We all know the feeling, whether it be a voluntary or involuntary break from training. How much of my hard-earned fitness am I loosing each day, each week – should I take that break, or will this illness knock me back months? Essentially what we are talking about here is detraining. More specifically we are looking at long term detraining which can be defined as the partial or complete loss of training-induced anatomical, physiological and performance adaptations1. Here we’re talking about multiple weeks without sufficient training. We’ll use a study by Maldonado-Martín and colleagues2 as a basis for our discussion. A Link to the full text can be found here.
Let’s look at the determinants or “crucial” factors associated with peak performance (from a physiology standpoint) in cycling: VO2 Max, Efficiency (Oxygen cost at given power/pace) and the lactate threshold3. Decreases in cardio-respiratory and metabolic adaptations have been shown due to detraining in highly trained populations4. Therefore, it can by suggested that athletic performance in cycling could, in fact, decrease given a long period of detraining. The authors of this study also draw our attention to the “tradition” of the 4 – 5 week off season that is commonplace in cycling where the athlete will “adopt an almost sedentary lifestyle”.
The aim of this study was, therefore, to examine the effects of 5 weeks of training cessation in young top-level road cyclists on body composition, haematological and physiological parameters.
How did they do this?
10 young male cyclists were sampled (Age 20.1 ±1.4 years) with high VO2 Max values (over 70ml.kg-1.min-1) and Wmax (power achieved at the end of a ramp test) values above 5.4 w/kg so elite level athletes for this age bracket. The athletes were tested at the end of competition phase and again 5 weeks later after training cessation. They underwent body composition tests and a ramp test to exhaustion with both lactate values and gas analysis used. Blood tests were also used to assess changes in haematological variables.
What was the outcome?
Mean body mass increased as did the sum of skinfold measurements among the participants, suggesting unfavourable body composition changes in the five-week detraining period. Red blood cell count, haemoglobin and haematocrit all decreased following the period of detraining, these are all markers of endurance performance.
In the five-week period of training cessation Wmax decreased by 6.5 % on average with VO2 Max decreasing by 8.8%. Power at the first lactate turn point (aerobic threshold) decreased by just under 13% with power at the second turn point (correlating with FTP) by 11.5%. Putting these values into perspective if we take a rider with an aerobic threshold of 240W and an FTP of 310W we could expect to see a decrease of 31W and 35W respectively! It is also worth bearing in mind the weight increases here meaning W/kg is also down along with absolute power.
Conclusions, how does this apply to us?
Each marker of performance set out by the authors was negatively affected by the five-week training break. The age-old adage of it’ll come back as quick as you lose it has been shown not to be the case5. This would suggest that instead of complete training cessation it would be more valuable to incorporate some form of maintenance routine in one’s training during the off-season. One study has shown the ability to maintain fitness with as much as a 50% reduction in training volume6.
On the opposite side I believe, especially for younger athletes, it is important to have a break from the sport to spend time with friends and try other things! There are a host of psychological factors that are frankly just not discussed within this piece of research. A lot of the time this “off-season” coincides with the start of the academic year and can be a stressful period for people so the training reduction is welcome. The take home, in my opinion, would be to explore some cross-training options, change up cycling disciplines or incorporate strength and conditioning work which is often neglected during a competitive phase.
1 Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2000a). Detraining: Loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. part I: Short term insufficient training stimulus. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 30(2), 79–87
2 Maldonado-Martín, S., Cámara, J., James, D. V., Fernández-López, J. R., & Artetxe-Gezuraga, X. (2017). Effects of long-term training cessation in young top-level road cyclists. Journal of sports sciences, 35(14), 1396-1401.
3 Joyner MJ, Coyle EF. Endurance exercise performance: the physiology of champions. J Physiol. 2008;586(1):35–44.
4 Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2001a). Cardiorespiratory and metabolic characteristics of detraining in humans. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(3), 413–421.
5 Rietjens, G. J. W. M., Keizer, H. A., Kuipers, H., & Saris, W. H. M. (2001). A reduction in training volume and intensity for 21 days does not impair performance in cyclists. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(6), 431-434.
6 Godfrey, R. J., Ingham, S. A., Pedlar, C. R., & Whyte, G. P. (2005). The detraining and retraining of an elite rower: a case study. Journal of science and medicine in sport, 8(3), 314-320.