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Deloads and Recovery Methods You Can Use

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Recovery is a buzz topic of late in fitness and sports performance, and for good reason. However, I get concerned that without enough actionable steps and an echo chamber of “you need to sleep more” and “experts” who try to hack their way out of skill development and health, that the real recovery message will get lost. 

What is the “real message” of recovery anyway?

I had good mentors and people intervene with me at a young age to help me with recovery methods and ways to minimize injury; probably more than most in my age group, or more than most in general. These methods probably dominated most of what I did in the earliest part of my training career. Conversely, about five years ago, I got the opposite bug— I wanted to really push to the point some of the most extreme performers in the world did. I wanted to learn the limits of my body and understand the far extremes of the most extreme performance. This was in part, to not waste a generally healthy male body that was given some pre-disposition to do well in a variety of physical pursuits, but also to understand the mindset and preparation even more deeply that goes into the athletes and people I deal with day-to-day. 

In the time since ~2013, I’m happy to say I’ve been traveling that road with minimal injury roadblocks, precisely because I was able to utilize the lessons I had learned on recovery early on (and using my network).

Which leads me to now, where I feel quite comfortable saying I have learned two major lessons in the process:

  1. Schedules will help you avoid burnout and manage your fatigue

  2. Deloading makes you bigger and stronger.

I’ll address the schedules point in next week’s piece in detail. I want to touch today on the topic of deloading.

We all know in theory that de-loading is necessary and is built into any good program, as it offers a reprieve from the hard stress of the micro-cycle you just trained through, preparing you for the next upcoming training cycle. Physiologically, it’s where the super compensation and acute adaptation happens to ultimately give you the results you were looking for in your training.  Without a well-timed deload phase, you often find yourself a step behind. It’s the equivalent to not tapering off your jiu jitsu training before a tournament; or going for PR’s within days of competition.

Funny enough, it’s the deload and management of training cycles that I believe is one of the top reason I’ve been able to build up and maintain great athletes and clients for years running now. If you aren’t used to a periodized program, this type of organization is a game-changer. Among the benefits are being able to predict when you’ll be peaking and managing your fatigue and continuing to improve in what seems like and endless manner (if you’re used to the old train hard and burnout cycles).

However, I personally didn’t see the “magic” of the deload until I was forced to. I can remember coming off a hard month-long German Volume Training cycle that was written by Charles Poliquin and had drastically increased my sets per week for weeks leading up to it. When the deload week was finally just a few days away, I could feel my body starting to get run down with a cold-type of illness. This wasn’t unexpected and I took it as a cue to rest and start the deload early. What followed was a little alarming to me, as I ended up feeling weaker than I anticipated in that deload period, for much longer. I physically wasn’t able to go give my best at the gym or on the mats for about 2.5 weeks. I was concerned I had over-trained. And you know, I may have. 

But what happened next felt like magic or some weird voodoo— I shot up in weight, size and measurements in the next month that followed that illness and sluggish time. I even hit PR’s the whole next month in training. This all with very minimal/maintenance type training from me during that time.

If I had to break it down in somewhat simplistic terms: I was basically overreaching for about 6 weeks (and a few more training cycles on top of that) and had an extended “cool off” period in which I could literally grow and adapt to the training stimulus I aggressively put myself through in the preceding months.

The Mental Component

My big lesson? You have to ask yourself if your compulsion to not deload properly comes from your desire to win/get stronger at all costs, or if it’s a compulsive nervous response. An anxiety about something.  

If you think it’s your desire for strength, and that you can train through anything, then please believe me and any coach worth their salt out there, that you’ll get stronger from those well-timed deloads. 

If you want to get stronger, want to win the big one, but can’t seem to have mental peace with the deload, and struggle with the downtime, I very much encourage you to meditate on the matter and dig into what’s not letting you take a step that will actually help you. Learn why you have difficulty letting go.  

It’s high on my list of things to work on with athletes, so if you struggle with this, you aren’t alone. It also comes with no judgment, as it took some failure and real-time learning on my part to learn one of the best lessons of my career on this topic. I’ve seen too many people underperform on game day after 8 week camps and years of training, all because they pushed it compulsively until the big dance. Worse yet, I’ve seen injuries that I believe could have been possibly mitigated had some care been taken in respect to scheduling and deload.

I hope this gives you some things to think about in applying these concepts to your training.

Be well, be strong,

Mark DiSalvo