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The Right Way to Deload

How your body and mind can benefit from pressing pause on your workout routine.

While rest days (even if they involve active recovery) are standard practice amongst athletes of every level, experts say that occasionally taking an even longer break from your exercise routine could produce both body and mind benefits

Pressing pause on an established routine is actually common practice in the sports performance world. “A break is a very important part of exercise science,” says Alex Zimmerman, director of Equinox’s Tier X program. Many of the accepted programming models for elite athletes include a built-in off season, which can last anywhere from four to twelve weeks depending on the athlete’s usual activity. During this time off, they often remain active, but train differently from how they do during pre-season and in season, usually at a lower intensity.

For non-pros, experts agree that taking anywhere from a few days to a full-week break from your usual sport or workout just two or three times a year can lead to greater eventual gains.

The Physical Benefits

“When you take time off, it allows your nervous system to recover,” Zimmerman explains. “Exercise can be a stress on the body—a good stress, but if you don’t manage it, it can lead to injury and immune dysfunction.” It’s easy to feel great about hitting the gym five to six days per week, but over the course of several months, this habit has the potential to produce unintended consequences. “Too much intense exercise can lead to increased inflammatory markers in the body and enzymes that are associated with muscle damage,” and even chronic fatigue, he says. Taking a break can ensure that none of these things get in the way of your training.

Your hormones also recover during a break. “Cortisol acutely increases with intense training,” says Jennifer Novak, MS, CSCS, founder of PEAK Symmetry Performance Strategies in Atlanta. When it’s temporarily higher, it signals stress conditions to the brain, and our bodies have to work to adapt to the stress. “This is how the bigger, better, faster, stronger aspects of athletic progression work,” she says. “With constant training, however, chronically elevated production of cortisol can actually lower the levels of testosterone production in our bodies (both men and women have it and need it), creating what’s called a low testosterone:cortisol (T:C) ratio.” A low T:C ratio can be detrimental to performance: limiting gains, shrinking time to fatigue, limiting or decreasing fat loss, and more, according to Novak. Therefore, small breaks can help the body rebalance the way these hormones are produced. 

The Mental Benefits

If the idea of taking a week off from your gym routine sounds like the worst thing ever, that might actually be a sign that it’s a good idea. “Often, the more the athlete doesn't want to take a break, the more they need it,” says Chris Friesen, Ph.D., a performance neuropsychologist based in Ontario who works with elite athletes. “Once we rest for a week or so, our body recovers and so does our mind. It gives us perspective. It allows us time to think and regroup.” Forms of exercise you’re used to feel fresh again after a short hiatus. “We often come up with ways to improve upon what we are doing—which is too difficult to appreciate when we are in the thick of it,” Friesen says. 

And just as your body can experience overtraining, so can your mind. “Your brain is the central command center of your body, and it benefits from a period of rest just as your muscles, ligaments, and joints do,” says Sari Shepphird, Ph.D., a Los-Angeles-area sports psychologist. “Fitness regulars may not realize that mood, concentration, energy level, motivation, and a sense of overall ‘wellness’ can be negatively impacted when rest and recovery are neglected." 

What’s more, taking a break can help you remember that exercising is something you choose to do, not an obligation, which can work wonders for motivation. “Athletes tend to miss all of the choices they have about how to shape and change their approach to fitness, and they may start to work out merely out of obligation rather than out of a sense of personal choice,” Shepphird notes. “That is a recipe for burnout and can lead to resenting ‘having’ to go to the gym. Keeping a sense of personal choice is crucial. Taking breaks is part of exercising that option to choose."

How to Do It

“A break can mean a lot of different things,” Zimmerman says, but it is recommended that they include at least some form of activity. “Maybe it’s playing golf with friends, riding a bike with your kids, or learning a new skill like yoga, Pilates, or kettlebell training with a personal trainer,” Zimmerman says. “Activities that can feel rewarding and are rich experientially are the best way to recover from the everyday grind.”

As for the length of your break, Zimmerman suggests paying attention to your sleep quality if you’re not sure how long you need. “If you’re feeling restlessness, achiness, general fatigue, and lack of motivation, a good barometer for how much of a break you need will depend on when all of these go away,” he says. “If you can’t sleep, there’s a good chance that overtraining and the stress acting on the body is impacting your ability to recover.”

And don’t worry about losing fitness during your time off. Detraining won’t happen in a week or less. Novak also points out that aerobic fitness and endurance are lost at a faster rate than power and strength improvements, which means that a week off from weight training won’t do much damage, and by incorporating active rest, like light cardio, you’ll avoid dramatic decreases in cardiovascular fitness.