Over the past two decades I have been very fortunate to work with people in terms of improving their health, fitness and performance goals. From people just looking to stay active to international athletes, they are always worried about how quickly they think they will lose their fitness.
I’ve seen it time and time again when someone missies a few classes or is returning from an injury or illness, they feel they are miles behind where they left off and from everyone else.
The physiology of this plays a massive roll. Maybe you are slightly off on the weights you were lifting beforehand in the gym, or other team members are a bit faster than you on the pitch.
From a physical stand point you have lost a bit of your fitness but in your head you feel like you have taken 10 steps backwards.
The technical word for this is detraining. Although results vary across different studies, the research suggests that for endurance athletes, a loss of cardiovascular fitness and endurance starts to happen after as little as 12 days of no exercise.
There’s not much evidence on how fitness continues to decrease after several weeks of total inactivity, but those in good cardiovascular shape will take up to a few months to completely lose all of their aerobic fitness.
Also keep in mind that unless someone is injured, a break in their regular exercise rarely means complete inactivity.
In the literature review cited above, the evidence suggests that cardiovascular fitness of regular exercisers starts to decrease significantly after about 35 days (five weeks) of occasional, light exercise.
So, that means if you were exercising a lot and then drastically reduce the intensity of your workouts, you might also notice a decrease in cardiovascular fitness.
Muscle mass loss, which might limit your ability to lift weights isn’t likely to be significantly impacted in two to three weeks time, though this too depends on several factors, including age, diet, sleep hygiene, and your fitness level before you take a break.
In a study from the International Journal of Exercise Science in which researchers found that even three weeks of detraining doesn’t decrease muscle thickness, strength, or performance in sports in a group of 21 male adolescent athletes.
One other area you will need to consider is your current level of fitness.
Deconditioning in fit athletes generally does not appear to happen as quickly or drastically as in beginning exercisers. In fact, one recent study looked at well-conditioned adolescent athletes who had been training regularly for a year.
After three weeks of detraining, researchers found that the athletes’ muscle strength and sport performance was not affected.
The outcome tends to be much different for new exercisers. A 2001 study followed new exercisers as they began a training program and then stopped the exercise. Researchers had sedentary individuals start a bicycle fitness program for two months.
During those eight weeks, the exercisers made dramatic cardiovascular improvements and boosted their aerobic capacity substantially.
At eight weeks, they quit exercising for the next two months. They were tested again and were found to have lost all of their aerobic gains and returned to their original fitness levels.
Other research is looking at the effects of decreasing the training level, rather than completely stopping all exercise.
The results are more encouraging for athletes who need to reduce training due to time constraints, illness, or injury.
A 2005 study followed sedentary men through three months of strength training, three times a week. They then cut back to one session per week. They found that these men maintained nearly all the strength gains they developed in the first three months.
When you look at all the research it’s very positive. So, the ‘use it or lose it’ saying may not apply so quickly to detraining.
Here are a few ways you can help maintain your fitness if you are injured, recovering from illness or life just gets in the way.
Keep active throughout the day
If you can’t go for that long run or get a full hour in the gym, make sure you are still moving throughout the day. Take comfort movement breaks form your desk or go for a walk during your lunch break.
Try shorter more intense
If time is an issue just reduce the amount of time spent training but increase the intensity.
Train using different methods
If injury or illness is holding you back from your normal training routine try and think of different training methods to maintain and improve your fitness.
For example, if you have a lower limb injury, upper body strength or boxing pad work may help you maintain your fitness.
Use body weight movements
If you need to strip your training back for any reason, maintain fitness with bodyweight exercise. You’d be surprised how effective and tough these can be.
Sometimes an injury, illness or life situation comes at the right time during your training schedule. Maybe your body is telling you it’s time to pull back a little. Adaptations from our training happen during our recovery phase.
Hopefully that helps you both physically and physiologically when detraining happens to you for whatever reason.
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