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Losses Happen Faster than Gains: A Briefing on Detraining

It is no secret, the New Year is synonymous with hope and motivation to build a better self. Read more books, spend more time with family, get in better shape, etc. Come mid-February, motivation starts weaning off and old habits come back knocking. Busyness is used as an excuse to skip the gym and all the momentum the turn of the year kick-started is exhausted. In more unfortunate situations, an injury can force the athlete to take time off to heal and rehabilitate. In these two instances, sport-specific training comes to a halt and so does the development of skills that ensure progress and keep performance levels high. The question then becomes “how much time off can I take before I actually start losing what I worked so hard for?” According to science, the old adage of "if you don’t use it you lose it" stands confirmed. But to what extent?

According to Edward Coyle, researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, twelve days of detraining requires 36 days of retraining to return to the same levels prior to taken time off. In his estimation, it then takes three-fold the time to build as it takes to break down.

Being the magnificent adaptation machine that it is, the body responds quickly to changes occurring in its environment. Therefore, if there is no demand to be met energetically, energy will gladly and rapidly be used to perform some other function or be stored away. Mitochondria, which are responsible for energy production within each individual cell, cease to produce the protein necessary for ATP synthesis, therefore decreasing the available fuel for the different muscle fibers to accomplish their task.

This phenomenon is felt two ways. First, the heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood throughout the body. According to Coyle, the effects are visible AND measurable after only 12 days off of training. His research in highly trained runners, cyclists and power lifters showed that the production of the enzymes responsible for endurance decreased by as much as 50%, causing a 7% drop in VO2 max (rate of oxygen consumption). Second, decreases in strength become visible after 3-5 weeks of inactivity in athletes that have been training for at least a year. Exercise newbies lose their hard-earned gains at an even faster rate if they do not maintain their newly acquired good habits of exercising on a regular basis.

Interestingly enough, whichever type of muscle fibers used to perform a specific sport is going to be the type that shows the most lost after a 2-week period of inactivity. As a result, if you are a power-lifter or a sprinter, you will lose strength specifically in your fast-twitch muscle fibers. Long distance runners and swimmers will lose theirs in slow-twitch fibers. The body is excellent at meeting specific demands and gaining expertise at a certain activity. Withdraw from that demand and it detrains to being more of a jack-of-all-trades than an expert.

If you are a serious athlete and strive to perform up to your abilities, you are probably already wondering what can be done to prevent such losses from happening.

The solution is simple. In fact, you already know it. You won’t like it if you want time off.

Keep training! Or cross-train. Repeating the same exercises and drills over and over again can become boring, we get it. While focusing on one sport can be beneficial, a majority (75%) of professional athletes played multiple sports in their youth before they had to settle on one. Carve in some time to try your hand at different activities that get your heart rate up and get you moving in a fun and engaging fashion. Also, do not hesitate to ask for guidance from one of the dynamic and innovative enterprises in the Lehigh Valley (barre3, Anti-Gravity Yoga, Forward Thinking Fitness, etc.).

The same goes for injured athletes. Always listen to your health care practitioner’s recommendations about what you should do or not do, and ask questions about ways to keep the healthy body parts moving while rehabilitating.

Your overall performance upon return will be increased and you will be thankful you won’t have to play catch up to regain your pre-injury fitness levels.