While on vacation or a business trip do you have a little voice in your head that says ‘you need to be working out, you’re going to get weak, person x is going to beat you in the WOD’s when you get back, just look at yourself you big fatty’. It's no surprise as we work so hard in the box to see improvements and often after a vacation the first workout back is the workout from hell. This blog is hopefully going to put that little voice at ease.
When we train (depending on the type of training) our bodies make adaptations/changes; if training is regular and over a long period of time these changes are called ‘chronic adaptations’ and they will remain permanent as long as you continue. Some of the amazing changes that occur include the walls of the heart becoming thicker and stronger and one of the chambers becoming larger (which means we can pump more blood and therefore oxygen around the body), we can increase blood volume by up to 1L….1L, and we have hypertrophy of the muscles (which means an increase in muscle fibres and therefore strength and power). There are so many adaptations which occur and a whole blog could be dedicate to it, however, what I want to focus on is, ‘what happens when we stop training?’, ‘how quickly do we lose these adaptations?’ and ‘how long does it take to get them back?’.
The term that is used when we ‘lose our gainz’ is called ‘reversibility or detraining’, there are a number of reasons that people stop training, it could just be for a few weeks holidays over the summer, an injury, ill health or a break from training, which many elite athletes do.
There is good news and bad news….. everyone wants the bad first…..
The bad news is; adaptations are reversed a lot quicker than it takes to accumulate them!!!
The good news; there is usually a rapid return to pre-training levels once you start training again.
To give you an example of how quickly adaptations are reversed I’ll use a long distance runner; if a marathon runner was to stop training altogether in less than three weeks they would decrease their VO2max by 8% and a further 10% between 3-12 weeks. VO2max refers to our bodies ability to use and transport oxygen. This is a significant decrease.
When you stop training the body starts to make physiological changes; your heart doesn’t beat as efficiently, your muscles don’t process oxygen as quickly and your body doesn’t use carbohydrates as a fuel as well. More significantly, if you are exercising for health reasons and not just to be ‘fitter’, you can also lose the improvements you had in blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Obviously the amount at which the body experiences detraining depends on a number of factors; age, how ‘fit’ you are, how long you have been exercising and what type of exercise you were doing are just a few. For example, young athletes who have been training intensely and for a long period of time will experience a more gradual decline. There was a study that showed when elite cyclists, runners and swimmers stopped all exercise they lost on average only half of their aerobic gains in three months, compared to sedentary (usually do nothing) people who did a two month cycling and running programme lost all of their gains in two months.
So, is there a difference between endurance adaptations and strength adaptations?
As mentioned earlier, just two weeks of no training can decrease any endurance gains which you have made, some studies have even shown that 8 weeks of no training can lead to virtually all gains lost. This is however different to strength adaptations as they do not decline as rapidly. In the first 2 weeks of detraining there are very limited effects; in one study done with weightlifters they showed non-significant reductions in bench press and back squats after a two week break. One study even showed that 4 weeks away from training had little effect on strength. However, some research shows that after 4 weeks of no training you could lose 10% of your strength.
What about skills? We have spent months and even years learning how to do double unders and kipping pull ups, do they get ‘lost’?
The answer is no… yay, some good news! The concept of reversibility does not apply to skill development, as once a skill is learned it is never forgotten. As mentioned in an earlier blog, the brain makes ‘motor programmes’ which store the execution of skills. Coordination appears to remain stored in the long term memory and remains there for decades.
So, now the most important question, if I have to stop CrossFit because I am going away to Africa and it is near impossible to find a box, is there anything I can do to stop a rapid decline in losing my gainz??
Many elite athletes have an ‘off season’ block in their training; I guarantee the majority of the olympic athletes will now be having a ‘break’ from training as they have been working their ‘asses’ off for months. You could even see on Instagram and Facebook that many of the CrossFit athletes after the Games took a week or two off and went on a holiday. During these ‘blocks’ athletes will usually undergo what is called a ‘maintenance’ routine where they train with a reduced load two or three times per week in an effort to avoid detraining and loss of fitness.
The key is INTENSITY, studies have shown that if you were to do one or two sessions a week of high intensity exercise you would maintain your fitness level. So, when in Africa you could do a 12min AMRAP of 10 Push Ups, 10 Sit Ups and 10 Burpees with a high intensity and keep those gainz. Yeah, you might feel a little rusty picking up a bar or jumping onto the rig after two or three weeks away, but the chronic adaptations which you worked so hard for would not be lost.
One study showed that if intensity of training is unchanged that VO2max is maintained for almost 4months when frequency and duration of training were reduced by as much as ⅔, however, on the flip side when frequency and duration were kept the same but intensity was reduced there was a significant decrease in VO2max.
So, in summary, when you have to stop training do one to two sessions of high intensity exercise a week to keep your well earned chronic adaptations. Therefore, don’t stress about finding a box and training everyday when on holiday, lie back and relax and we will see you in the box soon :)
.....but I probably should've eaten all that ice-cream.