• Kerry Sutton

The Truth About Detraining


As the threat of Covid-19 tightens its grip on the world, training may seem like the last thing on your mind. Yet, as many countries enter stricter lockdowns the imminent loss of fitness and strength can be a major worry for many athletes and even more casual runners. Years of consistent work, gone in just a few short trail-less months.


Just how fast do we lose those fitness gains? And is there anything we can do to prevent it? This post digs into the details of these questions and will hopefully encourage you that all is not lost!


Detraining | How bad is it?


When it comes to fitness and strength, it’s true that if you don’t use it, you lose it. But it may not be as fast as you think.


Whilst the exact size and speed of loss depends on many factors, the initial fitness loss soon plateaus. It’s almost impossible to lose as much as you initially gained, so you won’t be going back to zero—a past training history earns you some buffer: essentially a higher baseline fitness.


What’s more, by maintaining just a small amount of training, we can reduce these losses significantly.


Maintenance | Reducing detraining


A little for a lot

Whilst improvement requires a pretty hefty dose of training that increases week on week, to maintain fitness doesn’t need nearly as much: just the odd nudge to remind the body that the demand for fitness is still there. Small volumes of regular exercise can reduce or even prevent loses entirely.


To put some numbers to it, research seems to suggest that even managing as little as 20% of our previous training can cut fitness losses by half. That means that if you normally run 5 times a week, just one weekly session can halve your fitness decline. In one amazing study involving a 60-day strict bed rest, just three minutes of hopping a day maintained leg strength and lean muscle mass almost entirely!


The take-away point is that doing just a little can reduce losses by a lot, and even just a portion of your standard training can actually maintain current strength and fitness.

This is where specificity comes in once again. If you plan carefully, a little training will go even further.


Obviously if you’re no longer doing longer runs, your endurance capacity will decrease. And cutting a long run by 80% just won’t give the same training stimulus. On the other hand, a shortened high intensity session will provide much the same adaptation as the original. So be smart and focus on what you can maintain in the current situation. If you’re not prepared to run a thousand laps of your garden then you’re probably best focusing on the higher intensity stuff! As a general rule endurance withstands detraining better anyway.


Equally, strength can be easily maintained on a reduced schedule. In fact, research shows that by ensuring we go to exhaustion (muscular failure), volume can be significantly reduced whilst still maintaining strength. Remember though, specificity is still king, and as runners we want to focus on high repetitions with low loads for muscular endurance. Get on those legs and core!


We also don’t want to add in too much new stresses to our training. If you’ve never done high intensity work or strength training then build into it slowly, or you’ll be on the road to injury and overtraining.


Retraining | The great return


As with detraining, the amount of time it takes to return to full fitness after a break depends on many factors. However, be reassured that getting your fitness back might be quicker than you think.


In fact, for strength specifically, studies seem to suggest that retraining happens about twice as fast as detraining (i.e. after a 6-week break, fitness can typically be regained in about 3 weeks), and even after a much longer break, it rarely takes more than 6 weeks to regain, or even surpass previous levels of strength.


Now of course, that doesn't necessarily apply directly to cardiovascular fitness, but rest assured that if you had a reasonable base of fitness before the detraining, there's no reason why you can't make it back in good time, especially if you've been doing a little to slow the loss!


In summary retraining speed depends on: – Background factors (e.g. training history, age, fitness, genetics, etc.) – How long you’ve been off (the shorter the detraining period, the faster the return) – What training you have done (the less you drop training volume, the faster the return)

Basically, what you do in lockdown is critical to how fast and easily you’ll return to fitness.


It’s important though to realise that you can’t just jump straight back into where you left off, you need to transition back into training gently and build it back up. Otherwise injury or illness will mean an even longer break!


Lockdown | Surviving and thriving


For many of us, training, or rather running itself, is a central part of life, both mentally and physically. To have that taken away can be quite a blow. More than anything, now is the time to think positively, and focus on what you can do to keep yourself and your running in a good place. Set appropriate goals, focus on the little things you can control like diet, routine and staying active, and both your fitness and general wellbeing will thank you for it.


Also, don’t overlook the opportunities that lockdown presents. If you’ve been consistently training for some time, then a rest may actually be of massive benefit, and you may find that your capacity to train and perform skyrockets once the time comes to train in earnest again.

Lockdown can offer you the opportunity to focus on a more holistic wellbeing, or to finally start working on that aspect of technique or strength imbalance that you’ve never got around to.


It’s also worth considering the sensibility of continuing to train hard. It’s a proven fact that intense training lowers the immune system, and right now you want that firing on all cylinders. Retraining after a serious illness is a whole different ballgame, and far more frustrating! So consider the trade-off between immunity and training. Now may not be the time for huge long runs or maximal sprints around your garden! Focus rather on maintenance than progression: keep the house clean and fix cracks rather than building a new extension.


Further Information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByD9HjJL554

"You only need to spend a few minutes with Kerry to feel how passionate and dedicated she is to sport and running in particular. Her ultra marathon successes are an inspiration. I’d be happy to recommend her".
Sharron Davis - MBE, Olympic Medalist

If you're keen to push your boundaries, get in touch.

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