I listened to an interesting podcast this week regarding detraining and getting fitness back after a break. I think most runners will know that a day or two missed here and there is not likely to affect their fitness or training in any way. But for beginners who are strictly sticking to a training plan, I just want to reiterate that a missed session is not so much of an issue, and that you should not go out on subsequent days trying to chase those missed miles. Just mark it down as a missed session and move on with your plan as normal.

So, what about missing more than just a day or two? This is what I found out this week, listening to the Runners Connect podcast…

A study was carried out based on the V02 max levels of runners both before and after taking a break. For those unfamiliar with V02 max, it is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can utilise during intense exercise (Very Well Fit). It effectively puts a value on the aerobic endurance of the individual. The higher the value, the higher the endurance, the faster you can run.

Many watches now offer an estimation of your V02 max based on the workouts that it logs, but an estimation is all it is and it really should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, sitting here now, my watch suggests that my V02 max is 52 (mL/kg/min), which equates to a 5k race prediction of 19:17. Way off, it’s probably closer to 45 (V02 max that is, not predicted 5k time). The only way to accurately measure your V02 max is via a controlled lab assessment, which is exactly what took place in this study.

The results found that there was “very little” loss in V02 max during the first 10 days of inactivity, for “well trained athletes.” After two weeks of inactivity, an average 6% loss was measured, with a 19% drop after nine weeks. A 25.7% loss from the pre-break V02 max was measured after 11 weeks of inactivity.

Breaking this down into race terms, a 20 minute 5k runner would have an estimated V02 max of 49.8. A 6% loss after two weeks would mean they would now be slightly slower than 21 minutes. After nine weeks, their 5k time would be an estimated 24 minutes. After 11 weeks, the original 20 minute 5k runner would now be in 25:30 shape. All estimations of course.

In general, the research shows that it takes roughly the same amount of time (once back solidly training) to regain what was lost, as the time it took to lose it. So after nine weeks out, and a 19% drop in V02 max, it would take nine weeks to get back to your pre-break condition.

There are plenty of caveats thrown in with the research. For example, those tested were “fairly experienced runners,” whatever that really means?! Beginner runners would experience a slightly faster drop off. Also, as most of us already know, cross training whilst out injured, such as cycling, swimming or rowing, would reduce the drop off and could almost prevent it entirely if the same intensity was maintained.

The main point that I took from this is that a week off to rest a tight muscle or a niggling issue is far better than pushing through, sticking to the plan and risking an injury, as little to no loss in performance was detected in anything up to two weeks. Following on from this, one main point that I would like to make is regarding returning after an injury. Please, please take it easy and ensure that you do return to fitness. I’ve seen runners returning after injury and pushing hard straight away afterwards, thinking that they can still run at the same pace as pre-injury. It’s important to ease back in and ensure that the injury has fully healed before pushing on in search of improved times.

Many thanks to Runners Connect for the information. I do recommend their podcast if you are not already a subscriber.

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