By D.C. Lucchesi
You’ve trained your guts out for months. You’re out on the streets before the paper hits the driveway—and sometimes even in bed before your kids. Your neighborhood association has left you little love notes in your mailbox about the condition of your lawn, but you’ve devoted weekends to epic bike rides and long runs, not landscaping. Or maybe you’ve finally gotten into that workout routine you promised yourself you’d stick to. You’re looking and feeling as fit as you’ve been in years—and folks are noticing.
Then it happens: a huge project at work, vacation, the flu, a family emergency, or just life in general. The cosmos somehow conspires to throw a loop into your training plans. Now you’re off the workout wagon like Otis Campbell, wondering just how long it’ll take before your hard-earned fitness all turns to flab. Well, friends, that answer contains a few variables. But the good news is that even the slightest bit of maintenance can keep you from falling all the way back to square one.
Use It or Lose It
How quickly you lose fitness depends on several factors including your current level of fitness, how long you have been exercising and the duration of the layoff, says coach, endurance athlete, and running shop owner J. Russell Gill. When you stop working out for whatever reason, you’re going to lose strength and some aerobic fitness—it’s one of the basic principles of conditioning; when you don’t exercise, you lose fitness. But if you’re in better condition at the start of the layoff, the decline or “de-conditioning” won’t be as dramatic. Regular exercise, even when you’re not in a training cycle preparing for a specific event, can slow that decline even further.
Deconditioning in fit athletes doesn’t happen overnight, contends Gill, who coaches endurance athletes all over the country online. “I have worked with many well-conditioned athletes who had been training regularly for a year, who stopped exercising entirely for up to three months and only lost about half of their aerobic conditioning.”
The news isn’t so good for folks just getting off the couch or without a solid base of aerobic or strength conditioning from which to draw. If you’re new to an exercise regimen or training program, you don’t have as far to fall before you hit bottom. Some studies have shown that an eight-week exercise program followed by a layoff of the same length will leave you with little to show for your hard-earned fitness.
Which Lasts Longer? Strength or Cardio?
Cardiovascular fitness is harder to earn but stays with you longer, says coach and ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen. Smith-Batchen is the first woman to have won the Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley, among other ultra-accomplishments. She’s returning from her own layoff, recovering from a broken foot after this summer’s 2,500-mile cross-country charity run.
“You may drop some speed (after a layoff),” says Smith-Batchen, “but our bodies are so smart they know how to hold on to some of that fitness.” Muscle mass, which equates to strength and speed, will slip first during a layoff because those muscle fibers need to be exercised regularly in order to maintain their level of conditioning.
But what about multisport athletes? Muscle memory plays a big part here, says Smith-Batchen. So does the specificity of your training. If you want to become better at a particular exercise or skill, you’ve got to practice that exercise or skill. A runner should train by running, a swimmer by swimming, and a cyclist by cycling. So if your particular strength is swimming, and you’ve devoted the bulk of your training time to the pool, you’ll likely see less decline in your stroke after a layoff. On the flip side, that same well-trained swimmer who swims occasionally will likely see the biggest losses at the track.
What’s the Fix?
As the saying goes, individual results may vary, and that same rule applies here. Individual fitness is just that, individual. Since we’re all different, each of us will respond in our own unique way to the level of exercise or the lack thereof. So while your training partner may bounce back from illness or injury without seemingly losing a step, you may require a more lengthy recovery period. Gill’s advice: Try not to stop exercising all together—at least not for long periods of time. Says Smith-Batchen, if your time is limited, focus on the quality of the workout in order to keep yourself sharp and fit. “I don’t think you ever fully erase your fitness,” adds Smith-Batchen; “drive and determination play a big part.” In other words, if you want to say fit, you’ll find a way.
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