It’s widely accepted that the off-season provides a crucial recovery phase for physical, psychological, and mental regeneration in athletes. But this detraining period isn’t the only time you can benefit from having a bit of a break.
Detraining is an important part of any long-term endurance running routine, even if it can sometimes lead to reduced performance levels.
Today, we’ll be analysing the surprising benefits of detraining, by taking a look at these key areas:
- The importance of proper recovery
- The latest scientific research into detraining
- How to maintain muscle strength and muscle endurance
- The potential risks of detraining
Let’s get into it.
What Happens When We Have A Break From Running?
Running every day brings both benefits and risks. But most athletes know that when they take a step away from their usual routine, it can be difficult to get back into it.
This means that even though most people are aware of the importance of proper recovery, many endurance runners will still become frustrated by how difficult it is to return to their usual routine after a prolonged break. This is particularly true in cases of injury, travel, or long-term absence for another reason.
Having a better understanding of what running does to the body, as well as what happens during recovery periods, can be a real help when it comes to transitioning between detraining and loading phases.
Having a few weeks off running may make you worried about what your performance levels will be like on return, and it’s true that you’ll likely lose some aerobic fitness. Why is that?
Let’s delve a little into the physical effects of training and detraining.
Why Do Short Breaks Have Such An Impact?
Generally, within about two weeks of inactivity, aerobic conditioning begins to noticeably decline.
The reason for this is simple; the more you train, the more efficient your lungs and heart become at giving your body fresh oxygen and blood during exercise.
Regular training also means you’ll have a better VO2 max, which refers to the highest volume of oxygen you can consume during exercise. This is considered a crucial performance indicator when it comes to measuring cardiovascular fitness and aerobic endurance.
When you take a break from exercise, both VO2 max and the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently start declining. And the longer the period of detraining is, the more significant the results are.
Research has shown that in endurance athletes, four weeks of inactivity can cause a 20% decrease in VO2. Two weeks of detraining causes significant reductions in maximal oxygen uptake, exercise time to exhaustion, and other areas of cardiorespiratory function.
Related: Post Marathon Recovery: 13 Expert Tips For A Fast Recuperation
That being said, often the mental impact of having time off is actually more damaging than the physical symptoms. Exercise routines and habits are key in maintaining motivation, and when they disappear, getting back into the right mentality can be really difficult.
But don’t be scared into never giving your body a break, because it will thank you for it. Detraining also has some important benefits — let’s take a look at them.
Related: What’s a Good VO2 Max? Average VO2 Max By Age And Sex
What are the benefits of detraining?
Okay, so a break from running can cause a drop-off in your aerobic conditioning and endurance levels. But detraining also has some positive effects.
A recent study by the European Journal of Sports Science concluded that there were some positives to be taken from experiences of detraining.
1. Maintain Muscle Endurance
Ground-breaking research into the short-term effects of detraining found that after two weeks without exercise, runners did not experience any difference in muscle endurance. While muscle strength decreased, endurance was not affected.
The level you’re at as an athlete has an impact here; more highly trained athletes are less likely to experience substantial glycolytic enzyme loss during detraining (this can reduce muscle endurance), while untrained participants are more at risk.
2. Increase Muscle Mass
The same study found that while body mass increased after a period of detraining, body fat percentage was unaffected. This suggests that a 2-week recovery period has beneficial effects on lean mass development in endurance athletes.
While a longer period of detraining (say, 5 weeks) can cause long-distance runners to experience a decrease in lean mass, a 2-week period doesn’t seem to have this impact. This evidence contradicts what many people assume will happen when they relax their routine.
3. Enhance Anabolic Hormonal Milieu
Anabolic hormones are growth hormones, with key examples including testosterone and insulin. Research suggests that short-term detraining can significantly increase anabolic hormone levels in the body, leading to enhanced muscle tissue remodelling and repair.
So basically, giving yourself adequate recovery time can improve your ability to repair and develop muscle. And while research into the optimal recovery period is ongoing, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that some level of detraining is useful.
Why do you think so many coaches and athletes advocate for several rest periods per year? Sometimes, you have to take a step back in order to achieve a proper leap forward.
How To Maintain Fitness and Endurance Levels When Injured
So, we’ve learnt that taking a couple of weeks off exercise can affect your fitness and muscle strength, but is unlikely to reduce your muscle endurance or lean mass.
But what if you’re out for longer than that? Let’s say you’ve picked up a long-term injury, and will be out for a number of weeks, or even months — how can a serious drop in fitness, muscle and endurance levels be avoided?
In this section, we’ll take a look at how athletes can utilise their recovery period in order to keep hold of the benefits of detraining, while minimizing the risk of a significant long-term performance drop-off.
5 Ways to Maintain Your Gains
Having some time away from your usual running routine isn’t the end of the world. There are a number of things you can do to maintain strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness during a period of absence due to injury.
One quick point to remember: when in recovery, one of the most crucial things you can do is make sure you give yourself enough fuel.
Often, overtraining and undereating are two sides of the same coin. So, in order to give yourself the best chance of maintaining performance levels, ensure you’re fuelling yourself properly during periods of detraining or recovery.
Here are a few specific things you can do in order to keep your fitness and strength levels up during longer detraining stints.
1. If injured, use alternative training methods such as underwater running, cycling or perhaps even rowing
2. Adopt reduced training programs to help maintain fitness and strength
3. Use strength training to help improve endurance and VO2 max
4. Eccentric training methods can help toughen tendons and muscles during recovery periods
5. Periodization can be a useful way of organising your training schedule through detraining and overload so that you peak on the day of a key event.
Just because you can’t keep up your usual endurance running routine, doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to maintain fitness, strength and endurance, and boost your long-term recovery.
Follow the suggestions above, and you’re far more likely to benefit from a period of rest. You’ll also learn plenty about your own body and the way it adapts during periods of detraining.
How Much Down Time Is Too Much?
Okay, so detraining can provide some useful benefits if adopted in a relatively short-term capacity.
As we’ve discussed, the latest research suggests that two weeks of detraining can maintain muscle endurance and increase lean mass, even if cardiopulmonary functions and muscle strength are reduced during this time.
But how much down time is too much?
Well, like most aspects of endurance training, it depends on the individual. The level at which you’re training before an injury or absence has an impact on how your body reacts during that break. Fitness levels, goals, and availability all play a role when it comes to training.
That being said, there is now plenty of scientific evidence suggesting that 2 weeks of detraining can have positive as well as potentially negative effects. Let’s quickly recap some important notes to remember when it comes to this recovery period:
- Two weeks of detraining reduces VO2 max, muscle strength and exercise time to exhaustion
- However, muscle endurance is maintained during this period
- Short detraining periods can also enhance anabolic hormonal milieu and increase lean mass
- When in recovery, fuelling yourself properly is crucial
- During detraining stints, taking up alternative training methods or eccentric training exercises can be useful in maintaining fitness, strength and endurance
If you take these suggestions on board during your break from endurance running, it’s likely you’ll come back much better prepared, and resuming your normal routine won’t seem like such a slog.
It’s crucial that you don’t let worries about performance drop-offs stop you from taking much-needed breaks from exercise.
And by the same token, if you’re forced away from your usual routine by injury, travel, work, or any other reason, it’s important to recognise that there are things you can do to maintain cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, endurance and lean mass.
We’ve covered several useful techniques in this article, but there is plenty more great information out there. For more detail on cardiopulmonary function, for example, check out our article on how to increase lung capacity for running.
And remember: giving yourself a break can be just as important as pushing yourself to the limit.
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