Endurance sports: is it possible to take a break?

Endurance sport – is the grind of never missing a day, the obsession that we think is required to achieve our goals. Endurance sport is truly is a pursuit; you’re only as good as your last race, yet your form is a result of your previous 18 months of training.

Everyone is giving up something when they chose to commit to endurance sport, perhaps it’s the freedom to travel when you like or the time to put more energy into your career, dabble in arts and crafts or get drunk with your friends more often.


Do not stop

What would happen if you just gave up training right now?

Taking time off, or detraining as it’s known in physiological terms, affects two types of systems that relate to your performance:

– Your metabolic systems: aerobic threshold, blood lactate, and mitochondria density.

– Your structural systems: muscles and neuromuscular coordination.

So if you were to give up training today, whether it’s due to injury, workload, travel, the following would happen:

The studies suggest that an athlete can go 10 days without training before their VO2 starts deteriorate. At two weeks your max drops by 6%, after 9 weeks 19%, and after 11 weeks 25.7%. Within your structural systems, research suggests that muscular power and coordination go two weeks before it starts to reduce. It is from this point that they decline at a similar rate to VO2, where at the 8-week point there is a significant reduction in muscle power.

The time it would take you to regain your form is a little more complicated due to the variables such as injury risk when making a comeback, but articles on the subject suggest that you can expect it to take 2 to 3 times to recover.

Why is this information important?

While this information is daunting for anyone that is in good shape and about a take time off, it provides us with a benchmark to experiment with and hack our own detraining and return to form. For example, could there be a minimum amount of training that we could do while on the break that would slow down the effect of detraining?

Minimum effective dose

There is a concept called “Minimum Effective Dose” (MED). It suggests that the most efficient way to achieve change, whether it’s losing weight or build muscle is to apply the minimum effective dose and nothing more ( Total Curve Review) . For example, water boils at 100 °C, so there is no benefit in cranking the heat to 110 to make it extra boiled. This concept can also be applied to endurance sport when trying to minimize the effects of detraining. For example, a study found that minimum endurance training efforts 2-3 a week helps minimize the loss of anaerobic fitness in a well-trained athlete.

Having an understanding of this allows you to:

1) better come back from injury;

2) give you the freedom to enjoy life without compromising your long term goals.

While you have goals within this sport, you also have a life outside the sport, and you shouldn’t have to make the decision of having one or the other.