By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS
The first things athletes should understand about missing workouts are that it’s 100% normal and it’s rarely anything to stress over. Meaningful training progress happens over the course of several weeks to several months. Individual workouts are important, but it’s the long-term accumulation and concentration of workload that leads to adaptation. This is both good and bad news. It’s good in that there are simple ways to work around the occasional missed workout, and it’s bad in that it’s going to take more than a magical workout to make up for a substantial gap in training. So, whether you miss one workout or weeks of training, here’s a simple guide to keeping your training on track.
Fitness is harder to lose than you think
Some athletes feel stressed when they miss a workout because they believe they will immediately start detraining, or losing the fitness they worked so hard to gain. The good news here is that the markers of fitness are resilient. You can miss up to about 7 days of training before there will be any appreciable loss of performance. On the other hand, that’s a week of missed opportunity to create fitness, so you don’t want to miss that much training too frequently. For a more complete discussion of the science of detraining, see this article.
Some workouts are more essential than others
Every workout counts, or at least it should if you are structuring a goal-oriented training plan correctly. At the same time, depending on the training focus during a particular period, some workouts have greater value than others. Typically these will be interval workouts, because the purpose of intervals is to concentrate workload on a relatively narrow intensity range, and accumulating time at that intensity creates the stimulus for adaptation. If you’re in a more generalized period of training, endurance workouts may take priority to keep weekly or monthly training volume on track.
One or two missed workouts
No matter whether you miss an interval session or an endurance ride, if it’s just one or two, then just move on with your training like nothing happened. The break will provide a little extra recovery and your next workouts may be even better than expected. The caveat here is that the reason for missing the workouts can change this recommendation. If you missed 1-2 days of training for low-stress reasons, like minor schedule conflicts or a family weekend getaway, proceed as planned.
On the other hand, if you missed 1-2 days because you were up all night on a high-stakes deadline, or because you or a family member was sick, or due to travel hassles, those are high-stress reasons for missing training. In this case, I recommend continuing with the planned training schedule in order maintain routine and consistency, but reducing the workload of the next 1-2 days.
Missing 3-7 days of training
If you know ahead of time that there will be a 3- to 7-day gap in your training due to a trip or some other priority, it is best to adjust your training so those days become planned recovery. Sometimes this means increasing preloading training before the gap because you know you’ll have time to recover. The other way is planning to take advantage of the recovery by planning for high-workload days after the gap. Some of the decision comes down to an athlete’s personality. Preloading can help reduce feelings of anxiety during the subsequent days with little or no exercise. You know you banked some good work and can relax. These same athletes may experience anxiety when there’s hard training waiting for them after a break. At the other end of the spectrum, a break for some athletes fuels positive anticipation; they get look forward to crushing hard workouts after a few days of little to no activity.
Redistribute part of the volume missed
When you miss 3-7 days of training, try to redistribute 50-75% of the missed volume across future workouts within 3-4 weeks. You can do this by adding 15-30 minutes to a workout every few days. Do not do it by doubling the length of the first day or first few days back. This is counterproductive because it generates so much fatigue you have to take more days off later in the week to adequately recover. Trying to redistribute some of the missed volume is part of playing the long game, in which the accumulation of total monthly and annual workload adds to the depth of your fitness.
Missing more than a week of training
Once you get to the point of missing 10-14 days of training, or more, the individual variability between athletes, training objectives, and the reason for the prolonged gap (injury, illness, extended travel, work demands, etc.) makes it difficult to give generalized guidance. It is likely that a modification of individual interval workouts and weekly training load will be necessary. Outside of the specifics of workout modifications, the best advice I can give you is to be Patient, Forgiving, and Deliberate.
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Patient, in that you should ease back into training with lighter workouts that re-establish the routine and rhythm of training before increasing to full-intensity workouts. This can last three days to two weeks, depending on the situation and athlete.
Forgiving, in that the missed training is in the past and you can’t get it back. Accept that reality without judgement and focus on what you can do now. If missing days or weeks of training becomes habitual, then take a broader look at the compatibility of your training ambitions with the reality of your lifestyle.
Deliberate, in that the training choices you make in the days and weeks after a significant gap in training can have far-reaching implications. You don’t want to miss more training within a short period of time, if you can avoid it, either from poor scheduling or pushing too hard too soon.
Be kind to yourself when it comes to missing workouts. The negative implications are typically far lower than what your imagination conjures up. The most important thing is to get back into the rhythm and routine of training, and if that’s all you do, that’s a win. If you miss a day or two, move on like nothing happened. If there’s a substantial gap in your training, be conservative with how quickly or extensively you ramp back up upon your return.
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