Supercompensation: Why a Break in Your Training Is Necessary
While I will always encourage you to be a consistent, daily mover due to its role in staying healthy, building endurance, holding on to muscle mass, and even maintaining body weight, there comes a time when you have to take a break.
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Perhaps it is because of an injury, maybe work is extra busy, or family commitments pile up. Perhaps it’s an illness or any number of other life events that causes you to take a break from your fitness routine. Let’s face it, no matter who you are, life happens.
Those accidental and out-of-our-control breaks aside, what I want to focus on is those times when you actually know a time-out is coming. The break in your training is actually on your calendar and is completely within your control. Those are the breaks that—if prepared for correctly—can actually help your fitness rather than hurt it.
For example, I just returned from traveling to Bermuda to report on a WTS (World Triathlon Series) race. I knew well ahead of time that I wouldn’t have the time, the gear, or perhaps even the inclination to continue with my normal fitness regimen while I was there, so I prepared myself for the break. How did I do that exactly? I will get into that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about how our bodies typically handle breaks in training.
Regularly Scheduled Mini-Breaks
Doing too much, at too high intensity, for too long can potentially lead to things like injury, depression, fatigue, and eventually poor performance in your chosen sport.
One reason I often build mini-breaks into the plans of the athletes that I coach is to avoid overtraining. Doing too much, at too high intensity, for too long can potentially lead to things like injury, depression, fatigue, and eventually poor performance in your chosen sport. Taking a break (or even just a “reboot week”) can help them recover and come back ready to rock again. And no, that time away from serious training doesn’t have to hurt the gains that they have made. For more info on that, check out the article called Why Training Time-outs Can Be Positive.
Often, it is helpful for us avid movers to take days off to get rid of the fatigue that accumulates in our body. After all, that is how fitness is built—stress and rest. You can’t have one without the other.
How Long Does It Take to Lose Fitness?
In the article called How Fast Do You Get Out of Shape? you can learn about a study that showed conditioned athletes, who had been training regularly for at least a year and then suddenly stopped, lost about half of their aerobic conditioning in three months. There is also research that shows beginner exercisers, who have worked out for about two months, experience a complete loss of all aerobic conditioning after two months of not working out. So all in all, the losses are not that fast, even if you are a beginner.
Then new research highlighted in an article from Outside Magazine explained that you should never, ever stop training for more than two weeks if you can help it. I probably don’t need to tell you that research turned some heads.
In the article, the researchers explain how when you first start working out, you get strong very quickly with just a few sessions because at this stage your muscles aren’t very big. These gains happen primarily due to a neuromuscular adaptation, not a musculoskeletal adaptation. Basically, this means that before your muscles even start to get bigger or thicker, your brain gets better at communicating with your muscles and recruiting more of them to do its bidding.
On the other hand, when it comes to endurance training, you experience primarily an increase in your plasma and blood volume, which is why, a few weeks into an endurance training program, your heart rate won’t spike as high as it did when you first started training. You also get better at shedding off body heat via sweating, and better at utilizing fatty acids as a fuel.
In the article, the researcher explains that if you keep up your strength training, you'll gain muscle mass and strength and if you keep up your endurance training, after six months, it’s possible to increase blood volume by as much as 27 percent.
You can roughly expect it to take twice as long to get back into shape as the time you’ve spent being inactive.
That all sounds good, right? Well sadly, the researchers go on to say that all of these benefits can disappear if you stop training for approximately 10-14 days. At that time, your maximum oxygen utilization drops at a rate of about 0.5% a day. Beyond a two week break, your brain’s ability to recruit muscle drops by 1-5%. After three to four weeks, your muscles begin to atrophy, your fatty acid utilization drops and you become more sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar.
In the end, the researcher says that you can roughly expect it to take twice as long to get back into shape as the time you’ve spent being inactive. So, for example, if you take two weeks off, it could take four weeks to build back up to your previous fitness. But, as we talked about earlier, if you’re already fit with a good training history, the time it takes to regain fitness can definitely be shortened. And that time off can also be used to our advantage through something called supercompensation.
Supercompensation is defined in sports science theory as the post-training period during which the trained function/parameter has a higher performance capacity than it did prior to the training period. It is how we get ourselves to that state which is our focus for today.
Overreaching and Overtraining
The most common source of stress that we active folks experience is called “cumulative microtrauma.” This is basically the accumulated cell damage brought on by all those repeated exercise sessions. When you combine that stress with all the other of life’s stressors (work, family, money, school, relationships, etc) you can put your body into one of two states:
Overreaching: An accumulation of training or non-training stress that results in a short-term reduction in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining. In this state, restoration of performance capacity can take several days to several weeks.
Overtraining: An accumulation of training or non-training stress resulting in a long-term reduction in performance capacity with or without related physiological and psychological signs and symptoms of overtraining. In this greater state of stress, restoration of performance capacity may take from several weeks to several months.
If I am really getting into the nitty-gritty (and you know I will), there are actually two types of overreaching: functional and non-functional. Functional overreaching is a state of overreaching or excessive stress from which you can bounce back within about two weeks of appropriate recovery. Non-functional overreaching is when it takes longer than two weeks, and up to six weeks to bounce back.
So, what does this have to do with preparing to take a break in your training? I am glad you asked!