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!