What Happens When We Stop Training?—with Dr. Iñigo Mujika

We explore what happens to our bodies when we stop training for a period of time and address how to successfully navigate the effects of detraining.

Sporty muscular african male athlete in earphones looking away, stretching legs while sitting at the stadium race track
Photo: Shutterstock

If you ask endurance athletes—of all abilities—their greatest fears, somewhere near the top of their list will likely be “losing my fitness.” Whether it’s a planned off-season break, a family trip, or being sidelined with sickness or injury, endurance athletes dread watching all their hard work slip away. It can sometimes feel like your fitness is vanishing fast—and in some cases, that’s actually what’s happening. Blood volume drops quickly, and within four to five days your VO2max begins to slip. For new athletes, all of their gains after months of training can disappear in a matter of weeks.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. None of the immediate detraining effects are structural, meaning you can get them back relatively quickly. And for lifelong athletes, the longer-term structural adaptations never fully go away.

In this episode, we talk with well-known physiologist Dr. Iñigo Mujika, who is recognized as one of the world’s top experts on detraining, which he has defined as the physiological result of reduced training.

Along with Dr Mujika, we talk with legendary coach Joe Friel, coach and physiologist Adam St Pierre, and World Tour pro Toms Skujins, all of whom share with us their thoughts on navigating the off-season.

So, take a break, and make it beneficial—and let’s make you fast!


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Episode Transcript

Rob Pickels  00:04

Hello and welcome to Fast Talk, your source for the science of endurance performance. I’m your host Rob Pickels here with Coach Connor. If you took a survey of endurance athletes of all levels and ask them what they feared most, somewhere near the top will be losing my fitness. Whether it’s a planned offseason, a family trip or being sidelined with sickness or injury, endurance athletes dread watching all their hard work slip away. When you’re stuck in the couch, it can feel like your fitness is oozing out between those seat cushions and in some cases, that’s not far off. blood volume drops quickly and within four to five days your VO two Max begins to slip for new athletes, all of their gains after months of training can disappear in a matter of weeks. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. None of the immediate detraining effects are structural, which means you can get them back relatively quickly. And for lifelong athletes, the longer term structural adaptations never fully go away. In this episode, we talk with well known physiologist Dr. Iñigo Mujika, recognized as one of the world’s top experts on detraining, which he has defined in the literature as the physiological result of reduced training load. Along with Dr. Iñigo Mujika. We talk with legendary coach Joe Friel. Coach and physiologist, Adam, St. Pierre and World Tour pro Tom Skujins, all of whom share with us their thoughts on navigating an offseason. So take a break, but make it beneficial and let’s make you fast. pathways from fast talk laboratories are a new way to explore concepts, master skills and solve training challenges, or new cycling interval training pathway begins with the basics of interval workouts and progresses to more advanced details. How to flawlessly execute interval workouts which intervals bring which adaptations and how to analyze your interval workout performance. Over 21 articles, interviews, workshops and workouts. Our new cycling interval training pathway offers you the chance to master cycling’s most critical and nuanced workout format. See this pathway at fast talk labs.com?

Trevor Connor  02:27

Well, Dr. Mujika  , real pleasure to have you on the show. As we are talking about offline here, I have been reading your research for years. So always very exciting to get a scientist of your caliber on the show to talk to our listeners really interested in having you today. Because you even mentioned on your bio, that the training is one of your areas of specialty.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  02:49

Yes, thank you for the invitation. I’m really happy to be in this podcast. And as you said, I started doing some research on tapering many years ago. And that brought me to also do a research on the training. And for those who don’t know, that means what happens to you, and your physiology and your performance when you reduce your your level of training or when you even stop training completely.

Trevor Connor  03:18

Yeah, so why don’t we start with what is the definition of the training? Well, the definition

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  03:23

that we provided in the year 2000 says that the training is the partial or complete loss of training induced physiological, anatomical and performance adaptations as a result of training reduction or training cessation. And there is a reason for providing the definition. And it is that in our opinion, people were using the concept of the training improperly, they were considering the training as a period of no training. Whereas according to this definition, we consider that the training is not a period of time, but the consequences or the potential consequences of that period of time, during which your training is insufficient, or a completely stops.

Trevor Connor  04:14

So I guess the big broad question I want to ask you is certainly there are times where people D train and they have no choice for example, you get injured or you get sick, you just can’t train and you’re gonna experience some of those those D training consequences. But it’s also pretty common and I’m a coach, I have all my athletes do this to have a period in the season and offseason, where athletes intentionally D train. Is there a value and I know we’re gonna dive deeper into this later in the episode but just give me the two minute summary. Is there a good reason is there are a value in D training or is this a mistake that athletes have been making for years?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  04:52

I think there is some good value in stopping training, which will subsequently The to the training process, particularly when the athletes are involved in very high level of training, I think those athletes are going to need some physiological recovery, some anatomical recovery, and even some mental recovery. And that’s the benefit you’re going to get from that period of, of training cessation.

Trevor Connor  05:21

So what are some of those benefits? Well, firstly,

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  05:25

when I’ve been working with highly highly trained elite World Champion level athletes, their commitment to the sport is so extreme, and the physiological demands of the training for months, and competition and travel are so intense that they need to provide their bodies with some biological resources to get back into training the following system. And not only physiologically, they also need to reset mentally, I think it would be impossible to maintain that level of commitment year after year for a long, high level sports career. If you didn’t have breaks in between any of those athletes didn’t take some time off, to think about other things. Take care of their own lives, spend time with their family and friends, occupy themselves with other interesting stuff that they might be doing, go back to university or whatever else. Otherwise, thinking only about your own sport, or for such long periods of time may even become unhealthy. From my point of view,

Trevor Connor  06:40

let’s hear from an elite athlete. In this case, World Tour pro Tom scorch, and hear what happens when he doesn’t take long enough a break.

Toms Skujins  06:49

I most definitely am one to take enough time off the bike, I try and get to four weeks without touching the bike. Sometimes Week Three is as much as I can do just because yeah, I am a nerd. And I like to ride bicycles. But I think that it is quite important to take the time off just because especially as riders doing 30,000 kilometers a year, you get all these little micro injuries, little nagging pains here and there, that the body is not going to really heal itself if you don’t let it to really disconnect and really take the time off.

Trevor Connor  07:26

So bout how long do you take off? And then how long do you find that it takes to get your fitness back after that time off?

Toms Skujins  07:33

If I get to four weeks, it’s been a good offseason. If I get to four weeks without touching the bike, I might do some other lead exercises. But that will be just more for fun than anything. And yeah, it takes a while to get back. So it’s always at least a month and a half to start feeling good on the bike again. But usually by the time the season rolls around, I’m I’m ready to go. And even if maybe let’s say the body isn’t 100% Ready for the first races of the year. I think at that point, it’s really important to still have that fresh mind and still have that fire and desire to ride a bike because the season is long, long, long.

Rob Pickels  08:15

Yeah, Tom’s Has there ever been a season where you didn’t take a solid break off of the bike, maybe when you were more of a developmental rider? And how did that affect the season that followed?

Toms Skujins  08:27

Actually, I think there was only one year where I took like two weeks and a bit off and then started training back. And I mean, I felt a little bit burnt out during that year. At the same time. I don’t think my performance really changed for the better, arguably maybe for the worst, but I wouldn’t say that also for the worst. I definitely wasn’t flying in December for whatever, because I suddenly started training a week and a half earlier. But I think it did come bite me to ask later on.

Rob Pickels  08:57

One thing that you mentioned was that reduction or the recovery from the mechanical stress the physical load that athletes have. Do you see the need to D train across different sport modalities? runners have a lot more mechanical load, then cyclists do swimmers have less mechanical load too? So is there an even need across these sports or do athletes such as runners need more detraining to recover from the physicalness of their sport? First of all,

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  09:27

I wouldn’t be talking about the need for the training. I will talk about the need for training cessation, okay, which is different the training is the consequence of that. And that consequence is going to be different between athletes between sports and between durations of training cessation. Personally I think that every sport that is performed at high level with huge demands for training irrespective of the mechanical load is going to need some some period of training cessation during the offseason. Because even if swimmers, for example, have less impact in their joints than the runners, it is true that they might suffer a lot more at the shoulder level than the runners. So even though the type of mechanical stress might be different, every sport has some mechanical stress that we probably benefit from a period of training cessation.

Trevor Connor  10:25

So basically, what you’re saying is, we need rest, we need that sensation to basically let our bodies rebuild, get over a lot of damage that we’ve probably done to them. And detraining is a consequence of that. And it’s an unfortunate consequence. But it’s worth the price for what you gain from having at least a brief period off.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  10:48

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. And if you control the timing of that period of training cessation, you are going to be controlling also the amount of negative consequences that may take place in terms of offering a training, and therefore the recovery and their return to their normal fitness level in their regular performance capacities, is going to take less time when they start again. So what I’m saying is that you need that period, you have to accept that some amount of the training is going to take place. But there is probably a benefit to that in terms particularly of prolonging an athlete’s career over time.

Rob Pickels  11:34

And so here’s a question to ask them a little bit of a different angle. Were discussing this topic now, because we’re going into the offseason for the majority of endurance sports, which is what we’re focused on. And that seems like a very likely time to have training cessation, and then the D training that comes with that. Is there a reason for athletes to be doing this closer to or even during their competition season? Maybe at the elite level there is or isn’t. And then at the amateur level there is there isn’t. But is this just a winter strategy, or is this multiple times throughout the year benefit?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  12:12

Normally, when we are dealing with elite level athletes, the season is usually divided into different macro cycles. And at the end of each one of those macro cycles, there might be a period of training cessation, if you do a training cessation phase in the middle of the season, it’s usually not as long as they want you will do at the end, or the very end of the season. So yes, I think there might be some interest in taking shorter breaks after each major macrocycle, or after each major competition of the system, because that allows athletes to reevaluate what they have achieved what they have done, reset and start again. So in my opinion, it’s good to take small breaks, we know that during those small breaks, the consequences in terms of the training are not going to be very severe. And they will get back to their normal levels very, very quickly. So I would recommend taking those small breaks, one, two, maybe even three small breaks throughout the year, and then a longer, proper offseason, at the end of a competitive season.

Trevor Connor  13:26

So let’s dive into what happens when your body starts to D train. And look, I’m going to go back 20 years to my exercise physiology courses and some of the textbooks. And I won’t lie when I was reading about in an exercise physiology textbooks, they were pretty glum. I mean, you got this impression that if you took five days off, you were going to lose all your fitness and it was going to take you two months to get it back. And it had me terrified of even taking a day off. But I would say it’s really not that bad. And I’m gonna be very interested in hearing you give that kind of summary of of here’s what does happen, here’s what doesn’t happen. I do think we need to set a couple terms here, because it’s not universal. I mean, you can’t say here’s universally what happens with D training, there is short term d training, and there’s long term d training. There’s also I thought you did a really good job of this in your reviews, pointing out the fact that the training is very different in an elite endurance athlete, versus somebody who’s very new to endurance sports training. So explain what you mean by both long term and short term and also what you mean by somebody who who’s more elite versus somebody who’s very new.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  14:40

Well, you are right in terms of the depressive aspect of listing the potential consequences of training cessation. And when I do my presentations about the training, I always tell people well, this is going to be a little bit depressing, but don’t panic, there is some there is some benefits of joining the session that will be a positive message at the end, at the end of the presentation in our reviews about the training at the beginning of the 2000, way divided a little bit arbitrarily short term, the training and long term the training in periods of less than four weeks, or longer than four weeks. So we consider that everything that might happen within four weeks of training, cessation is sort and the training, and everything that happens beyond four weeks is what we consider long term training. The reason for that is that many athletes usually take a month off at the end of the season. So that’s, that’s probably why we chose that kind of our mostly arbitrary cut off of four weeks to separate long term and short term training. And in terms of the differences between highly trained and moderately trained, or recently trained individuals. The reason for that is mostly that we were personally interested in the physiological consequences of training cessation in highly trained athletes. But quite often, the scientific literature did not provide sufficient data on that type of participants. So we had to rely on findings from moderately trained individuals to try to understand what would probably happened to highly trained individuals, because it’s not exactly the same.

Trevor Connor  16:36

No, I’d say if I, if I had to summarize it from reading your reviews, in the highly trained, you do see a much more rapid drop in their various fitness markers, which makes sense they are they’re finely tuned machines, if they stopped training, you’re gonna see that drop pretty quickly. But what was encouraging to see is, in most attributes, you don’t ever see them go back to the level that an untrained person would be at even a long term new training, they maintain some of their fitness, where with the people who are fairly new to training, you don’t see such a rapid drop when they stop training. But when that does drop, they can go right back to the baseline levels, as if they had never trained, so that fairly accurate, that’s

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  17:21

exactly the message that we delivered in our reviews, I usually say that, if you have a little hole in your pocket, and you have a foot pocket, you’re gonna lose some of that cash that you’re carrying in that pocket. If you have the same size hole in your pocket, but you have no cash, you’re not gonna lose any, or you have very little cash. And they want to have a lot of coins in the pocket is the leader, right, and the one who has very few coins in the pocket is the moderately train or recently trained individual. So the elite athlete is going to have a bigger loss compared to their super fitness initial level. On the other hand, if we look at the longer term, training cessation, elite athletes are always going to remain at a higher level than recently trained or moderately trainer. And of course, at a much higher level than initially sedentary subject. Whereas those who are moderately trained or recently trained in the longer term, beyond four weeks of training cessation, they are way, way more likely to return back to zero to their initial level, and basically have the same attributes as sedentary people.

Trevor Connor  18:39

And Rob, you had one other distinction that we should make here.

Rob Pickels  18:42

Yeah, we’ve been talking pretty deeply to this point about training cessation, meaning athletes whom are not training at all, is this still applicable with a training reduction, where the athlete might still be exercising, they might still be working out with purpose, but not to a level that’s able to maintain their current level of performance or physiological variables? How does training reduction play into this conversation?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  19:12

Well, obviously training reduction is going to reduce the velocity at which athletes are going to lose their physiological and anatomical and performance qualities. And in fact, reduced training is one of the strategies that we can use during the offseason to regain some of those training adaptations that we achieved during the previous season. Of course, we also want to have some kind of mental recovery and we want to have some physiological recovery, and that 20 reduction should be sufficient to allow for that recovery. The more we train, as a strategy to retain training induce adaptations, the less we’re going to have a proper offseason and in fact, the characteristics of a period of reduced training are very well defined if we want to contribute to our retention of training and use adaptation.

Rob Pickels  20:10

And so if we’re looking at both of these strategies, either training reduction or training cessation as a means to enhance recovery, help the athlete ultimately perform better. There is potentially benefits to say stopping training completely for a shorter amount of time, then reducing your training for a longer period of time because you’re going to need that longer period of time to have the same recovery benefits. In my very

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  20:38

first publication, we compare the performances of a group of 18 highly trained swimmers throughout the year throughout the season. And at the end of the season, we realize that half of them have achieved personal bests whereas the other half did not achieve a personal best. And we wanted to know whether there was something in training or in their personal characteristics that justified that different level of performance. And we couldn’t find anything. The only difference between those who improve their personal best and those who didn’t, was their initial level at the beginning of the season. In other words, after the offseason, some of them came back with a performance loss of about 10%. Whereas the other half came back from the offseason with with a performance loss of only four to 5%. Throughout the following year, those who have lost only four to 5% improved less, but their initial level was sufficiently high that it allowed them to go beyond their personal best. On the other hand, those who came with that lower level of performance improved more throughout the season, but their initial level was so low that they did not reach that 100%. And they could not go beyond that 100%. So for those athletes who come back from the offseason, with, let’s call it a lot of training, or with a very low performance level, it might be interesting to use some kind of strategy to help them retain some of those adaptations. Because otherwise, you might end up having an athlete who goes from 100 to 90%, to 100, to 90 to 100 to 90, and there is no performance improvement in the longer term, the athletes who were in the other group, they could go from 100 to 95, to 101 to 96 to 100 to 297. And there would be some long term progression for those athletes. So for those who are unfortunate, to lose adaptation faster, and that is pretty much a personal situation. It might be interesting to use some adaptational retention strategies during the offseason, such as introducing some kind of reduced training strategy so that they wouldn’t come back so they train at the beginning of the system. And we’ll

Trevor Connor  23:14

get certainly at the end of this episode, we’ll get into some of those strategies that you can apply. November The error is Chris the leaves are falling and I get to take a break from riding my bike, now’s a great time of year to rest and reflect on the past season. Visit fast talk labs and take a look at our pathways on recovery and data analysis. These two in depth guides can help you get the most from your offseason. See more fast talk labs.com/pathways Let’s dive now into what does change so what the training means what happens to your body? And this is where I think you’re going to have all our listeners groaning going oh my God isn’t that bad. But let’s start with the cardiovascular side because it does seem like that is where you see the biggest detraining effects in an endurance athlete.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  24:08

Yeah, usually divide the training effects into cardiovascular changes, metabolic changes and muscular changes. And in terms of cardiovascular changes, the first thing that happens is that there is a very, very quick drop in plasma volume as a result of this drop in plasma volume, there is also a drop in cardiac health. So, initially, these drop is compensated by an increase in heart rate. So for a few days, your heart rate both at submaximal intensities and at maximum intensities is going to compensate for that reduction in stroke volume that takes place as a consequence of the drop in plasma volume.

Rob Pickels  25:01

And how quickly does the plasma volume decrease? Well, if

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  25:04

this may happen, you might have a drop of five to 10% within two to three days of training cessation. And if that training cessation occurs in a horizontal position, because you are in bed for injury or for illness, that might take place even faster, or the percentage of plasma volume drop might be even bigger. So it’s a very, very quick process.

Trevor Connor  25:29

I had a friend who was a, he was an elite cyclist, he raised professionally, he didn’t understand any of this. And he was in his offseason. And about three days into being in three, four days into being completely off the bike doing no exercise, he got into a hot tub with some friends. So he had lost all that plasma volume, which means your your body is having a harder time delivering the blood delivering oxygen to your body, got into a hot tub was in the hot tub for too long stood up and passed out. And they ended up calling an ambulance. And they thought he was in deep trouble. And unfortunately, I had to pay a lot of money in an ambulance field and everything else for them to go, you just lost a lot of blood volume, understand how it works?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  26:14

Yeah, this is happening very, very quickly. And at a given point, which usually starts after about 10 days, your heart rate does not compensate anymore for that drop in plasma volume and stroke volume. And that’s when vo two Max starts to drop significantly. So normally, after 10 days of training session, there is a linear increase in the view to max loss as the days goes on without any training. And the rate of view to max loss is about 0.5 per additional day without training such that between day 10. And they fully there is a drop in view too much of about 15%. So if you take 15% within 30 days, that gives you 0.5% Each day of training cessation, after 10 days,

Trevor Connor  27:17

just to explain this to our listeners who are new to this physiology, stroke volume is the amount of blood your heart can pump per beat. If your blood volume has gone down, your heart is gonna have a harder time pumping as much blood per feet. So the stroke volume is going to go down, your heart is going to try to compensate by increasing your heart rate for a given effort. But that as you’re saying that compensation isn’t enough, so the heart just isn’t going to have as big an output as it did before. And your VO two Max is going to go down. That’s exactly what happens. So but it also sounds like you know, people hear the big drops in your VO two Max and go, Oh my God, that’s awful. decreasing your blood volume is pretty rapid your body can rebuild that blood volume relatively quickly to this is not major structural changes that in this D training process, they’re going to take you years to get back.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  28:11

Yes, that is correct. The reason why the blood volume drops is because there is a loss in in plasma proteins such as algemeen. And when you get back into training, you’re going to recover that fairly quickly. As long as you start sweating day after day during training, you are going to start accumulating those plasma proteins that are going to have an osmotic effect, to retain water on a day to day basis, and you are going to recover that plasma volume fairly quickly. But that view too much draw is only one of the changes that that might happen. There are other things that happen that are going to be fairly quickly such as, for example, your muscle glycogen, your muscle glycogen, even in the in the train muscles that you utilize the most. During your exercise, if you’re a cyclist that will be in your legs, if you’re a swimmer, that will be your upper body is going to start dropping within five days. And by three weeks of training cessation, the amount of glycogen in the muscles of an elite athlete is not going to be different to the amount of glycogen in the muscles of a sedentary person. So that advantage is going to disappear within about three weeks of training cessation,

Trevor Connor  29:36

that rapid. Now, as I remember also at the muscle level, you’re going to see a decrease in mitochondrial function that’s mostly due to the mitochondrial enzymes, correct?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  29:47

That’s correct. And your oxidative capacity is going to draw and there is going to be a higher reliance on carbohydrate as a substrate for exercise. So that means that you are going to use more carbohydrate for a given exercise intensity, because your oxidative capacity has dropped, and you have lost your ability to utilize fat as a substrate. So in some way, then metabolic consequences of 20 secession, are very, very similar to what we see in the metabolic syndrome, a very, very sedentary people who are obese, who have insulin resistance, may even have diabetes, and who have this depending on, of course, we are talking different levels. But the mechanisms are exactly the same. Let’s say that what happens from a metabolic point of view, what happens during a short period of training, cessation of up to three to four weeks is a mini metabolic syndrome, or metabolic syndrome are a small scale,

Trevor Connor  30:58

you raised in your review that there is even a drop in insulin sensitivity, which which quite surprised me. Yeah,

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  31:05

that’s what happens within six, six to seven days of training stoppage. And there is also a loss in the transporter protein, the protein that transports glucose into the muscle cell drops within one week, and therefore we need to release more insulin if we want the same amount of glucose to get into the, into the cells.

Rob Pickels  31:27

And that’s glute four. Correct, correct? Yes.

Trevor Connor  31:30

So you’re saying the fact that I took a week off before Halloween and then ate a bunch of Halloween candy was probably the snot not the smartest thing to do?

Rob Pickels  31:38

That’s correct. Well, but you’re you’re using up a lot of carbohydrate because you’re not burning fat as well, your glycogen stores are down. So I actually think Halloween candy is the answer to your problems, Trevor,

Trevor Connor  31:50

right. And it certainly contributed all that extra fat that I know I have to burn around my gut. But keep

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  31:55

in mind that you are using a lot more carbohydrate, but your oxidative capacity has gone down. So you are using that carbohydrate by anaerobic means. And that means that you are going to increase your blood lipid concentration. And at the same time, because you are training you are losing bicarbonate, which is your main buffer acid against the hydrogen ions that are going to dissociate from electric. Yep. So you are

Rob Pickels  32:29

in double trouble. I think you’re in quadruple trouble at this point. Yeah, well, so

Trevor Connor  32:33

in all seriousness, I’ll share some of what this means because I did something this year I have never done and it was, for lack of a better term stupid. So I finished my season right at the beginning of October, I had a big race that I went to and was very happy with. And then ended up taking basically two weeks off of the bike, I threw my back out, so I couldn’t do any training at all. Chris case, who used to actually be on the show was organizing this crazy ride, which was doing all the hardest climbs around Colorado that all the hardest dirt climb. So it was a seven hour ride with 14,000 feet of climbing, which is probably about 4500 meters somewhere around there. And I did that after not having trained at all, it ridden a bike anything for two weeks. And what I noticed was I wouldn’t do as needing to eat a lot more than I normally do. I was going for really sugary food. And I still about three and a half hours into that ride. bonked worse than I have bonked in a real long time. And it’s because of what you’re talking about. My body was not as good at burning fat. It was demanding a lot of carbohydrates. I was not getting enough to my system. And I finally just depleted it i bonked badly.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  33:51

That’s first time experience of metabolic D training

Trevor Connor  33:54

for you. It was quite the experience much higher

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  33:57

reliance on carbohydrate to provide fuel for your exercise and less capacity to oxidize fat and the utilisation of that carbohydrate is more anaerobic. So you are increasing your respiratory exchange ratio. And you are simultaneously increasing your lactate concentration for a given exercise intensity.

Trevor Connor  34:21

Yeah. Which all translated to the the last couple hours of that ride were miserable.

Rob Pickels  34:28

You used up all that recovery that you had gained for the two weeks beforehand. But so

Trevor Connor  34:33

going back again, to explain the to our listeners who are new to those the mitochondria in your muscle cells, that is where your body does its aerobic metabolism. That’s where you know that that’s called the powerhouse of your cells or most of your your energy is produced or ATP is produced. And mitochondria love fat. They love to burn fat and as you were saying, those enzymes are decreased. So the mitochondria aren’t as good at using fat for fuel. So you have to rely more on carbohydrates. But I do think again, an important thing to point out is it’s not that you are losing mitochondria. It’s not that your mitochondria density is declining. It’s more the enzymatic activity, which is again, another thing that your body can ramp back up relatively quickly. Is that correct?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  35:23

That is correct. Yes, your mitochondrial enzymatic activity might be dropping by as much as 20 to 40%, within two to three weeks of training cessation. So the ability of your mitochondria to produce ATP, so the electoral electron transport chain is going to be significantly reduced. And that is why you need to rely more on the anaerobic metabolism to produce ATP. And you’re going to be using up way more glycogen. And that’s why you bought when you were doing that crazy ride after two weeks of no cycling at all. Yes.

Trevor Connor  36:03

So I’ll just share this quickly. When I posted the ride on Strava. My description of it was I think I invented the worst form of polarized training ever. It’s don’t train for two weeks, and on either side of that complete lack of training, do the the most stupidly epic rides you can possibly do?

Rob Pickels  36:20

Well, it’s the most polarized of the polarized training methodologies, but as polarized as

Trevor Connor  36:24

you can get, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Zero versus 100. Yes,

Rob Pickels  36:31

I’d love to bring some hope back into this conversation and talk about reversing the detraining that’s occurring, we know that some of these detraining results like plasma volume, maybe that’s a relatively quick thing to turn around. But when we talk about mitochondrial enzymes and other changes, what are we talking about for an athlete that is now entering back into training, what expectations can they have, the rule

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  36:56

of thumb that is often used is that you are going to need twice as long to get back to your previous level as the duration of your training session. So if you have been off by a week, it’s going to take you at least two weeks to get back to a similar level. If you have been not training for four weeks, you’re going to need at least eight weeks, eight to 10 weeks to get back to that similar level. So that’s more or less the period of time that most athletes would need to start feeling like an athlete again after after a period of training. So

Rob Pickels  37:34

and with that return back to standard performance, I’ll say do you typically see any differences in aerobic versus anaerobic energy system performance? Like perhaps maybe does a workload at LT one improve faster than workload at LT two or vo two max or other performances? Or is it a pretty even increase throughout that time period,

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  38:00

it probably has more to do with the type of training that you do when you get back into train. So if you get back into training and you do most of the work at low intensity, you are going to recover that type of ability. So that type of capacity much quicker. And as you introduce all their levels of training, then you will recover those capacities. So it has to do much more with what you do back into training than the human physiology itself.

Trevor Connor  38:34

When you take a break, it does take time to get your fitness back. But as coach Joe Friel is about to explain it’s important sacrifice for athletes to make.

Joe Friel  38:43

Well, this is one of the conversations I have with an athlete when we move into what typically athletes call the offseason I don’t like that term because it implies that everything comes to an end, I prefer to call it the non racing season, or the transition seasons have been a little bit different, a little more vague. So they can’t see it as being the end of their season. So what I talked to my athletes about is you cannot be in top form all the time. It’s impossible. You can’t be in race shape athletes think they can. Athletes think the best athletes are always the best athletes are always ready to race. They’re always, you know, year round, 365 days a year. They can race at that extremely high level. It isn’t that way at all. athletes go through cycles in their performance in their training, that are healthy cycles. We all need to go through cycles in our in our training. You need to have times when you give yourself a break and say I’m gonna back off, it’s time to it’s time to rest it’s time to kick back a little bit. Spend more time with my family. It’s time to spend more time working on projects from my from my job. It’s the end of the season, you know, and that’s okay, you need to do that. When athletes get in trouble is when they decide they can’t do that. So they came into great shape at the end of the season. And so now they decide what they’re going to do is maintain that all the way till the end of the next season so they get one year ahead of the trend to maintain peak fitness. I can tell you physiologically it is not happening, it’s not going to happen. All you’re going to do is drive yourself in the ground, you’re either going to become overtrained or burned out, but you’re not going to finish a year trying to maintain peak fitness, it can’t, it’s impossible, it will not happen, assuming peak fitness was truly peak. So that’s what I’ve talked to the athletes at the end of the season about, they’re going to take some time off, they’re going to do, they can still work out. But they can’t be hard workouts. They can’t be group rides, for example, they can’t be intervals, they just got to be easy workouts go out and you’re riding with your spouse ride with a friend who is not nearly as strong as you are run with somebody who’s not nearly as strong as you. And stay with them. Just keep it slow and easy. That’s quite alright, that’s necessary. That’s part of the cycle of fitness is that important, that very important cycle when you’re at the end of your season.

Trevor Connor  41:04

So I’m addressing throwing a theory that I have shared before on the show, and it’s something that I’ve told all the athletes, I coach, I am interested in sharing this with you and hearing your thoughts. I’ve always told my athletes that when we adapt to training, there’s two types of adaptations there’s biochemical and their structural. So to use the example we talked about stroke volume, there’s two ways to increase stroke volume one is to increase your blood volume, which is biochemical. Another way is to increase the size of the left ventricle of your heart, which is structural. And what I tell my athletes during the D training period, and this is part of what I was hearing from you in that conversation we just had is most of the effects that you see in the D training are the biochemical side, you have to D train for a while to really start to see those structural changes go away, such as the heart shrinking in size, or muscle fibers, changing back to more fast twitch type muscle fiber, in a couple of weeks, you’re not gonna see those, those structural changes go back. What I always tell my athletes is a lot of those biochemical changes are actually a stressor on your body that they can take your body out of homeostasis, and your body is willing to tolerate that for a while. But over time, it can lead to injury or, you know, as you said, just an overall type of fatigue from constantly putting that stressor on the body. So I always tell my athletes, one of the benefits of D training is just clearing out some of that biochemical stress. Knowing that, you know, two three weeks you’re not gonna see the structural side disappear. And then you can get back to the base training where your your body is in a good state, homeostatic Lee, what’s your feeling about that?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  42:53

Yeah, that is correct, we usually differentiate between functional changes and structural changes. Obviously, the functional changes are more physiological, and whereas structural changes are more anatomical, and those anatomical changes are going to take longer, because it is about structures that have been built by producing new proteins that are used to construct body parts to make it simple and understandable. And it’s not going to be easy to destroy those structures by training cessation, whereas some of the physiological changes are going to occur much quicker. So for example, in order to see very significant change in the size of the interventricular wall in the heart, you are going to need at least a couple of months of training sensation, and typically that that’s not something that athletes are going to do in the offseason. For example, when I when I was training, world class triathletes, my offseason was usually two weeks of forbidden training, they I would not allow them to do any exercise, I wanted to have complete rest, I wanted them to have complete rest, because I knew what would happen within two weeks and that’s not something that worried me too much. And then I would give them two additional weeks of physical activity that was not triathlon related. So anything they enjoyed doing that was not swimming, cycling or running. And within that period, it is unlikely that any structural changes are going to take place, you are going to have some physiological consequences such as the drop in plasma volume that we mentioned before. A small drunken thing here to max a drop in your glycogen levels in your in your exercising muscles, and a few other things. But your strength per For months is probably not going to suffer a lot within two to three to four weeks of training stoppage, particularly if those two weeks of no exercise have followed by two additional weeks of some kind of physical activity. So this triathletes that I was coaching during that third and fourth week of the offseason, we’re doing surfing, hiking in the mountains, rock climbing, playing tennis, any type of physical activity that they enjoy doing. And that is some kind of cross training, that is going to be beneficial, both physiologically and also psychologically, which is,

Trevor Connor  45:40

I think, a great way to do it. And I certainly encourage my athletes to do the same. So I’m really glad to hear that that’s not a concern for you as the expert on the training. And that’s something you give to your athletes. And we always need

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  45:51

to keep in mind that for highly trained athletes, cross training needs to be what we call similar mode, if it’s going to be effective to retain training in this adaptation. That means that other activity that you are doing has to be similar to your usual sporting activity in terms of biomechanical demands, and also in terms of physiological demands. In other words, for a marathon runner, it might be good mentally to go rock climbing, but it’s not going to be an effective strategy to retain training induce adaptation, why because it is not by mechanically similar, and it is not physiologically similar. On the other hand, for that marathon runner to go and do cross country skiing, that is going to be a very effective cross training strategy, because the muscles involved in the type of movements are very similar to running. And because it is still moderate intensity, low to moderate intensity endurance activity. So physiologically, it is also similar with less highly trained athletes, even the similar mode of cross training is going to be an effective strategy. So if a moderately trained athlete tells you during the offseason, can I go? Or should I go in and play tennis? Or should I go and play basketball with my friends? I say yes, because it is going to be an effective strategy to retain some of those training and use applications, even if it is the similar mode of training.

Trevor Connor  47:34

So I do want to ask you about something that I saw in a recent study that I found very interesting, looking at the effects of two weeks of the training, and didn’t seem like they identified a potential positive, which is in endurance athletes, after two weeks of the training, they saw a rise in anabolic hormones. And considering an endurance athletes, muscle loss, bone, mineral density loss, and all these things can be issues in endurance athletes, having that period where you see the rise in the anabolic hormones could be beneficial for them in that that offseason period. But I wanted to hear your thoughts on this.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  48:12

To be honest, I haven’t seen that study in endurance athlete, but there is previous evidence of a rise in anabolic hormones in strength training. And of course, that is going to be beneficial to rebuild some of those body structures that have been let’s call it destroyed, or at least that affected by months and months of very intensive training in competition. And that is potentially Yes, one of the benefits of taking some time off during the offseason.

Trevor Connor  48:45

So you’ve already covered a lot of this, but let’s shift over and I just want to hear your overall suggestions for an endurance athlete, so a cyclist, a runner, or triathlete. They’re moving into their offseason. What are your suggestions on how to most successfully get through the offseason and set yourself up the best you can for the next season? Well, I

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  49:07

think they are athletes who have a very quick loss of fitness and very quick loss of physiological adaptations, they might have some interest in trying to retain some of those adaptations during the offseason. And that can be achieved generally by four meats. One of them is doing some type of reduced training. So instead of training every day, they can go out and train only two to three times a day and instead of training an hour and a half, they can go out and train for for just 20 minutes. They should keep in mind that training intensity is key at the time of retaining training new useful applications. So even if they go out and train for 15 to 20 minutes, they should try to maintain an intensity that is fairly high because that is going to contribute to retaining those other patients. So that would be strategy number one. The second option that they have to retain some of the training and use adaptations is to use some kind of cross train. But as I said before, highly trained athletes should keep in mind that cross training should be similar more, whereas moderately trained athletes will also benefit from this similar mode cross train. The third strategy we could benefit from is what we call the cross transfer effect or the cross education effect. And that applies particularly when an athlete is forced to stop training because of a unilateral injury. The cross transfer effect is the transfer of strength training gains from the ipsilateral limb, that is the link that trains to the contralateral that is the limb that doesn’t train, what this means is that you have an injury in your left leg, you can still do some strength training with your right leg. And some of the benefits in terms of strength are going to happen also in the leg that is not exercise. So when you are in a phase of unit unilateral injury, training with the other limb might be of some benefit. And very recently, there is some literature regarding a fourth potential strategy, which is called mental injury. And that means thinking about training without training. And there is some solid evidence that you can retain training and use adaptations just by thinking particularly strength adaptations, just by thinking about doing the exercises. But without actually doing the exercises, it takes time. And it takes practice, because it takes the same amount of time that it would take to actually perform those exercises in the gym, or at home, you need to put yourself in the situation in which you think that you are going to do a set of squats. And you have to take the time to think through those repetitions. So if you’re going to do what 12 repetitions said, you have to sit there and think repetition number one, repetition number two, so mentally, you are performing that repetition. So the session is going to take as long as a real strength training session will take the only difference is that you are not doing the exercise. And believe it or not, it is an effective strategy in both moderately trained athletes and highly trainer. So even if you go on vacation and lay down on the beach and do nothing, think about doing something, because that thinking about doing something is going to be contributing to you getting back to your initial level faster. When you start the new season.

Trevor Connor  52:59

I think this would be particularly beneficial for somebody who is injured, who simply has no ability to train.

Rob Pickels  53:05

Yeah, and I think for everybody out there, who is who’s questioning that and saying it’s not possible that’s not going to do anything. Mental Imagery, can 100% have a physical manifestation in your body. And I’ll challenge everybody right now to close your eyes and think about being on the start line of a race, what happens, your heart rate immediately starts to go up, right? There you go. That’s one very clear example. And so I can certainly see the transference of a concept like that to other maybe biochemical changes, hormonal release, whatever it may be throughout your body in some

Trevor Connor  53:39

sort of central Governor exactly response. There is

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  53:42

one study in which two groups of volunteers had their forearm immobilized for four weeks, and one of the groups was sent home. And the other group was instructed to think about contracting the muscles of the forearm several times a day, without actually contracting the muscles. And they use the EMG to actually measure that they were not contracting the muscles, they were only thinking about contracting the muscles. After four weeks, they took off the cast in the form one group had lost. I think it was something around 28% of the strength in the forearm muscles. And the group that was thinking about doing the exercise only lost 14%. So they basically half the loss in strength just by thinking about doing exercise. One week later, after taking off the cast, the group that had been thinking about doing the exercise was back at the initial level, whereas the other group was still way below their initial level. So the recovery took place, way, way quicker in the group that have been thinking about doing the exercise. That’s how powerful it can be.

Trevor Connor  54:58

Well, so should direction slightly. I know there was a great study by Dr. Ron istead that looked at having athletes do think it was every seven to 10 days doing interval work during the offseason, and show that those athletes were able to PR and their subsequent season. What’s your feeling about that actually, including some high intensity work in that offseason period.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  55:22

That would be a perfect strategy for those swimmers that I mentioned before that came back from the offseason with a very low performance level, those swimmers were unfortunately, to have a very quick loss of fitness during the offseason. So the homework that you could give those athletes to perform as a reduced training strategy could include some those high intensity effort, because as I mentioned before, training intensity is key at the time of retaining training in use of a patient. So performing that high intensity exercise is going to, on the one hand, allow them not to lose as much. And on the other hand, as shown by the study by Bender and study and colleagues, it will help them achieve further during the following system. So you would be getting two different benefits from performing the type of exercise as long as there is sufficient recovery for those athletes that they don’t feel that they have no offseason. Right. So I think mentally knowing that you are having an offseason is very important. So I think we should be very careful at the time of using these strategies. Because we also need the athletes to perceive and to feel that they are resting, that they are recovering, that they are having sufficient time to enjoy their activities to have time for themselves have time for their families have time for the friends and and think about something else. So don’t get into the trap of all because there are studies showing that if you do high intensity interval training during the offseason, you are going to have better performance the following year. And you prescribe so much training during the offseason that it’s actually not an offseason.

Rob Pickels  57:19

Oftentimes when giving recommendations like this, it comes down to it depends. And in this conversation, it depends really ways on how quickly people are losing how quickly they’re detraining with the cessation of activity. Now, it seems like an athlete could just take an offseason, they could go through four weeks of training, and then they could test and see where they were. And they would know if they lost fitness quickly or not quickly. And then they would know Oh, how do I update my strategy in the future? But that’s a very long term. And that potentially loses a season of performance for that athlete. Is there a way that an athlete could know relatively quickly? Are there metrics or measures that somebody could look at, say, after one week, or after two weeks of a training cessation to say, Oh, I’m on a rapid, you know, decline in my performance ability, and therefore I need to update? Or do they have to see it through to the end to have any actionable information? Well,

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  58:23

the first year, you might be losing that following system, because at some point, you’re going to need to measure what happens during your offseason, in order to realize whether the effort that you have in your hands is someone who loses a lot or or who doesn’t lose out. We use some mathematical modeling with the swimmers in our studies. And the interesting thing is that when I went to the coaches I was as I was working as a physiologist in this case, and when I went to the coaches and gave them the values of the individual profiles of adaptation and this adaptation, the coaches said thank you, we knew that they what I mean by this is that most coaches know whether they have an athlete who loses a lot quickly, or whether they have an athlete who doesn’t lose much, even if they stop training. So coaches should see, but also discuss with the athlete how much they feel that they lose when they stop training. I had two international level triathletes one female and one male who were fairly different after the offseason. One of them could be really fit and ready to compete within about eight weeks of retraining in the new system. After an offseason that was basically identical two weeks of nothing and two weeks of cross training or physical activity related to triathlon. The female athletes on the other hand, she was normally not into a competitive level before about 16 to 18 weeks of retraining. And that is something that most coaches should be able to detect in their athletes even without any time loss or even without any physiological measurement.

Trevor Connor  1:00:24

As we just discussed, recent research is starting to claim that a complete cessation of training isn’t necessarily the best course of action. First finish out with Adam St. Pierre, who told us he doesn’t let his athletes do train.

Adam St. Pierre  1:00:36

My rationale is, at least with the 20 Somethings I’m working for is they’re in the prime of life for adaptation. So as long as we can have periods of of lower stress or lower strain, I don’t think they actually need to de train intentionally. For instance, we conclude our Nordic race season, usually in mid March, March and April are pretty awesome times for backcountry skiing and crest skiing in the Mountain West. So many of the athletes will go out and do some pretty big days on backcountry skis or crest skis. And while that may not be physiological rest, I think it is mental reset. And using that fitness that we so carefully built over the course of the year to then go go recreate and I would be no loath to require athletes for whom, you know, exercise and training is is a part of life, I would not want to force rest upon anyone who didn’t, didn’t actually want to rest. I think, you know, a time of unstructured, you know, exercise is is important for re refueling the body refueling the mind. But I would never intentionally, you know, have someone take time off unless it was really warranted. You know, like in an athlete who’s overtrained or, you know coming off injury or just needs forced rest. But I think for the vast majority of athletes, you know, forced rest is unnecessary unless it’s unless it’s needed for some reason. And mental reasons count, right? If you’re just burned out, and you don’t want to ride your damn bike, and don’t ride your damn bike. But if you want to if you want to go run or if you want to hit the gym, or if you want to go backcountry ski, I don’t think activity is a bad thing. And like I’m sure there, there is a time when you know, forced detraining is, is necessary. I’m just having a hard time thinking when it might be.

Trevor Connor  1:02:24

We’re getting to the end of the show here and you’re new to the show. So we’ve always finished with what we call our one minute take home. So you will have one minute to summarize your your key points or to leave our audience with one message that you really want them to hear. So do you have a have something in mind that you’d like to share?

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  1:02:46

Well, I would like to remind what the training is the training is the loss of fitness that takes place when you stop training, Don’t get obsessed by it. Don’t think that you should never stop training because you are going to lose fitness. Yes, if you stop training, you are going to lose fitness. But some of those losses are going to recover fairly quickly. So my message would be don’t be afraid of taking some time off every now and then. And particularly at the end of the competitive system. Because I think the benefits of taking time off outweigh the detrimental effects of taking that time off. So don’t be afraid of taking your time enjoying yourself thinking about something else. At the end of the season, refresh your mind and get back into training fresh, ready, and eager to start training again and achieve a higher performance level the following season.

Trevor Connor  1:03:50

Great message. Rob, you want to go next?

Rob Pickels  1:03:52

Yeah, my message is my take home from this is to be honest with yourself. I think that athletes need to understand that training cessation or training reduction is important, ultimately, that will help them achieve better performance. But that they need to be honest with themselves with how quickly they lose fitness when they have training cessation to help them guide that strategy as they reduce that workload or stop that workload completely. But the other side of this too is when you come out of this break. Athletes also need to be honest with themselves with the level that they’re at at that point in time. And this isn’t something that we necessarily discussed today. But I do want to throw it out there. If you come back and try to train at the exact same level as when you’re at your peak of fitness, two to four weeks prior, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure. So get retested understand where you are now because these changes did occur. You’re not going to do the same workloads at the same heart rates and that’s okay. But be honest with yourself with what you should be doing at that moment.

Trevor Connor  1:04:56

So I actually started with one message but I’m finishing With another after reading all your research again, the thing that really struck me was seeing that most of those rapid detraining effects that we see are also the things that we rebuild fairly quickly. So again, it’s just not something to lose sleep over or get too concerned, unless you do a big D training period, two weeks before your target event, then you’re in a bit of trouble that for an offseason, you’re you’re gonna get it all back, and you’re gonna get all back relatively quickly. But something you kept bringing up today that really fascinate me is really having that understanding of, are you somebody who D trains a lot? Are you somebody who D trains a little and I was thinking of all my friends, all my old teammates, and there is a huge difference. I think it Chris case, Chris guys could take a month off and come back and still be both felt like full strength. I can tell you from me, you know, I always finished my season at the beginning of October and then get back to training in early November. And I probably see my FTP drop about 60 watts. I do train a lot. So it’s I think it’s very valuable to know which you are and then I think you gave great suggestions on how to handle your offseason, depending on whether you are somebody who trains rapidly or not, or a lot or not.

Dr. Iñigo Mujika  1:06:20

So in your case, you would probably benefit from using some of those training adaptation retention strategies.

Trevor Connor  1:06:28

So it sounds like Well, again, Doug, my ego thank you for coming on the show. It was a real pleasure having you.


Thank you for the invitation.

Rob Pickels  1:06:37

That was another episode of Fast Talk subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcast. Be sure to leave us a rating and a review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual as always we love your feedback. Join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalklabs.com/join to become a part of our education and coaching community for Dr. Iñigo Mujika, Tom Skujins, Joe Friel, Adam St. Pierre, and Trevor Connor. I’m Rob Pickels. Thanks for listening!