You Can't Be 'On' All the Time: The Importance of Annual Training Cycles

By Jen Comas

There are days when I sleep nine to 10 hours straight.

No, I’m not depressed, nor am I taking sleep aids. When I sleep that long it's because my body actually needs that much sleep. I go to bed when I’m tired, which is usually around 10 or 11 p.m., and then I sleep until I wake naturally, between eight and nine in the morning.

I take a few intentional month-long periods of rest and rejuvenation every year. My priority during that time is to recover and recharge from summer, while preparing to slap fall and winter silly.

During this "down time" I focus on reading, writing, and rest (I almost said arithmetic). I put emphasis on soft tissue work, lounging in the bathtub, watching my favorite movies, cooking nutritious meals, and leisurely walking. Oh, the walking. jen-on-rock-hiking-450x300My neighbors think I’m crazy because I walk for at least 60 minutes every day, jamming out to music while I mosey the ‘hood. What can I say? It makes me feel good.

I also do obscene amounts of yoga, and depending on the season I’m moving into, I scale my training accordingly.

My only physical goals during this time are complete recovery and to bring stress levels down.  I still strength train twice a week, but they are short sessions, and meant more for maintaining my strength and keeping me sane than anything else.

I follow up my down time with some "go-crazy" time. The opportunities for fun and adventure in Utah are endless and I take maximum advantage. The mountains and lakes make summertime a blast, providing some of the best hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and backpacking you can find.

jen-and-friends-on-bikes-450x300Winter is equally entertaining because of all of the resorts for skiing and snowboarding, not to mention the gorgeous places to snowshoe. Top that off with some of the greatest studios for aerial arts and yoga, along with the best gym I’ve ever been to, and I’m a busy girl.

This usually means I’m up at six, revved up and ready to go. There were days last summer where I went hiking, biking, paddleboarding, and out with the girls for sushi and cocktails that night. Are you exhausted reading that?

Because I am. Thank goodness this town offers an abundance of excellent coffee!

Annual Training Cycles

In fancy training terms, the way I am cycling my training is more commonly referred to as a “macro-cycle” when you’re referring to an athlete or someone who is preparing for some sort of physical competition. However, just because you don’t compete doesn’t mean that you couldn’t benefit from cycling your activities and the intensity of your training throughout the course of the year.

How, you may ask? Cycling your training is typically best done around what else you have going on in life. If you’re a CPA, you are probably swamped during February, March, and April. These would be good months to dial things back with your training, and then pick it back up in May.

Sticking with the same theme, if you work for, or own, a big corporation, you know that preparing for tax season can be a bugger (can I get a witness?) so January might be extremely stressful for you. Because of that, it probably makes more sense to ease back your training during that time, and start to hit it again hard once you file.

Matching Training to Lifestyle Seasons

For many of us, with different seasons come different activities that we enjoy doing, or different levels of activity in general. For example, somebody like me, that ran summer (too) hard, it only makes sense that I would book-end my madness with about a month of scaled back training and activity, because we can’t - and shouldn’t be - running ourselves into the ground all of the time.

This same type of thinking applies to strength training. Even if you don’t have big outdoor hobbies, you shouldn’t be training as hard as you possibly can all year long.

Just like your training has smaller cycles that progress and then taper off every 6 - 8 weeks, you should also have a bigger, annual cycle that you’re following as well.

This isn’t to say that that your activity levels should fluctuate as wildly as mine do, however, there is something to be learned from my madness, and that is the importance of letting your training intensity ebb and flow.

For example, my January and February consisted of hard and heavy strength work four days a week, along with conditioning work.

All of March was essentially an extended de-load for me, and then I started to incorporate more conditioning in April to prepare for a season of riding and hiking.

I lowered the overall volume of my lifting throughout the summer since I was so busy doing outdoor stuff, and now I’m taking time to recover from all of that.

In the fall I will ramp my strength and conditioning work up a bit as we move into snowboarding season. Once the season starts, I won’t be at the gym as much because I’ll be busy outside, and with any luck, accomplishing my goal of back-country snowboarding.

This same type of rule applies when stress levels get abnormally high. Remember, your body treats all stress as stress. Whether you are being chased by a bear or doing a super intense training session, the stress response is similar.

If you’re going through a period of higher-than-normal stress, such as a teething baby that isn’t sleeping, a death in the family, planning a huge wedding, etc., then it may not be a bad idea to scale things back for a few weeks.

Use this time as one of your extended de-loads. When things mellow out, you can get back to it.

jen-backsquat-hoodie-350x350“Gainz” and Body Fat

Many women are extremely hesitant to dial back on their training intensity for an extended period of time because they are worried that they’ll lose their strength, or that they’ll gain body fat, both of which are valid concerns.

The thing to keep in mind is that maintaining the strength that you’ve built is far easier than increasing your strength. So long as you keep the big movements in your training, even at a lower volume, you likely won’t lose any ground on those.

As for gaining body fat, you will want to scale your food intake back a bit to compensate for the decreased energy expenditure. I’m not talking anything crazy, but a couple hundred calories less ought to be about perfect.

We Can’t Be ‘On’ All of the Time

Remember, we can’t be ‘on’ all of the time. We have to have periods of rest and recovery, which means zooming out and taking a broader view at things. By organizing your training with an annual cycle, you’ll be able to train smarter, better manage stress levels, and be more apt to stay healthy while working towards both short-term and long-term goals.


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About the author:  Jen Comas

Jen Comas is a Girls Gone Strong co-founder and GGS Coaching Head Coach, as well as a NASM Personal Trainer and USAW Level One Weightlifting coach. She has competed in figure and trained as a powerlifter, teaches and practices yoga, and is obsessed with motorcycles, dirt biking, and downhill mountain biking. Learn about Jen on her website and follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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