Article adapted from http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/anatomyandphysiology/a/Deconditioning.htm
Use It or Lose It.
It’s bit of a cliche but unfortunately it’s true. And while it’s also true that you will lose fitness when you stop exercising, how quickly you lose it depends on several factors, including how fit you are, how long you have been exercising and how long you stop for.
Just as the theory of adaptation (Hans Seyle) says that your body will improve when overloaded (made to do more than it is habitually used to), it also applies the other way too. The principle of use/disuse simply means that when we stop exercising, we generally begin to decondition, and lose both strength and aerobic fitness. Most of us need to stop exercising sometimes, usually because of illness, injury, holidays, work, travel and social commitments which often interfere with training routines. When this happens, we will see a decline in our level of conditioning.
Detraining in Fit Athletes
Deconditioning in fit athletes doesn’t appear to happen as quickly or drastically as in beginning exercisers. One study looked at well-conditioned athletes who had been training regularly for a year. They then stopped exercise entirely. After three months, researchers found that the athletes lost about half of their aerobic conditioning.
Detraining in Beginning Athletes
The outcome is a lot different for new exercisers. Another study followed new exercisers as they began a training program and then stopped 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. OUCH.
Detraining and exercise frequency and intensity
Other research is looking at the effects of decreasing training levels, rather than completely stopping all exercise. The results are more encouraging, especially for athletes who need to reduce training due to time constraints, illness or injury. One 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.
There are many individual differences in detraining rates so it’s impossible to apply all of these study results to all athletes. But it appears that if you maintain some higher intensity exercise on a weekly basis, you can maintain your fitness levels fairly well.
Studies have shown that you can maintain your fitness level even if you need to change or cut back on your exercise for several months. In order to do so, you need to exercise at about 70 percent of your VO2 maximum (the largest amount of air you can take in, transport and utilise) at least once per week.
If you stop exercise completely for several months it’s difficult to predict exactly how long it will take you to return to your former fitness level. After a three-month break it’s unlikely that any athlete will return to peak condition in a week. In some athletes it may even take as long as three months to regain all their conditioning. The time it takes to regain fitness appears to depend on how fit you were when you stopped exercising and how long the period of inaction has been.
Tips for maintaining fitness through breaks
If you need to take time off from training the following tips can help you maintain your fitness.
- Don’t quit completely. Try to exercise at least once per week.
- Cross train through injuries.
- Use bodyweight circuit based routines (no equipment needed) when you travel.
- Strength train with efficiency, using good form, tempo, and advanced training techniques like supersetting (alternating muscle groups in quick succession)
- Integrate CV and strength for quick efficient 20-30 minute sessions.
- Remember that rest and recovery are as important as training. It’s in rest periods that improvements come and repair work is completed, so use this time to recover.
- Intensity wins over duration in most situations (unless training for a distance race, then you just have to suck it up and get the miles in).