How fast do you lose your fitness?


After Kelly Gillen finished the JFK 50 miles in November 2016, she intentionally prepared to settle into a two-month hiatus, more or less. The long-distance race, almost twice the length of a marathon, had cost the avid runner dearly, who assumed she would be eager to start again in January. But the 38-year-old scientist, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and dog, soon realized there was a problem when she hit the pavement again after her break.

Gillen’s first race in early 2017 was surprisingly painful, leading her to seek medical attention. Multiple visits to an orthopedic surgeon, as well as two MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), revealed that Gillen’s knee discomfort was due to a loss of cartilage under his kneecaps. She had to spend months in physiotherapy and strength training before she could run again.

The involuntary downtime resulted in a loss of fitness. For years, she used running as a way to clear her head and get away from it all. But after the injury, things were different. “I had to be very aware of every step,” says Gillen. “I had to learn to run again,” she says.

She couldn’t go that fast or that far, and she couldn’t pull away because she was so focused on maintaining her form and not overdoing it. Although Gillen was thrilled to be able to run again, it took months before the movement felt as natural and effortless as before.

Whether you’ve stopped exercising due to injury or some other reason (perhaps the pandemic has put a damper on your workout routine), fitness experts say the approach Gillen’s slow and steady way to start over and regain fitness is ideal. And yes, no matter how long you take a break from exercising, getting back into it can be just as fantastic for you as it is for Gillen.

Kirk Campbell, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone, says loss of fitness is inevitable if you stop exercising for an extended period of time, regardless of your fitness level. But how quickly you lose fitness and how much you lose depends on both your personal situation and the type of fitness you’re talking about.

How fast do you lose your cardiovascular fitness?

Endurance athletes like runners, cyclists, swimmers, and dancers develop cardiovascular fitness (also called aerobic fitness or endurance) through sustained and consistent cardiovascular training.

This type of condition won’t go away in a few days, but it will diminish over time, according to Dr. Campbell. In general, he says, cardiovascular fitness begins to decline noticeably after about two weeks of being sedentary.

In a literature review published in Frontiers in Physiology in October 2020, the authors reviewed the existing evidence on “detraining”, i.e. the loss of physical fitness. Although results vary between different studies, research suggests that for endurance athletes, loss of cardiovascular fitness and endurance begins to occur after as little as 12 days without exercise.

There isn’t much evidence on how fitness continues to decline after several weeks of total inactivity, but those who are in “good cardiovascular shape will take up to a few months to completely lose everything.” [their] aerobic fitness,” says Campbell, adding that timing is relative to each individual’s abilities.

Also keep in mind that unless someone is injured, a break from regular exercise rarely means complete inactivity. In the literature review cited above, evidence suggests that the cardiovascular fitness of people who exercise regularly begins to decline significantly after about 35 days (five weeks) of occasional light exercise. So, this means that if you exercised a lot and reduced the intensity of your workouts drastically, you might also notice a decrease in your cardiovascular fitness.

How fast do you lose strength?

The loss of muscle mass, which could limit your ability to lift weights or carry groceries home, is unlikely to be significantly affected in two to three weeks, although this also depends on several factors, including the age, diet, sleep hygiene and your physical condition before taking a break, says Campbell. He points a study published in May 2020 in the International Journal of Exercise Science in which researchers found that even three weeks of detraining did not decrease muscle thickness, strength, or performance in a group of 21 adolescent male athletes.

A older study suggested that age is a huge factor when it comes to losing (or not losing) muscle strength. The researchers looked at the effects of strength training and detraining on adults in two age groups: 20 to 30 years old (18 participants) and 65 to 75 years old (23 participants). After nine weeks of resistance training, all participants increased their maximum strength in one repetition (the younger group by 34% and the older group by 28%). After 31 weeks of detraining, young adults lost only 8% of the strength they had gained, while older adults lost 14%. According to the study, loss of strength occurs more rapidly with age, although it declines much more slowly than cardiovascular fitness.

Even if you lose a bit of fitness, training breaks can be good for you

Even if you lose some fitness with training breaks, rest periods are still very important for the body – and the mind – especially after periods of strenuous training. “Recovery is important from both a physical and mental perspective,” says Campbell — it allows you to make bigger fitness gains in the long run.

Race Coach Neely Gracey, Lydiard Foundation-certified and Denver-based, says she’s always taken two weeks off at the end of each marathon season. She encourages her athletes to do the same. “Some want more time, some want less, but a run-free period to allow the body and mind to rest and reset is important,” Gracey says.

The five-time Team USA competitor says time off helps athletes avoid muscle overuse injuries, and it also helps reduce burnout, a sentiment Campbell echoes: “Taking a break from training can be beneficial [to] avoid burnout. »

However, there is a notable distinction between intentional time off (such as after an endurance event) and involuntary break in exercise (where you don’t intend to return to a routine). In other words, a short break can be beneficial to avoid burnout and injury, but taking time off shouldn’t become a long-term lifestyle choice.

Why? Returning to exercise after a long break comes with its own mental and emotional challenges.

Gillen says she struggled a lot in that department. Double-digit race logging was the norm, but after months without a race, 10 miles suddenly seemed “insurmountable”. “It’s definitely a mental thing [that was] really hard at first,” says Gillen.

3 tips to not lose fitness if you exercise less than usual

1. Keep moving throughout the day

“No matter your fitness level and how it changes throughout your journey, there are plenty of ways to fit activity into your day,” says Jeter, who suggests bodyweight exercises (not gym or required equipment), hiking or even gardening. Campbell recommends light training, including body resistance exercises that don’t lead to a high heart rate, to limit strength loss, and points out that the proliferation of fitness apps is helping with that effort. Of course, if you are taking a break due to an injury or other medical reason, it is important to clarify any activity with your doctor.

2. Don’t Underestimate Bodyweight Movements

While die-hard runners may find that strength training alone is no substitute for multi-mile runs, exercises that work core muscles and encourage flexibility are crucial if the goal is to limit loss of form. physical, says Kayla Jeter, a Chicago-based CFSC- and RRCA-certified running coach.

Campbell recommends bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, and pushups (which you can modify to do them on your knees) to limit loss of strength, and regular stretching to maintain flexibility. There are countless fitness apps and videos, many of them free, that can guide you through short bodyweight workouts.

3. Prioritize Strength Training

While taking a break from running to recover from injury, Gillen focused on strength. She worked out mostly with kettlebells, doing squats, deadlifts and swings to help strengthen her glutes and overall body. She considers her months-long hiatus from running a time well-spent, because in the end, building up her strength has made her a better runner. She now relies less on her quadriceps muscles as her glutes are activated, reducing her risk of injury. Five years later, she still incorporates kettlebells into her exercise routine.


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