By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
You’re working hard to compete successfully in your sport, or you’re working out regularly to stay fit. And every once in a while you’ll need to take time off from training. Maybe you’ve had an overuse injury and are taking time off to heal, or various life events invade your workout plans.
Many folks fret about the time off, feeling that they’ll rapidly lose all of those hard earned gains. How many days or weeks can you miss and still keep your level of fitness? It turns out that for most healthy adults in their 20s and 30s you can take 2 to 3 weeks off and still retain most of your strength and cardiovascular fitness. The amount of time off can be even longer if you are a teenager, and unfortunately it’s shorter if you are an older active adult.
Time And Age Variables
Taking short periods of time off such as a few days or perhaps up to a week seem to have little if any effect on your overall level of fitness. This seems to be true across a wide range of ages. However, differences do start to appear if you take longer than a week off. Younger people are better able to absorb the longer periods of time off with less decrease in fitness, and unfortunately older adults are more susceptible to the time off and will show larger decreases in their fitness level.
Aerobic Fitness: Two Weeks Time Off Is Generally OK
Loss of aerobic fitness has been studied extensively, especially in adults in their 30s. In this study of recreational marathon runners, significant reductions in cardiovascular fitness were noted at four weeks after detraining, and substantially more pronounced after eight weeks of detraining. Another study conducted several years ago shows results that have held up to this day, namely that time off from training out to about two weeks is fairly well tolerated, but after two weeks there are reductions in cardiovascular fitness. These authors found that the reason was principally do to a reduction in blood plasma volume.
Strength: Maintained Up To Three Weeks Off
Whether strength can be maintained after periods of time off is an area of some controversy. Competitive weightlifters often claim that even a few days off will result in noticeable decreases in their strength. Studies of recreational and professional athletes who are not weightlifters, however, have shown that time off up to three weeks is well tolerated.
In addition to differences based upon age ranges, there are also differences based upon levels of training experience. The loss in strength and cardiovascular fitness are more pronounced in individuals who are new to training as compared to individuals who have trained consistently for many years.
Life events happen and every one of us will have to take some time off from our exercise and training routines. This can be a very good thing in terms of recovery and recharging yourself. If it’s happened for an unplanned or unexpected reason, know that you’ve got more time than you may have thought before your fitness really drops off.