With my collegiate and professional athletes, I mostly mandate a week off or at least of doing whatever you want. The reason for it isn't so much physical, but more so mental. Sometimes athletes need a longer break to mentally get away, so there is a large amount of individual variation.
But still, a frequent question I get is how long should my post season break be. To me, it's this balancing act between detraining and psychological refreshment. We typically focus on the detraining that occurs when you go from running to complete rest.
Instead of giving a firm answer on that subject, or the obligatory "it depends", let's flip the question and see what happens psychologically when you take habitual exercisers and give them a break.
In a study entitled Committed Exercisers And Exercise Deprivation: The Relation of Biochemical Mark, they took habitual runners and triathletes and basically forced them to take 2 weeks off. They were tested for affective mood parameters, as well as a few biochemical markers to see what happened throughout this forced break.
Not surprisingly, there were some major changes.
Following the layoff, the athletes saw significant increases in feelings of tension, depression, anger, confusion and total mood disturbance. Additionally, there was a decrease in vigor. These changes in mood aren't terribly surprising, but it's pretty profound when you think about it. Just by taking someone outside of their norm of aerobic exercise for 2 short weeks, people's mood states were significantly impacted.
We could speculate on why this occurs and probably be close enough. It's probably some amalgamation of the fact that exercise creates a routine and anchor to the day, plays a large role in stress relief, and all sorts of good benefits. Add in the neuro-chemical hit we get from aerobic exercise and you have lots of reasons people continue to run, bike, and swim around. Take away these things, and it's almost like a withdrawal effect. Those hits of daily neurotransmitters in your brain go away and your left with a body craving what it used to regularly receive.
In fact, tying the psychological measures to the chemical, they measured two neurotransmitters (Andamide and B-endorphin) which play a large role in joy, bliss, "runner's high", and all sorts of other happy emotions. What we are left with then is a nice combination of not only psychological mood state changes but also alterations in the chemicals that help guide those states.
We can look at these results in a few different ways. First, the impact can be tied to that delicate balance of how much time we should take off after a season. Secondly, you can begin to see the ramifications of forced time off, whether it's from an injury or some other mechanism.
To me, it screams of there being a sweet spot of mental recovery. When we take athletes whose life and normalcy revolves around working out every single day, sometimes twice a day, and take it away, it shouldn't surprise that there are ramifications. We typically think of it in terms of taking a load off and the mental relaxation that occurs. While this may be true at the end of a long season, there has to be a point where an almost anxious counter reaction occurs.
Finding that sweet spot of how long you need off before you hit the counter reaction and mood changes seems to be the key.
In terms of forced and unexpected layoffs, such as those that occur because of injury, we should pay attention to the psychological ramifications, as well as physical. Cross-training and providing a substitution to the routine probably helps from a mental standpoint as well as a physical one. But in the end, we have to remember that athletes aren't getting that chemical bump that often is one of the reasons we continue to do exercise.
In the end it comes back to that all too familiar situation, where an injured runner gets told the not so magic phrase of "take a few weeks off," by the well-meaning but probably misguided doctor. While a few weeks off might help physically (which is highly debatable in most cases...), it's a psychological blow.