Is there a general formula for 'detraining' that we could subscribe to? I ask because I travel frequently for work. While I always attempt to fit in workouts of one sort or another, it’s not always possible. So, I try to plan my rest days and or easy weeks around this fact. But, I'd like to know where rest is no longer helpful, but actually becomes detrimental (i.e. detraining).
You are 100% correct that athletes will all differ on how much fitness they lose. How quickly you lose fitness depends on how fit you are, how long you have been training, and how long you stop.
There have been a few studies done on detraining. One group were exercisers that have been training for one year and then were told to stop training for three months. These athletes lost about 50% of their fitness. People who were newer to exercise had it much worse off. In this study the new exercisers were started on an exercise program for two months and then told to stop exercising for two months. These people made huge aerobic gains during the two months of training, but when they were re-tested after the two months off, it was apparent that they lost almost all of their fitness gains! Recently there have been studies done to see what decreasing one’s fitness level does to training in terms of detraining. So far, the initial results have shown that cutting back on training doesn’t have that much of a dramatic effect on losing fitness as does stopping altogether. One study had sedentary men strength train three times per week for three months, and then cut them back to one time per week for three months, and there was almost no loss in strength whatsoever.
There are many factors that go into figuring out detraining, and each individual situation is different. The bottom line is that if you can maintain some type of fitness over the time periods when you are less able to train, you will be able to maintain fitness. This past summer I raced my first A race in late June and then five days later I left the country for a three-week trip. I wouldn’t have my bike or access to a pool for that time. I took my running shoes and I ended up running about three times per week for around 20 minutes to one hour—this was as much as I wanted to do, and as much as I could do. At least one of those days I threw in some harder efforts and pushed my HR and breathing levels up, but nothing was structured about my workouts, I just went out and ran. When I got back, I was in decent shape and three weeks later I had some of my best racing of the season.
For you, if you are in a peak or high volume week and you have to travel the next week, I would still try to get out there and run once or twice if you can. It’s the easiest thing to do—most hotels have treadmills, and no matter where you are in the world, you can run for 20 minutes somewhere. I would avoid not exercising for more than two days in a row. That is my personal rule of thumb.
Other ideas to maintain fitness and strength while away include creating a “Daily 7” for yourself: What I do sometimes is to just go through my routine of exercises, and it may take about 15-20 minutes. An example would be push-ups, sit-ups, leg lifts, standing squats (one leg or two), leg circles, bicycles, dips etc. You can make up your own “Daily 7” and you can make it into a circuit or do sets, whatever makes it challenging and fun for you. Doing something is certainly better than nothing, and we can all find 10-15 minutes to get some workout in each day. I think if you do this you will see less loss in terms of losing fitness, and you won’t feel like you are starting from scratch once you get back to your regular routine.
When you do take time off, it usually takes about as long as the time you took off to get back that fitness. So, if you take one month off, then it might take you a month to get back to where you were before you took the time off. So, be smart about your training, don’t let the fitness slide too much and get out there and do something while you can—even if it’s something as simple as running three times per week for ten minutes. Something is better than nothing, as we can see from the studies – so don’t let all that hard work you have done go to waste! Keep up the training!