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Detraining risk for elite athletes

A stark warning about the effects of a long period of inactivity on physical fitness comes from a UK case study of an Olympic rower, who took more than 20 weeks to fully recover his fitness after an eight-week lay-off (‘The detraining and retraining of an elite rower: a case study’, J Sci Med Sport 2005;8;3:314- 320).

Although the athlete in question took the time off in response to the need for a physical and mental break rather than because of illness and injury, this case study has clear implications for injured athletes.

The athlete, an elite heavyweight male rower and current Olympic champion, allowed himself the luxury of eight weeks of inactivity after competing in the Sydney Olympic Games in September 2000.

His fitness was assessed by means of a lab- based incremental rowing test on four separate occasions: eight weeks before the Olympics; after eight weeks of inactivity; after eight weeks of retraining; and after a further 12 weeks of training.

The key findings were as follows:

  • V02peak. After eight weeks’ detraining, this had decreased by 8%. After eight weeks of retraining it had increased by only 4%, returning to just below pre-Olympic values after a further 12 weeks;
  • Power at peak oxygen consumption. After detraining, this fell from a pre-Olympic value of 546W to 435W – a reduction of 20%. After eight weeks’ retraining it had increased by 15%, resuming pre-Olympic values after a further 12 weeks;
  • Power at reference blood lactate concentrations. After detraining, these declined by 27%, but returned to just below or just above pre-Olympic levels after 20 weeks’ retraining.

The researchers summarise their findings thus: ‘With eight weeks of retraining, rapid improvements were seen. For most parameters, however, the rate of improvement slowed and after 20 weeks of retraining the individual was approaching pre-Olympic levels.’

The observed reductions in muscular power of 20-27% are larger than previous reports had suggested (7-12% after 8-12 weeks of training cessation). The researchers believe this difference reflects the greater conditioning of the elite athlete, who can be assumed to be closer to his genetic potential.

They recommend that training programmes should limit periods of complete inactivity to no more than two to three weeks. ‘Elite athletes’, they conclude, ‘can expect a large and fairly rapid declined in “fitness” as a result of training cessation and with retraining it can take twice the time to recapture. Prolonged periods of inactivity should be avoided and the training programme should incorporate some form of “maintenance” training where a prolonged break is desired’.