Being fit and strong can feel a bit like trying to push water uphill. The natural direction of travel for all humans as we age is towards slowing down and losing muscle. Even to maintain where you are ‘today’ requires some active intervention and so too with gaining any improvements to fitness and strength.
I think most of us have an understanding that establishing a regular routine is important for making and maintaining progress. Trouble is, life is often full of interruptions and disruptions. Some of these are known in advance such as holidays or travel with work, others may be unplanned such as illness.
A good exercise and training plan will include time off intentionally. Perhaps aligning that with holiday time or just as a break from the regular workload in order to refresh the body and mind. It should definitely be something that you expect to happen at some point and have a plan for dealing with.
Even at the elite sport level where athletes spend months (and sometimes years) training up towards a specific event or competition the work they put in is not linear. There will be periods of lower to higher intensity and then scheduled ‘deload’ or recovery weeks and post-competition take a more extended ‘off season’ before returning to training.
Normal life for the average active person, where physical performance is not your main job, is unlikely to have such obvious peaks and recoveries. The patterns shaping the training you are able to do will be things like school holidays, family or work travel, other family commitments (e.g. weddings), illness or injury. Those who choose to train for big events such as marathon or triathlon will likely be following a plan with structured build up and recovery periods but then for the majority of the time will probably have a weekly routine of workout sessions or group exercise classes that provides a relatively steady level of intensity week to week.
But, how worried should we be when life forces us to take an unexpected break?
The fact that interruptions are likely to happen is one of the main arguments for being strict about having a consistent exercise routine in the first place. The fitter you are in the first place the less of an impact a disruption will have.
In the case of a total stop from exercise it takes time for the body to start to lose gains that have been made. The body first starts to lose the top level cardiovascular fitness, the VO2Max (which is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise) starts to decline quickly after stopping training and that decline continues but the rate slows down after about two to four weeks. However, even after several weeks de-training there are likely to be some residual gains from previous training. In other words, your fitness level doesn’t go all the way back down to where it was before you started. When you return to training you therefore have less far to go to return to previous fitness levels.
Declines in muscle and strength happen more slowly than cardiovascular fitness so for a short term interruption, such as a two week holiday, you might notice little difference, perhaps a more soreness for the first one or two workouts back, when picking up the weights again.
There might be circumstances where it is possible to continue with a lower amount of exercise than usual. The amount of work that is required to maintain is less than we might think. Aerobic endurance capability, how long you can go for, may be sustained by a third to two thirds volume (time spent at relevant intensity/heart rate). Strength may be sustained by one set per exercise again provided that the intensity is maintained. For example, you might get by on one workout instead or two or three for a while provided you work hard in that session.
In the conversations I have with people I tend to find that it’s the emotional responses and expectations people have for themselves that are the most troubling when it comes to this issue. Especially when it’s an interruption that is out of our control it can be frustrating and might trigger feelings of guilt or not being good enough. It’s worth doing some work on the mindset around this. There are times when a situation is genuinely beyond our control and when that happens, take a deep breath, and focus on shaping a plan for how to manage it. Which might be to accept that situation for what it is, give yourself a break, and let the exercise go for the short term, or it might be to find a reduced version of the routine to do instead. Recognise that feeling frustrated and stressed about not being able to exercise is an indication that you have lots of motivation - which a lot of people struggle with! Then instead of getting hung up on the workouts you are not able to do spend time imagining how energised and ready to go you will be when you get back to it.
Where possible plan downtime from training around known breaks such as holidays.
Expect that unexpected interruptions (e.g. illness) are likely to happen at some point.
Understand that it takes time for fitness to decline so a short break may not be as problematic as we fear.
Prioritise consistency and having a strong routine so that when those interruptions happen the effects will be less significant.
Have a ‘hotel room workout’ back up plan so that if possible, even when you are unable to do regular sessions, you have something to help you maintain.
Alternatively, lean into the recovery aspect, let it go, and allow your body to have a break.
Shift mindset from feeling guilty about not training to appreciating the inevitability and necessity of rest.
Focus ahead and channel any frustration into instead being excited for getting back to working out when you can.