat on the sport. An endurance cyclist in an early base period might be doing nothing but daily medium intensity rides to get some miles into his legs before intensifying things. But as the hard workout start becoming harder, it becomes more crucial for the easy days to become that much easier. The week goes from having a fairly constant intensity level to alternating very high highs with very low lows.
Clearly, to improve fitness (or whatever kind), the hard workouts need to be hard. Hard enough to stimulate fitness gains.
But that also means that the easy days need to be easy.
Block Training: An Exception
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.
About the only good example I’ve seen of this can be found in Practical Programming (by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, with contributions from Glenn Pendlay, R.I.P.) 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.
Taking Hard and Easy Training Further
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.
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