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August 24, 2014

Returning to prior level of fitness isn’t an easy task

At one time or another, almost everyone has had a reason to “make a comeback” to something. For fitness enthusiasts and runners, there have been periods of time when training has stopped.

The reason for stopping training might be for an injury, going on an extended vacation, or just suddenly losing the motivation to work out. In any event, there will come a time when the person realizes that they need to get back to training and will start running and exercising. This is when they try to “make a comeback.”

An article in the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter had some interesting facts about the effect on athletes who stop training for a period of time. The problem is that when a person stops training, or running, the body begins to detrain, or become deconditioned, and will start to lose fitness.

As I talk with people who have stopped running or exercising for a period of time, it seems the point they all make is how fast they got out of shape after stopping. It took them several months, or even years, to get in shape; and then after only a short time it seems they were back to square one.

How fast you lose fitness depends on several things. It depends on how fit you were when you stopped; how long you had been exercising, and what type of exercise you were doing and at what level you were when you stopped.

When a person stops training, the body reacts physiologically to the new regime of inactivity. The heart loses its ability to pump blood more efficiently; the muscles do not process oxygen as well to keep working hard; and improvements in blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels start to disappear.

In strength training, the muscles start to lose muscle fiber size. Studies have shown that even two weeks of inactivity can lead to a significant decline in cardio fitness. After two to eight months, almost all fitness levels are lost that you had worked so hard for. It seems that cardio fitness is lost more rapidly than muscle strength fitness.

Athletes who were at a high level of fitness, and had trained hard for a number of years, experience a more gradual decline compared to people who are considered beginners in exercise. People who were at a high level of fitness may lose about half of their fitness after three months; where a beginner will lose all of their fitness after three months.

The key to making that comeback easier and less difficult is to not completely stop all exercise, but to try to maintain some form of exercise - even in small amounts - rather than to become completely sedentary.

Working out one day a week will slow down the effects of detraining. For strength training, try to make the workout with near maximum weight for that one day. For running, try to get in a nice easy long run (or do some speed training if lack of time is a factor) to keep the level of fitness up. If the break in training is because of an injury that prevents you from doing the type of workout that you normally do, a modified program working other muscles can be of benefit.

If a leg injury is the type that prevents you from putting weight on the foot, you can help by switching to riding a bicycle; or swimming can be a good substitute. If one arm is injured, you can still work out with the opposite arm; and because of the body’s ability to transfer some of that effort to the injured arm, it won’t lose all of its strength. The same is true for an injured leg, by working out the non-injured leg.

Since almost all of us will have to make some sort of “comeback” sometime in our lives with regard to fitness, a few simple steps can make the amount of time it takes to regain that point of fitness a lot shorter. It just makes it easier if you don’t have to start from the very beginning again.

Moe Johnson
Dr. Maurice Johnson - better known around San Marcos as “Moe” - is a professor in the Department of Health, P.E., Recreation and Dance at Texas State University - San Marcos. Moe has been a fixture in the San Marcos running community - both as a runner and race organizer - since way back when Moby Dick was a minnow. His column on running and fitness appears each Sunday in the Sports section of the San Marcos Daily Record.

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