Working out is a grind and it takes a while before you can start seeing some noticeable changes. You continue to push through because those noticeable changes feel amazing and often continues to drive you to see further results. But we can’t be in the gym all the time. Even the most dedicated gym rat’s routine can be derailed over the holidays. But how much time off from the gym before I start losing my progress? Does it matter if I'm a runner or a lifter? How should I adjust my nutrition?
Dr. Tony Boutagy, director of Boutagy Fitness Institute, adjunct professor at the University of Sunshine Coast in Australia, and author, notes that benefits from a workout only last up to 48 hours after the last workout. No benefits survive past the 48-hour mark and in fact, you start the “deconditioning effect”. Nigel Stepto, associate professor in exercise physiology at Victoria University, found that if you rest for 7 days you could lose up to half your fitness level and no one is immune. His research showed it didn’t matter if you were a marathon runner or someone who just walks; half of your fitness benefits are reduced with just one week off. However, he did note that the marathon runner would still be much more trained than the walker because they were more fit from the beginning. But, the week off will still be detrimental to both groups and would be half as fit than when they started.
Who takes the biggest hit?
Research shows time off has the greatest negative impact on your cardiovascular fitness or aerobic fitness. Simply put, aerobic fitness is your body’s ability to use oxygen from the atmosphere and transport it to your muscles cells where it is used to produce energy for movement. The more often and the harder you work this system, the more efficient your body can become at processing and transporting oxygen to your muscles. When you neglect to work your aerobic fitness your muscles become deconditioned and your heart has to work harder in order to get blood to them. Dr. Stepto writes “ the [deconditioned muscles] require extra fuel because they have had a reduction in some of the important proteins in the energy-producing pathways and components of the muscle tissue”. The result is a higher demand for blood to bring oxygen to these areas and to remove waste products like carbon dioxide. This demand is much higher than before even when performing the same exact same tasks before your extended fitness break.
What about Muscle and Strength?
Yes and Yes! Dr. Boutagy found that you will lose the cross-sectional surface area of your type 2 muscle fibers. A 7-10% strength loss can be expected within two weeks of not training. The impact is much worse if you neglect training for longer. If go without training for 3 months, 70% of adaptations gained through training can be lost. Boutagy notes that doing some movement and light exercise can help prevent that enormous muscle strength loss. Other studies found athlete’s muscles showed significantly lower loss during the same period of time. The more trained the muscle the better, studies showed smaller rates of loss during extended periods of time off from the gym.
Getting Back Started After the Holidays
The further you are from your goal, the more results you could see within the first 12 weeks. Boutagy reports beginners or those getting started again can almost double their strength within the first 12 weeks. As far as cardio, studies found interval training can be a great start to increase your VO2 Max by 20-30% within the 12-week window. Beginners just need to get a schedule and start moving, no matter what type of exercise regimen. Even walking can be a benefit, just start small, walk 20-30 minutes a day, 3x a week, and gradually build from there. The most important thing is you just move.
What do I eat?
If you know you are going to be taking time off from the gym, you will naturally need fewer calories since you aren’t expending the extra calories at the gym thus, you don’t need to ingest as many throughout the day. But, that doesn’t mean you should totally restrict calories either. Finding a happy medium where you are meeting your body’s needs and not depriving yourself is important. A dietitian can help you find how many calories you would need to fit your routine during training and rest days.
Type of calories
The quality of calorie will also be important. If you are doing less training and you are trying to maintain weight during your hiatus from the gym, dial back your carbohydrate intake but don’t eliminate. Carbohydrates are processed as glucose (sugar) in the body for energy and if they aren’t used they can be stored in the body as fat. So when you’re not training, decrease the number of carbohydrates in order to avoid the extra fat storage. That doesn’t mean “eat zero carbohydrates” or “carbohydrates are bad”. Carbohydrates are your body’s first source of energy so don’t deprive yourself of those. Too many of my initial consultations I hear clients complain of “low energy” and relying on drinking 4 cups of coffee or drinking 2 cans of energy drinks
for their energy. These are the same people who are only eating 20% of their calories from carbohydrates because they thought carbs make you fat. EAT CARBS! They contain fiber, B vitamins, and carbohydrates that hard to find in other types of foods and help provide you energy so you can eliminate the coffee and energy drinks.
Enjoy the holidays with friends and family, it only comes once a year. During this time, adjusting your training has similar principles with adjusting your nutrition during your time off from the gym: create a plan, start small, and make minor adjustments.
White, Cassie (April 9, 2017). Fitness takes hard work to gain, but how fast does it fade? Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-04-09/how-long-does-it-take-to-lose-fitness/8426246