IN MONTH ONE, we told you that the Shape of Your Life program would be driven by periodization: the idea that athletic improvement can be sustainable and efficient only if you strike a balance between stress and recovery in every phase of your training cycle. So each time we pushed you toward your max (think Zone 3 interval workouts), we gave you rest and recovery to let your muscles grow and adapt (i.e. those weekends after Friday interval sessions). The stress hormones released by intense training encouraged muscle and cardiovascular growth; the recovery period allowed them the rest necessary to do so. With this same philosophy in mind, month five will be your hardest yet; you'll max out in week three, slow things down in week four, and then peak for your fitness goal in October.
So what happens after that? Good news: You can back off again—this time for an entire month. But before you drop a grand on a Sony Dream System to satisfy your pent-up couch-potato fantasies, let us qualify. By "back off" we mean active rest. If you've been running throughout the program, give the knees a break and get into the pool for a month of easy swims two or three times a week. Or if your sport is cycling, try trail running, only decrease the intensity (forget intervals) and number of workouts per week. As for the weight room, just one visit a week will do. Perform one set of reps of five to eight exercises that work your major muscle groups. The whole idea is maintenance and fun—leave the heart-rate monitors, stopwatches, and workout calendars in your locker.
There's logic to this brief vacation. Fact is, you can progressively increase your training load only for a limited time before it becomes a physical and mental burden. In small amounts, stress hormones help you move faster and rebuild quicker. But when they begin to accumulate over long periods of intense exercise, they can degrade your immune response and cause the logy, depressionlike symptoms of overtraining. Even elite athletes take time off at some point. Lance Armstrong, for example, doesn't mount his bike for two weeks after the end of the season. He knows he needs a break, and so do you.
Next step: Develop a new goal. Just as you did last April or May, conjure up a grand adventure. Want to run your first marathon this spring? Always dreamed of a trekking trip in the Himalayas? You get the idea—a motivational carrot to prod you out of the house during your next push for the peak. And to stay on the safe side, make more than a mental commitment. "Registering and paying for an event that's on your calendar is a good external motivator," says Eric Harr, author of The Portable Personal Trainer. "You're less likely to stray from the program if you know you're going to pay for it on that 14,000-foot peak in three months." It's also a good idea to try a new sport this go-round. "For me it becomes a challenge to do the same stuff over and over," says surf legend and SYL adviser Laird Hamilton. "It's better to find new things that inspire you. Do them for a while, reach a personal goal, and move on to something else."
With a month of active rest under your belt, and a new goal, you can restart the program. However, just as your muscles need to adapt, so should this plan. Stick to the basic periodization guidelines and schedule, but adjust the training to fit your specific needs (see "Be Your Own Boss"). If you're planning a marathon, try increasing the mileage every week of your Monday Zone 2 run based on the marathon mileage charts offered in most running magazines and Web sites. If you're training for an adventure race, try mixing up your events Monday through Friday. The point is to read up on some sport specifics and make the plan work for your individual goal.
And there you have it—five months on, a grand adventure, a month off to keep you fresh, and a new beginning every six months or so. It's a sustainable blueprint designed to let you knock off a life-list adventure at least twice a year. But the ball is in your court now. It's your life; what shape are you going to make it?