Off-Season Fitness: You're Stronger than You Think
Off-Season Fitness: You’re Stronger than You Think.
by Peter Licari
I can tell you from personal experience, time off is one of the worst feelings in the world for a dedicated athlete. Sure, it may feel nice to take a day off or maybe a weekend if you’re really hurting-- but two weeks? For many coaches and athletes, that’s the go-to timeframe. Two weeks off from exercise almost feels like a life-sentence in a perverse maximum-security prison staffed by friends and loved ones. Their job is to make sure that you don’t exert yourself. They want you to be “rested.” To give them credit, at least they’re full of good intentions. But, as the saying goes, so is the pathway to Hell. And when you’re not working, you feel like that’s exactly where you’re slouching along.
First comes the squirming born from the intense surplus of energy. Every off-season, I’m convinced that my muscles are hyper-advanced capacitors. Then come the manic highs and lows. Studies show that runners are so attached to endorphins that they experience bouts of clinical depression during periods of limited-to-no exercise. Then comes the worrying to augment both problems: you start to question your fitness with every passing hour you haven’t worked out. Your worrying makes you feel more amped up to run-- but you continually come to the realization that no matter how revved-up you are, you’re stuck in park.
The good news is that we often have some distractions during our downtime. After Cross-Country is the delicious cookie chomping revelry known as the holiday season. After Track, the beaches beckon us to burn away our embarrassing tan-lines. Even with all of this fun and excitement, I can testify that there’s still that deep worry in the back of the mind: am I just getting weaker?
Unfortunately, the long and the short of it is “yes.” However, science is proving that the apocalyptic, worst-case scenarios of devastated fitness are truly worried over-exaggeration and hyperbole.
Decreases in Cardiovascular Fitness
Running is primarily a cardiovascular activity. Essentially, this means that running is dependent on your heart, blood, and blood vessels. Our lungs and skeletal muscles are vital, too, but not to the extent that these three are. The heart pumps the blood through the arteries and veins so that it can deliver the oxygen necessary for continued activity. Your endurance is dependent upon how efficient this system is at transporting that O2. Unfortunately, taking time off acts as a detriment to this system.
In this interview with Fitsugar (link: http://www.fitsugar.com/How-Fast-Do-You-Lose-Cardio-Fitness-Level-8373742), fitness physiologist Jason Karp, Ph.D. discusses how the body experiences a decrease in cardiovascular fitness “within one to two weeks of stopping exercise.” Essentially, the cellular mitochondria (the “powerhouse” organelles we learned about in biology) decrease in density. This may sound dire, but it isn’t a catastrophe. While Dr. Karp admits that “it takes longer to gain fitness than it takes to lose [it],” regaining this efficiency isn’t a Herculean task. You gain a larger base with every season you tack under your belt. A larger base means the decreasing mitochondrial density reaches a level that’s still higher than those with a lower base. In fact, it might be higher than most people’s when they’re in shape depending on how experienced you are.
Basically, even if you take two weeks off to rest and recover, your off-season isn’t going to destroy your endurance.
Decreases in Strength
Another little tidbit Dr. Karp includes is that your strength doesn’t face the same fate of rapid deterioration. However, you might not want to take too much time off; you’re higher fitness level paradoxically threatens to hinder you more than recreational athletes.
According to a 2005 study in "The Journal of Applied Physiology", higher-level athletes experience muscular deterioration (or atrophy) at a faster level than their laymen counterparts. Why is this? Their muscles have to be in peak condition and peak condition can only be reached through constant upkeep. The study indicated that atrophy was occurring in about 1/3 of the time.
The good news? This translated to about 12 weeks before significant shortfalls were noticed. The strength you’ve been working on all season won’t leave you just because you take a week or two off. It’ll just be a bit rusty. And the best part is, the study also showed that it takes highly trained athletes a briefer period of time to regain that lost strength. It really isn’t a life-sentence after all.
The off-season isn’t going to destroy your fitness. It’s going to pack a punch, sure, but it’s far from a knock out. To give a personal example, I recently completed a ten-mile Turkey Trot after taking some time off. I was worried, naturally. I lined up and just had some fun with it. I ended up running 58:20. It wasn’t the easiest sub-60 ten-miler I’ve done (I actually just beat this PR in the middle of my 13 miler last Sunday). But I wasn’t magically transformed into a couch potato. You won’t be either. The day after you start back up may not be the best time to try for a mile best, but give it time. Trust me. You’re stronger than you think.