Training & Nutrition

Use it or Lose it?: What Happens When We Take Time off Cycling

What happens when you take a break from training?

From time to time, life will pop up and disrupt your training regime. Illness, accident or just ‘adulthood’ in general can all get in the way of the thing you love doing most: cycling.

For many of us, there’s nothing worse than being told we can’t ride, or being too busy with everyday stresses to find the time to get out on the bike.

Without your regular exercise, or cycling routine, your muscle’s memory and fitness levels will naturally decline. It really is a case of “use it, or lose it”.

However, those changes take some time, and there are occassions when having a short break from it all is a good thing for our bodies. A break from training can help with muscle recovery, and sometimes it’s necessary to rest – either to avoid injury or to allow adaptations, which make us  stronger and faster, to take place.

We spoke with head coach of Revolution Cycling, Kerry Bircher, to find out what happens to our bodies when we take a training break, and asked ‘is it all as bad as we assume’?

Kerry Bircher in action

Firstly – the rate at which you notice changes isn’t identical across all riders, Kerry tells us we can all expect slightly different reactions, saying: “The rate of decline varies from each individual, and also affects the many components of fitness at different rates.”

However, there are some basic rules

3 Days…

Kerry reassures us that up to three days is actually very good for our bodies – saying: “If you take 3 days off the bike you can actually come back stronger as your muscles will have fully recovered, muscle glycogen will have replenished and muscle fibres will have repaired and strengthened. However, after 3 days then you will start to lose fitness, but don’t despair as this will be at a micro level and you probably wouldn’t notice.”

One to two weeks

A week off, and you might find you feel a bit flat when you get back on the bike. Kerry says: “After 1 week, your stroke volume (amount of blood that your heart can pump each beat) will decrease meaning that your heart has to pump harder to pump your blood. You become less efficient at metabolising oxygen and clearing lactate, of result of which is that it will become harder to maintain high intensities.

“This could mean that after a break of one week, you may feel a little bit sluggish and heavy on your first ride back, but ultimately this could be counter balanced by the refreshment of a good break.”

The longer you have off, the more you’ll see the  changes – Kerry says: “If you have 2 weeks off the bike, these changes would be more noticeable and you could see a small reduction in your VO2 Max [that’s efforts of two to five minutes].”

Where will we notice the changes?

The good news for endurance cyclists is that this is the last thing to be affected, but racers won’t be pleased to hear that it’s top end speed that goes first. Kerry says: “After having a break from the bike, female athletes tend to notice a change in their top end fitness, such as maximal power and strength. Women, in particular, struggle to maintain strength when they stop training, and strength gains will be lost quickly due to a reduction in the number of capillaries and mitochondria, as well as shrinkage in the muscle fibres.”

“You will lose top-end performance first and then base fitness much later on”

She goes on to say: “Think of your fitness as a pyramid composed of aerobic fitness at the bottom and your top-end race fitness at the top. De-training begins to break down the fitness pyramid from the top down, so you will lose top-end performance first and then base fitness much later on.”

Taking a break from training isn’t all doom-and-gloom for your body though: “It’s worth highlighting that research shows that a relatively short break (two weeks or so), is not considered too disruptive. Providing the previous training adaptations have been achieved over a period of at least 12 weeks or more. One caveat though is that any period where you drastically reduce your training, you must curtail your calorie intake to prevent an increase in body fat.”

Back in the Saddle

When you return to training after a holiday, or a break, you should be OK to go out and ride for a prolonged period, but don’t expect to be hitting the same average speed or average power as you were managing before your break.

However, if your break was enforced due to illness or injury then you should schedule a shorter workout to test how your body feels, and be prepared for it to takes 7 – 10 days until you feel back to normal.

In summary, breaks from training happen to us all at some point, due to holidays, illness, injury, bike problems, work and family commitments.

However, it’s important to remember that a short interruption of up to two weeks is unlikely to do any long-term harm, provided you start the break with a good fitness base. So, panic over…

You may also enjoy:

The Perfect 60 Minute Gym Workout for Cyclists

5 Signs that you need a Rest Day, or Week

How To: Look after your cycling knees

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