Stop running – Start deconditioning?

We work so hard to attain solid physical and mental conditioning unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to lose it according to the research. Just how much time off from running before your fitness drops off?

Indeed it is well known that training does great things to your heart. Athletes develop a lower resting heart rate, their hearts beat slower during exercise, and their hearts are larger than they were before training began. This is the good kind of heart enlargement – not pathological.

Runners develop a greater blood plasma volume, which allows the heart to pump more blood with each beat. One of the first and most noticeable effects of detraining is that that plasma volume is lost. The water in your plasma is lost simply because we don’t need it. With that, you could even lose weight despite your inactivity. Ok, providing you’re not gorging yourself on every piece of food that comes along.

According to one study; two days into not running, the men lost a little more than two pounds from water weight as their plasma volume fell 8 percent.

Here’s the good news, if you keep running even a little, you can retain your blood plasma volume.

By the 4th day of non-running along with the decrease in plasma volume, enzymes are also reduced. These enzymes are those critical chemicals in our muscles that help us use oxygen and carbohydrates efficiently. After about 20 days off it is estimated that to recondition yourself it typically takes double the time to regain it. But, this is highly variable and yonger athletes will rebound faster than older ones.

When athletes stop training, the heart also pumps less blood to their muscles with each beat. Edward Coyle, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas, Austin, states that “within three months of detraining, athletes are no different in these measures than people who had been sedentary all their lives.” I question this assertion. After 8-9 months off after Achilles tendon surgery my resting pulse was still under 50 (up from the pre-surgery 36 though)! I don’t know how many sedentary without pathology have a resting pulse that low. And since I wasn’t fainting or otherwise having problems I guess the heart function itself was working ok too.

The take home lessons from researchers are these:

1. If it’s due to schedule conflicts that your training schedule is greatly reduced and you can only run sporadically – run fast intervals and other high quality runs when you do run (i.e. speedplay/Fartlek, hill repeats). It’s not the miles you run, it’s how you run the miles.

2. If you are injured and forced to take time off – return doing higher quality not long slow distance to regain your former condition faster. (We all know by now that increased miles of course causes far more injuries than quality running – so limit the miles but make them count!)

3. If you can only cross-train – perform interval like, high quality high intensity versions of your exercise on exercycles, ellipticals, aqua-running etc. It has been shown to retain conditioning effectively for as much as 6 weeks. Though you may lose some muscle-specificity other conditioning measures mentioned above can be retained. 

4. Physically sidelined does not mean mentally sidelined. This is the time to practice mental toughness, review race tactics, review and design training plans and do any cross-training or exercises. Do not let this time go to waste! Work to make yourself a better runner than ever upon your return!


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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9 Responses to Stop running – Start deconditioning?

  1. Pingback: Running Blog Carnival - Issue #2008-03 >>

  2. kdays says:

    Dean, loved your article!

    Your article was submitted to appear in the Running Blog Carnival. Issue #2008-03 came out today.


  3. jonathan says:

    Hi Dean, nice blog

    I think the mental side of it is essential – if you are an elite runner or a serious age grouper – your edge “goes” the day you miss a scheduled run

  4. Alex says:

    Dean, questions on the second point:
    “2. If you are injured and forced to take time off – return doing higher quality not long slow distance to regain your former condition faster. (We all know by now that increased miles of course causes far more injuries than quality running – so limit the miles but make them count!)”

    I didnt know that, I always assumed the hight impact of speedwork caused more injuries and LSD runs. Isnt it dangerous for someone coming back from an injury to do hills/fartleks/interval?

  5. Good question.
    If your injury is one from overuse such as shinsplints, knee pain, fasciitis, or just took the summer off because of the heat, or took the winter off because of the cold, or you are returning from your recovery period after a marathon, etc. then you absolutely should start back with higher quality and absoltuely minimize volume of running. Volume of mile is the number 2 predictor of injuries for runners – the number 1 predictor is past history of injuries.

    If you have tendonitis or a muscle pull and it is 100% healed quality is also advised but in modest amounts and paces.

    If you’re one of those runners (like so many of us) who is coming back from a muscle pull and it’s NOT 100% then of course doing a sprint would be contra-indicated. So, quality is not sprinting. Sprinting is ONE speed which is within the definition of quailty.

    So, one thing that wasn’t stated is that general “quality” running on a track with reps is ideally done at about your 5k pace. THAT pace should not be too much for anyone coming back. What you do is moderate the quantity of reps and refrain from “blasting” one good one at the end (as an example).

    It is very antiquated thinking advocating long slow miles in a comeback. Quality is where it’s at.

  6. George Z says:

    One possible way to get in the quality but at an intensity that might be less damaging: hills. Doing hill repeats could stress the system similar to quality efforts, but at a lower level of muscular stress (although it may not feel like it).

  7. George,
    You’re right, hills are indeed one form of quality running. The big consideration is the nature of the injury you are coming back from. Hills are extremely tough on the body. For instance, Achilles tendon issues would be contraindicate doing hills. Also hills are tough on ligaments and joints so just jumping into them after time off would not be the wisest. On the other hand, if you’re just on a limited schedule, it’s a great tough workout (very hard on muscles – it really does stress them) and you don’t need as many miles.
    Coach Dean

  8. jsl says:

    I am out for at least four weeks due to broken ribs and punctured lung (bike accident). I was in the best shape of my life before the injury (ironman training). No more tri’s for a while (off-season), but have a big running race coming in early January (Goofey, 1/2 marathon followed by full marathon). I’m worried about what the 4, and maybe more weeks will do to me and what I can do. I will get on the stationary bike as soon as I am able (and it won’t cause my heeling to suffer), and want to do whatever I can to get back up to speed as soon as I can, after some forced (and probably badly needed) rest. Thanks.

  9. Dean Hebert says:

    If your Dr. is allowing you to exercise.. and heavy breathing is NOT an issue then interval training on an stationary cycle is great as is aqua-running (see my posts on this). But, your key to maintaining conditioning is high intensity intervals. It’s been shown to be better at retaining what you have gained in conditioning when faced with time off. Aqua-running specifically has been shown quite conclusively to retain conditioning for 6-8 weeks in some studies! But, again.. interval type sessions… not passive easy steady state workouts.

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