Running is a balance of stress and rest. The harder you work, the more rest you need. Rest allows your body to recover. When you recover, you can handle higher bouts of concentrated stress. As you adapt, you can handle faster paces, higher mileage, and bigger workouts – and get sustainably faster in the process. Without appropriate recovery, your body breaks down, leading to overtraining, performance plateaus, burnout, and overuse injuries. Rest days allow you to handle a higher training load than if you ran daily. Likewise, cutback weeks allow your body to recover and adapt to training.
In his book Peak Performance, Steve Magness argues “If we never take easy periods, we are never able to go full throttle and hard periods end up being not that hard at all….we are recommending that you strategically insert longer periods of rest to follow long periods of stress.”
Rest days provide recovery on a micro (weekly scale). Recovery blocks and weeks off do so on a macro scale. To fully benefit, you also need something in between – which is where cutback weeks come in.
What are Cutback Weeks?
Cutback weeks are deliberate reductions in training load (volume and intensity). They occur at regular intervals in your training plan. The purpose is to allow your body to recover from hard training and adapt to the training load. Whether you are focused on upcoming races or long-term progress, strategic cutback weeks help you achieve your goals.
How Often Should You Take a Cutback Week?
Several variables factor into the frequency of a cutback week. Broadly speaking, you take a down week following every two to four weeks of hard training – but let’s look more into what variables determine the frequency.
Injury history and risk are the biggest factors. Generally, injury-prone runners should take more frequent cutback weeks. Runners preparing for a new distance (such as their first marathon) or experimenting with higher mileage or intensity should also incorporate them frequently into their training. Runners who train at high volume and high intensity may also opt for frequent reductions.
Your training phase also determines how frequently you take a cutback week. Anytime you deliberately increase training stress, such as increasing mileage or training for a race, you want to reduce training load after every 2-4 weeks of hard training. If you are focused on maintaining fitness between races, you can do cutback weeks less frequently – about everything 3-6 weeks. The off-season already prioritizes recovery, so you do not need to incorporate scheduled cutback weeks.
The longer your training cycle, the more often you should take cutback weeks. If you devote four or five months to training for a marathon, cutback weeks after 2-3 weeks of hard training will minimize mental burnout. If you prefer a shorter training cycle, you can go slightly longer and only cut back after every 3-4 weeks.
Finally, your mental state influences the frequency of cutback weeks. If you are prone to burnout, take frequent cutback weeks (one after every 2-3 weeks of hard training). If cutback weeks feel more disruptive than beneficial, schedule one less frequently (but still take them).
As with anything in running, it is always, always better to be slightly under-trained then overtrained. This principle applies to cutback weeks: you will benefit more from taking them slightly more often than from not taking them often enough.
How Much Do You Reduce Training Load?
A cutback week primarily reduces training volume (mileage). Most runners will reduce mileage by approximately 15-25%. This reduction is typically spread amongst most runs of the week. If you are in marathon or half marathon training, the long run may account for a significant chunk of the cutback.
Intensity is a secondary factor in training load. Intensity is a stress just as much as volume. However, treatment of intensity during a recovery week varies more than the approach to reducing mileage.
Some runners will feel flat without too much reduction. For these runners, the intensity will reduce proportionally with the mileage. For example, if you run 40 miles with a 5-mile tempo run, your cutback week will likely include 30-33 miles of running and a 4 mile tempo.
Other runners (often injury-prone) will benefit from a greater reduction in intensity. Some runners may even skip a quality workout during these weeks, especially in base building or early on in a training cycle.
Implementing Cutback Weeks into Your Training
Your exact approach will vary based on your training phase, schedule, injury risk, and even experience. Your training adapts over time, so how you structured cutback weeks three years ago may not presently work. Observe how you feel throughout the training cycle and on race day and use that information to assess the efficacy of your approach.
Cutback weeks should be strategic and serve the overall goal of your training. You may find you want to adapt the exact timing of your cutback weeks based on practical measures. This approach may mean you occasionally take a cutback week sooner than normal, and that is okay. For example, reducing mileage and intensity ideal after a tune-up race. Female runners may choose to time recovery weeks around their menstrual cycle if they notice hormone fluctuations or period-related pain affect their training. If you are taking a vacation, use that as a cutback week so you can fully enjoy your trip and not worry about a big tempo workout or 20 mile long run.
It is normal to feel sluggish or antsy at the start of a cutback week. Your body is using the extra rest as an opportunity to recover and adapt, and that process does not always render you feeling your freshest. By the start of the next week, however, you should feel refreshed and ready to tackle your training again.