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.