Now that summer (and its sweltering heat) has peaked and quarantine bans are slowly lifting in select cities and regions, many are finding it more challenging than ever to get motivated to work out, myself included. With socially distant outdoor happy hours, hikes, and beach days available for the booking, everything I missed during quarantine is slowly coming back to me — and I have the tan lines to prove it. And, in the fitness world, there's a word for these prolonged fitness breaks: Detraining. But, what is it exactly? And, more importantly, how does one bounce back?
To be clear, periods of rest can actually be beneficial for an individual who's been consistent about exercise and then begins easing up for a season. “A 'deload' [happens] after you push yourself to the absolute limit," explains Cameron Yuen, Physical Therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. "Your body is almost overtrained and bordering on injury, and you get a super-compensation effect. You then take a week off focusing on recovery and nutrition, and come back stronger the week after.”
It's when these recovery breaks drag on for extended periods of time that the state of detraining sets in. According to fitness content platform SimpliFaster, detraining can be described as "stopping or markedly reducing physical training, thus leading to an induction and a partial or complete reversal of adaptations earned from training."
So when does the time-off period start to work against you and result in the loss of adaptations, known as detraining? “Detraining effects can be seen as quickly as two weeks, but three to four weeks is when it really becomes apparent,” says Yuen. “Muscle mass can be lost fairly quickly, while aerobic adaptations can be held for a bit longer. [...] Your body literally becomes weaker with detraining. There are anatomical changes including a loss of muscle mass and bone density.”
There's also the matter of jumping back into your routine full-force after detraining, which can be bad for the body and even lead to injury. "If you were to jump back into training at the level of intensity [you were at before], there's a chance you would get injured from the decreased tissue health and capacity," explains Yuen.
Detraining: How To Bounce Back
What about those for whom life got in the way this summer, resulting in their regular fitness and training to fall by the wayside? First of all, don’t stress. Instead, use this opportunity to kickstart a new routine — but take it slow. “Start at a much lower level than you think," says Yuen. "It isn't just your muscles that have to adapt. Other structures like your bones and tendons take much longer to recover and don't adapt as fast. Start with slow strength exercises before progressing to higher intensity plyometrics, for example.”
As you work in a new routine, ensure you make time for recovery and set realistic expectations. “Anytime you introduce a new movement or restart a familiar movement your nervous system has to reorganize how it fires and controls muscles," Yuen explains. “Muscle soreness will likely last a few days [initially], which will limit the intensity of training that can be performed.”
And how long before you're back to your old, fitness-minded self? That all depends on your body and the amount of time you've been in a rested state. “In general, the shorter the period of detraining, the quicker you can recover," says Yuen.
All that said, don’t let the fear of detraining pull you away from giving your mind and body the rest it needs right now. Instead enjoy socially distanced actives, reunions with friends and family, and allow yourself the time to feel emotional fulfilled.
If you feel you have lost track of your routine and may be in a detrained state, consider the help of a professional to help jumpstart things again, “Physical therapists are so helpful for athletes and gym-goers,” says Yuen. "They can help prevent the detraining effects through appropriate programming.”