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Strategies to Maintain Fitness During Periods of Inactivity

Periods of reduced training, or stopping all together, can lead to a reduction in fitness. This is related to the principle of training reversibility, where positive physiological adaptations in response to training will be partially or completely reversed, reducing athletic performance (1). The reduction in aerobic fitness that inevitably occurs will be inversely related to the aerobic training load accumulated before the period of reduced training, similar with strength training (1).

Athletes often experience interruptions to training processes and competition programmes because of illness, injury, postseason break or in this case to protect players from the spread of a virus, which will result in a reduction or cessation of habitual physical activity levels (2).

In some cases de-training syndrome can occur, a clinical occurrence when athletes with a long endurance-training history cease their regular exercise suddenly. This is characterised by dizziness and fainting, cardiac issues, headaches, loss of appetite, gastric disturbances, & profuse sweating (1).

The reality is that within these periods, whatever the reason – training cessation (stopping all together) or a period of reduced training load (modified / reduced volume) WILL occur.

Of course, a 10-day reduction in load can be largely beneficial for performance, as is the practice of ‘tapering’ prior to competition can reduce fatigue and ensure an optimal physical state. Beyond 2 weeks of lowered activity, a decrease in aerobic & strength related performance is likely to occur, which suggests that specific training should be programmed either:

  • During the initial weeks
  • At the least after those first 10 days weeks to avoid substantial decrease in fitness and performance.

An efficient form of modified exercise that can be performed in such instances, that have been continuously proven to counteract, in some case even improve, detrimental effects of training disturbances is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). When the correct dosage is prescribed, numerous modes of non-specific exercise (running, cycling, skipping, functional exercises), can be utilised to achieve the desired effect. HIIT consists of repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise, involving a total of 10-15 min of effort. These exercise bouts are short and intense, targeting a high heart rate, and separated by short rest periods (5).

An example of such practices has been shown in research within AFL over the period of a Christmas break. When including flexible reduced supervision sessions, players returned to training with maintained or even increased levels of cardiovascular fitness, strength, wellness measures, with the only negative being slightly increased skinfold measures (2). Of course, the approach can depend on the time away from the sport, but this example shows that we can nullify the detrimental effects with targeted aerobic & strength exercise prescriptions.

Another example during an off-season break in semi-professional football (soccer) players, HIIT with reduced volume was able to maintain body composition and aerobic fitness (Yo-Yo IR2 test), in the absence of regular team training, with even 1 session per week. These fitness measures were significantly decreased in those that undertook training cessation, as opposed to a period of reduced training load (3).

Such practices in Norway saw that reduced endurance training among semi-professional football (soccer) players during the off-season may have negative effect on game performance during the competition season. This negative effect was prevented by simply adding HIIT to normal activity, during a 6-week offseason period. Within this period, aerobic fitness was maintained, with a slight decline 20m shuttle performance (4). However, having only practiced simple HIIT, the decline in shuttle ability may be able to be prevented with types of strength training, or exposure to other types of training stimuli.

All in all, when your training meets an unexpected situation, and you find yourself with the absence of gym equipment or sports field, remember we can utilise various forms of gym & home-based exercise to achieve the same result. An Accredited Exercise Physiologist, or qualified Strength & Conditioning Coach can effectively prescribe a program with a period away from sport, or should a period of quarantine occur.

At P360, we prescribe face to face Strength & Conditioning, as providing access to programming software our clients can access on their phone or tablet, to be guided and supervised by their clinician remotely.

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