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  • Writer's pictureSam Blakey


Ooberfit's boss Sam Blakey gives you the lowdown on getting back in the saddle if you dropped the ball over the long seasonal break!

If you are a regular exerciser (4-6 times weekly) it's a lot easier to bounce back from time off if you've been exercising for a while.

Generally speaking, if you've been working out several times a week for more than a year, your muscle memory is solid. In fact, with an exercise habit that strong, scientists are quite willing to drop you in the 'athlete' category, and at 53 I'm quite chuffed to be labelled an athlete! But that in turn means your fitness can deteriorate at different rates depending on whether you're looking at strength or cardiovascular losses.

For strength loss for most people, the rule of thumb is about two and a half to three weeks of inactivity, but it depends on why you take the break. If like me, you were sick, it means your body is overstressed already, so you'll start to lose strength after two to three weeks. If not, and especially if you're able to get in some movement and light exercise, you can probably take three or four weeks off without significant strength loss.

Science agrees. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise published a review of several studies on the subject that looked at runners, rowers, and power athletes. For all of these groups, muscular strength fibers appear not to change, even after a month of inactivity. But here's the kicker: while general strength doesn't change much in that period; specialised, sport-specific muscle fibers start to change in as little as two weeks without a workout. Hence any muscle soreness. For example, endurance athletes lose a significant amount of the extra slow-twitch muscle fibres that they worked so hard to accumulate, and the same thing happens for the power athletes and their hard-earned fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Basically the body likes to hold onto strength for as long as it can, but skills that are very specialised for certain activities will decline faster. Again that explains any soreness if you have taken a break for a few weeks from a particular form of exercise like HIIT, whilst still doing other stuff, like running. Muscle memory is a bit like my short term memory, not very reliable after a few weeks!

So what about all the cardio lovers out there who are more concerned with the strength of their heart and lungs? Sadly we lose our well conditioned strong heart and lungs a little more quickly than we lose muscle strength, which is a blow for us cardio lovers and I certainly noticed that on Sunday! I recall recently reading one study of endurance cyclists which found that four weeks of inactivity resulted in a 20 percent decrease of their VO2 (ventilatory output) max, which measures a person's maximum capacity to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise. Their performance decreased by 50 percent! But don't despair! While our cardio conditioning does fall faster than our strength, it's easier to regain, as I found when I joined in last night's smaller bootcamp I was taking at Dempsey - I found the workout was way easier than Sunday's even though I was doing the same HIIT programme!

If you are an exercise newbie, however, the bad news if you've hit the pause button is it's tougher getting back on the road! Don't take too long to get moving. Consistency is key for building new habits, and it's as true for the body as it is for the mind: If your body hasn't been enjoying exercise for long, it can be easier to lose the progress you've made.

Finally, regarding getting addicted to any muscle soreness, my advice would be 'don't!' It's a slippery slope to injury. There is absolutely no benefit to doing more than one full on cardio session a day. By all means add a different type of exercise in, working on conditioning perhaps if you've already done your cardio, but repeat sessions of the same activity give your body and those important muscles no rest and factoring in recovery and rest in you weekly schedule (at least one day, but I prefer two) is an essential part of any fitness routine. So by all means test your body and workout hard but remember being kind to you too is the best balance!

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