Time off and Deconditioning

I’ve been writing this article for the past month and a half. Though I’ll base my answer in what the research says (as always); I’m also going to contribute anecdotal evidence to stimulate your thoughts and not to take everything hook-line-and-sinker just because a “researcher” says.

An interesting inquiry came in about losing conditioning and how long it takes for detraining effects actually occur. In other words, how fast do you return to an untrained state when you take time off (willingly or otherwise).

Funny it was asked because I’d just been reading up on some recent stuff on that very issue. But, this is a time I don’t agree with the conclusions or findings of the research so I’m going to give you a couple answers.

Here’s the short answer: The research seems to indicate that with TOTAL inactivity you lose almost all conditioning within a few weeks (3 or so). ANY activity maintains some conditioning and any high quality activity even as infrequent as twice a week with otherwise total inactivity seems to maintain conditioning quite well for many weeks (15 plus).

My personal experience as an athlete as well as in coaching others is that you do NOT lose total conditioning in a few weeks. From what I’ve seen, runners come back far faster than a non-runner trying to run the first time. My theory for this is simple. It is because we (experienced athletes) have the physiology, anatomical adaptations and mentality as a foundation even though reduced or dulled from a layoff; that remains elevated above Mr. Couch Potato.

For instance how many non-runners do you know who can walk out the door and run 4 miles at 7:00/mile? Yet, after months off, I did. Why? Because I have an underlying solid foundation. Am I weaker than I used to be? Absolutely. Am I still stronger than Mr. Potato? Also, absolutely. And here is the kicker: I also have the mentality to understand effort and not give in like a beginner. When I started running in high school… I couldn’t’ run 1 mile without stopping even at an 8:00 mile.

The less tangible but every bit as real difference between a deconditioned athlete and a novice athlete or even Ms. Potato is the mindset. Most athletes most of the time become accustomed to the discomfort of working out. These are commonplace experiences for athletes: sweating, breathing hard, a burning sensation in the throat, muscular burning sensations, tightness of muscles, minor tweaks felt in various muscle groups, general fatigue, working through initial muscle soreness in a warm-up, even dealing with adverse weather or challenging terrain. Yet, to a novice some of these very experiences are daunting to the psyche. Their perceptions more often than not interpret these very things far more traumatic than they are.

If you have ever coached or even observed junior high school or high school meets just watch the over-reactions to these very things. They are not experiencing anything worse than what every athlete goes through yet their reactions are quite dramatic. They walk, slow to a jog, break down in tears or quit long before the workout or race is done. Of course part of this is lack of physical conditioning. However, an experienced athlete who is detrained (according to the research) would be in a similar situation and therefore experience similar discomforts in coming back.

Let’s also acknowledge that the experience of discomfort is unique. It is our own interpretation of those sensations that makes it traumatic or just uncomfortable and something we can persevere through. And those very interpretations are effected by “having been there before.”

*******

So, yes you will lose conditioning if you are reduced to Couch Potatodom. However, you’ll also come back faster than a novice. And anything you ARE able to do during layoffs will greatly expedite your return. The latter statement is well supported in the research.

My PERSONAL rule of thumb was always two weeks of comeback for every week off. I’m evaluating how accurate it might or might not be. But I still use it for now. I would love to hear from others who have had to “detrain” for one reason or another and how long it took them to return to full condition.

So, to wrap up a long answer to a short question. I see three critical reasons for faster conditioning (or reconditioning) with a detrained experienced runner versus detrained Ms. Potato.

1. The basic anatomy (muscles, tendons, bones) has been developed far beyond a Mr./Ms. Couch Potato. Though loss of muscle mass and strength can be measured in an athlete, what remains is still better than a the Potatoes.

2. The circulatory system is developed far beyond the Mr. Potato. The blood plasma volume may in fact have decreased but the underlying anatomical improvements (larger heart, more blood vessels) remain at a level above the Potatoes.

3. The mindset of an experienced athlete is the difference that makes the difference in RE-conditioning. There may indeed be physiological markers that indicate loss of condition but in all my experience as both and athlete and coach is that it is regained FAR faster by the experienced athlete.

So, in reading about detraining research I believe a grain of salt is needed in interpreting it and generalizing it to the general public. Who was being studying? If it were a novice group trained and then detrained… perhaps the “total detraining” does happen in as short as three weeks. However, if it is elite runners, their “total detraining” is simply on another plain.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences with this.
Stay tuned for follow-up writings on this topic.

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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 - trailrunningclub.com. 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 Running-Advice.com. 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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16 Responses to Time off and Deconditioning

  1. Jim Hebert says:

    excellent blog…I know we have both experienced long bouts of time off do to injury/illness…and I couldnt agree more with your theory….The way I refer to it …the body remembers…even if you are off a long time…it doesnt forget

  2. Justine says:

    Another mental factor may be that the hurt that comes with running feels good, exciting even, when you have been unable to run for awhile, because you experience the joy of running again…you are back on the path and thrilled to be there, your injury/illness did not get the best of you. Your legs burn and you think oh yeah, feel the burn because I AM A RUNNER. Whooohooo. Regardless of how your body feels your mind remembers and feels victorious.

    For a novice runner, these same feelings elicit defeat more than joy. You aren’t returning to being a runner so much as you are trying to become one and all those aches and pains seem like boulders in your way. Your legs burn and you think oh god, I suck at running, even my legs hurt.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Justine,
    Very good observations. That interpretation of discomfort again is an issue. I agree.

  4. Mark says:

    I loved this blog. if i quit running for a week but the week before i have been running faithfully will i be able to get back into the condition i left a week ago?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Mark,
      You will lose a little bit of conditioning but probably the worst thing will be that you might feel “rusty”. Sometimes a week off can actually enhance conditioning if you have been training very hard there is a benefit to a little time off.

  5. Kristy says:

    I have experienced possibly runner burnout. My times are getting slower and slower and I feel on the verge of injury (noticing pains above knees). I am playing around with the idea of taking up to a week off, but find it difficult, running is my time away from the stress of life.

    Thanks for your above post, it has cemented the fact in my mind that time off may help me run better in the long and avoid injury.

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Kristy,
      There are unmistakable signs for burnout. And the most definitive action is backing off. It takes a lot for me to tell a runner NOT to run. I have taken on runners who have beaten themselves into the ground for months or even a few years and it is very difficult for them to back off and allow their bodies to recover.

      I want to also share with you that simple over training is different than burnout. Overtraining can be corrected with days or weeks off. Burnout is far more serious both physically and mentally. Think of it like the difference between feeling the “blues” and being “clinically depressed”.

      You do pinpoint something that is important – that running is often our escape FROM stress. Therefore, some runners become stressed about NOT running… which only adds to overall stress and then delays recovery. That means you must find outlets and alternatives to running for stress management! It also means you may need to closely monitor caloric intake since exercise is reduced.

      I wish you luck. If you need help… holler. I’ve helped many athletes in similar situations. It’s one area mental game coaches do a lot of work in – not just racing mental toughness stuff, etc.

      Drop me a line with how you’re doing.

      • Matt Carlson says:

        I randomly came across this blog and I feel that I either over trained or burnt out but I don’t know for sure. I decided to take 4 weeks off after my track season ended. I just finished week 2 and I feel like I’m getting a little chubby so I want to start running to prevent gaining any more weight but I also feel like it’s better to let my legs rest for this upcoming cross country season because I don’t want a repeat. Should I just continue my 4 week break? My legs were just really tired the whole track season, that’s why I’m taking so much time off. (I just realized that you guys were posting about 2 years ago but maybe you will get a notification saying that I posted, haha)

      • Dean Hebert says:

        Matt,
        First – I respond to all inquiries on my blog regardless of when the original post went on. 🙂
        I would not recommend a full 4 weeks off. You should be doing all forms of cross training and staying very active. You also should be modifying your diet since you are not running and active. Putting on weight makes it far more difficult to get back into it. Running is a year round sport if you want to get good. Period. However, you have to have a year round plan… a schedule that has phases so you are not running the same kinds of stuff all the time. You do have signs of over training. Get out and run. BUT, do different kinds of running – change up the paces, distances, terrain, who you run with, when you run. Do not do the same as you have done… or you will get the same results.

  6. Matt Carlson says:

    So what kind of cross training do you think I should do? And how long should I take off, because my legs are still tired. Yesterday I had to run for the first time in 2 weeks because I had to do a mile and a half test because I am going to be joining the marines and I was really tired during it and my legs are very sore today. So when should I start running if my legs are still sore and tired all the time?

  7. Dean Hebert says:

    Matt, Cycling is good but you should do interval-type workouts not just long easy rides. Use stair stepper or elliptical machines or anything for general aerobic conditioning. You can do any other cross-training that you think will improve your strength if you are getting ready for the marines. You may also try massages, whirlpool treatments etc. to help recovery.

  8. Matt Carlson says:

    What kind of interval-type workouts would you do for cycling? And when should I start running again if my legs are still sore?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      Matt,
      Use intervals just like you do with running. Be creative – use time instead of distance – hard easy hard easy hard easy. By doing them on the bike you avoid the pounding. Your body will tell you when you can run again. At some point you’ll feel fresh enough to run. Only by testing from time to time will you figure that out. There is no test that can predict this. I wish I could be of more help on that. 😦
      There are too many other things to do that can keep you in shape so don’t let “not running” become an excuse not to be strong and fit.

  9. Matt Carlson says:

    What should I do for now while I’m not running? And what should I be eating?

  10. panicsucks says:

    I’m sure I know the answer. I’m a fighter. Blew my ACL and did reconstruction last June. It’s been a year and I’m not back at it. I only workout once a week because I developed a bad case of palpitations. Everything checks out good by specislists, the rythums are called harmless but have me hardly moving.

    I’ve lost my mojo, edge as well as conditioning.

    I’m uncomfortable and clearly deconditioned based on my heart rate when climbing my stairs, which makes it all worse.

    Any advice as to how to get out of my head and back into the game?

    • Dean Hebert says:

      First, you are a great candidate for a mental games coach. Your key is to get back to focusing on what you DO control – each workout – each day. And to control only what you can control YOU, YOUR MIND, YOUR ATTITUDE… get away from focusing on future and past… and others. That is your starting point. I know it sounds simple.. but it’s not easy… if it were everyone would do it… Need help? Contact me. You can do this.. you can come back.

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