Personal trainer Scott Hunt takes us through a week-by-week synopsis of what our bodies do when we take a break from the gym and how to measure your window of opportunity.
“How long it actually takes for strength and cardio fitness to wane or to gain is dependent on lots of things,” says personal trainer Scott Hunt. “If you’ve only been training for three months, then your level of fitness is going to decline a lot faster than someone who has been training for three years; but in saying that, if you’ve achieved a really high level of fitness in those three months, then that’s going to affect it too.” In a perfect world, your fitness would stick around for the same amount of time as you’d been working on it, but sadly this just isn’t the case: “You lose fitness a fair bit faster than you gain it,” says Hunt. “But when you start from scratch, it goes back quickly too.” Different elements of your fitness decline at different rates and, if you ignore other factors – like how much lounging and imbibing you’re planning on consuming while you’re away – it would look kind of like this:
Week 1: Recovered
By the end of your first week away, you’re probably feeling pretty awesome. “The first week is pretty much a recovery week,” says Hunt. “Like bodybuilders who train legs, arms, etc. one day a week, by the following week, they’re fully recovered and ready to train again.”
Week 2–3: Holding
The next three weeks of your trip will fly by without much change to your gains; although, if you’re not watching what you eat (and we assume you’re not), then a little extra soft stuff might have started to creep on. “At this stage your body is maintaining your strength and muscle tone pretty well based on your nutrition and how much incidental activity you are doing,” says Hunt.
Week 4–5: Gradual decline
Depending on how much muscle you’re packing, you’ll start to notice changes in strength and tone after three to five weeks without exercise. “Again, it depends on how much incidental activity you are doing, but after this much time being sedentary, you’ll lose the vast majority of what gains you’ve got,” says Hunt.
Week 6–8: Mostly holding
Your muscles won’t really ‘waste away’ without exercise, but how long and how well they stick around depends on many things: “How much muscle you’ll hold on to largely depends on how much you had to begin with, and how long you’ve been training for,” says Hunt. “If you’ve been training for years and maintaining a high level of fitness, you might hold onto your strength for longer; like if you’ve got three kilograms of muscle versus one kilogram of muscle…the more you have, the longer it’s going to take for it to go.”
It’s also going to depend on how much attention you’re paying to your diet. If you’re living off chips and beer (or wine and cheese), your body isn’t likely to use that nutrition towards muscle maintenance. “If your nutrition doesn’t back you up, that is when more muscle loss happens,” says Hunt. “If you’re not getting your recommended intake of protein or if you’re not eating enough calories to maintain your body weight, this will have an impact on your muscle.” Dietary protein is broken down into amino acids, i.e. the building blocks of muscle. Without adequate protein, your body is going to try to maintain a homeostatic state of protein degradation and synthesis (aka your protein balance) by breaking down bodily proteins, i.e. muscle. Direct translation: bye-bye biceps.
Week 1: Holding
At one week in you’d probably still be keen to do a few laps, although it might not be as fast as you’d hoped. “Your cardio fitness will decline a lot faster than your strength and muscle tone,” says Hunt. “Again it depends on how fit you were in the first place, but after 24 hours, you’re usually fully recovered from cardio exercise depending on what you’re doing, so within four or five days, you’ll start to lose it.”
Week 2: Gradual decline
If you’re not getting your heart rate up pounding the pavement on your holiday, chances are by just your second week of inactivity, your cardio fitness is already kaput. This isn’t to say that you’re going to get puffed on your afternoon stroll, but you probably couldn’t crack your PB. “The reality is that cardio fitness is reliant on consistency and challenging yourself, so if it’s not making you uncomfortable, you’re probably not working hard enough,” says Hunt. “A good tell for me is if being able to carry on a conversation or not. If you’re too out of breath for a chat then you’re working.”
Week 3–8: Decline
After another week or five without putting your cardio shoes on, the very idea of breaking into a run might cause discomfort. Your body can get its cardio fitness back in no time. “Cardiovascular disease and obesity are often attributed to a lack of physical activity,” says Hunt. But while it’s no lie that exercise burns calories and keeps you healthy, a little time without is normal. “It’s important to remember that it’s okay to have periods where you’re ultra fit followed by periods where you’re less fit – that’s life. Sometimes you’re forced to have a break due to life issues, and other times it’s a break for a good reason like a holiday. Don’t pass up the chance for a holiday just because you’re worried about your fitness; just train extra hard before it and after it to get back to where you want to be ASAP. You may even find the break reinvigorates you to step it up upon return.”
Week 1: If you’re hitting up the gym for the first time or returning from eight luscious weeks of fitness-free adventures, get ready for some good and bad news. The good news? You’ll probably feel pretty good in the first session. The bad news? The second session is going to suck. “For your first session, you’re going to be really well recovered, you might have a lot of energy and be excited, but depending on how much you fatigue your muscles – if you wake up the next day hurting – the next session is going to be really tough,” says Hunt. Allowing plenty of time for recovery is essential, as well as listening to your body. “If you think you can handle a five-kilometre run, do it, but if you only get three kilometres done, that’s okay.”
Overtraining? Read more about the signs.