Here’s what it means to be a ‘weekend warrior’ – and how to optimise your training and nutrition if you only exercise one or two days a week.
Balancing a busy work schedule, a reignited social calendar, your home and family life and an exercise routine is harder than Instagram makes it look. For those who work most days a week before rushing out of the office to make a dinner reservation/put the children to bed/launch your side hustle, the weekends are the logical time to get your sweat on.
These people are known as “weekend warriors” – and the chances are you know one (or perhaps are one yourself). They’re the people who don’t seem to do much during the week, but run a half marathon every weekend or smash a two-hour gym session on Saturday mornings.
The weekend warrior mentality isn’t just about the days of the week though, explains exercise scientist Dr Brendon Stubbs. “From a research point of view, it’s about those people who are meeting the exercise guidelines of 75 minutes of vigorous activity or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, but in one or two sessions, rather than 30 minutes or so a day.” For many people, the obvious time for that is the weekend, which is where it gets the name from. But if you were part of a sports team that played 90 minutes of football every Wednesday, for example, you’d be considered a weekend warrior too.
Is being a weekend warrior bad?
There have been quite large studies trying to work out this exact question. For example, a 2017 paper from researchers at the University of Leicester, which compared health markers of nearly 64,000 people across four categories of activity: inactive (no moderate or vigorous activity), insufficiently active (moving, but less than the government guidelines), a weekend warrior and regularly active people (who met the same activity guidelines but over three or more sessions). They found that both ‘weekend warriors’ and regularly active people had similarly reduced all-cause, cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality risks compared to other training styles.
In the second study, from Loughborough University, researchers compared the mental health implications of weekend warriors to other forms of training. They concluded that psychological distress was best reduced in those who met the physical activity guidelines regardless of whether it was accumulated in one or two bouts per week, as with the weekend warriors, or in more frequent daily bouts of movement.
So if health is your goal, keeping up your weekend training sessions isn’t doing you any harm. But for Renee McGregor, a sports nutritionist and female health expert, there’s more to think about.
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“The issue with being a weekend warrior is that there is a tendency to overdo things during these short periods of time, which can lead to increased risk of injury,” she says. This can be from the fact that the body isn’t adapted to the intense load of training – you can’t jump from doing nothing to 75 minutes of HIIT in one go and expect the body to be able to keep up.
“There’s limited data looking at weekend warriors and injuries, but there is some evidence to say there may be a slight increased risk for people who engage in particularly vigorous physical activity for long periods, once or twice a week, compared to people who space it out over the course of the week,” agrees Dr Stubbs. “Anecdotally, those who only move in terms of walking to the Tube and in caring roles at home for five days a week and then suddenly thrash it on a Saturday inevitably increase the risk of injuries compared to those who steadily increase their activity.”
Refuelling and recovering after a session like that also requires thought and purpose – something many of us don’t have the time for. For example, an extended, high-intensity workout will require a large refeed of carbohydrates, time to allow your cortisol levels to lower and probably a good stretch or bath. Instead, we tend to go from long gym sessions to caffeine or alcohol-fuelled evenings or straight back to running around after children or family members.
“The nutritional needs for people after engaging in high-intensity exercise training are much greater than you need on a rest day anyway. That’s especially true if it’s something quite unusual – a once in a seven-day event. You’re going to need much more nutrition and recovery to help build up your energy levels and help repair the muscle,” says Dr Stubbs.
But the other cause for concern from McGregor is how it might impact people’s attitudes towards their training. “I think weekend warriors can end up with an unhealthy relationship with exercise, with the individuals feeling the need to overcompensate [for their less active behaviour during the week],” she says. “It can also become a way of justifying weekend socialising. That’s not true for everyone, but can impact those who may have a genetic tendency towards control and those who are vulnerable due to low self-esteem issues.”
Dr Stubbs agrees that while weekend warrior training “can be really, really positive for people who like to get out on a nice bike ride or run after busy weekdays, it can push other people into perhaps less sustainable healthy exercise habits. People might end up perceiving that the only way to exercise is to go really hard and really fast. But fundamentally research shows that if you’re going to maintain sustainable exercise and physical activity habits, it needs to be pleasurable, achievable, and fun. Not many people enjoy getting thrashed at the time, and some people may react badly to it.”
How should weekend warriors train and recover?
For McGregor, it’s best to stay active where possible, rather than rely on going super hard during your time off. “Appreciate the importance of balance through the week – not all training should be hard or high intensity, and it is important to have some lower impact options in the mix as well as sufficient days for recovery,” she says. That might mean reframing exercise to a walk or a bike ride and fitting that in around your commute, for example. Those things all add up to your 150 minutes of moderate-intensity movement.
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Not all of us can do that, so if weekends are your only time to train, make your sessions complement one another. “Ideally, alternate the type of training that you’re doing. I wouldn’t recommend that you did upper limb resistance training on a Saturday and Sunday. I would recommend that you did upper one day and lower the next if resistance training was your preferred thing to do. But even better would be one full-body resistance session, and the next an aerobic, heart raising focused workout,” says Dr Stubbs.
Within your workouts, he stresses the importance of your warm-up and cool-down. “If you’re going in relatively cold and you’re not having the opportunity to train throughout the course of the week, you need to properly prep the body for the workout,” he adds.
Then, think about how your nutrition is going to work around your sessions: “Making sure that they are choosing the right fuel, which means carbohydrates before training and carbohydrate and protein for recovery after your session,” says McGregor.
Ultimately, any movement that you can fit into your schedule is great, so keep your once a week jog if that’s all your life will allow. But it may be best to stop seeing your workouts as all or nothing – take the load off by spreading movement like walking or stretching throughout the week for optimum recovery and mental health. As Dr Stubbs says, “A balance needs to be struck between what people can do with their career, family commitments, and health habits.”
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).