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Vacations: Remarkably Valuable for Athlete Fitness and Life-Balance

BY Phil White

Athletes who take a break from training during a vacation often fear they will undo all of their previous progress, but this is unfounded and more beneficial than they know.

Summer race season is in full swing and probably has a lot of your athletes excited to get out and compete. Yet some others might be apprehensive about cutting back the regularity, intensity, and mileage of their training during national holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Or those long weekend trips and more extended personal or family vacations. Let’s look at some ways to help your clients preserve their gains and keep a healthy, balanced perspective on taking some time off from their usual programming.

Demystify the Risk of Detraining

One of the biggest concerns among athletes who have reluctantly scribbled in a summer break from training and racing on their calendars is that they’re going to undo or at least minimize the physiological benefits of all the hard work they’ve put in during fall, winter and spring. This misplaced fear can be brutal to grapple with for hard-driving, type-A personalities who like to always keep their foot firmly on the gas pedal and feel lazy or inadequate anytime they have to pump the brakes.

Such concerns among your client base are easy to understand – after all, nobody wants to slow, halt or reverse their hard-won progress. But that being said, plenty of scientific evidence suggests that the detrimental effects of detraining will take far longer to manifest than might be expected. A review of the existing literature on the cardiovascular impact of deconditioning found that it takes 15 days of inactivity to create a 4% decrease in VO2 max in well-trained runners and three weeks to reduce anaerobic threshold capacity significantly. The author noted that running economy didn’t decline when another group of runners stopped training and stated that it takes between two and six weeks for significant conditioning to be lost.

Another review of prior studies conducted by researchers from British and Italian universities conducted a broader investigation into other effects of detraining through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors discovered that “impairments on endurance performance, resting metabolic rate, body weight and composition have been found following 35–42 days of light-moderate exercise” among competitors used to higher training loads. They also noted that it took a minimum of 12 days with zero training for athletes to experience any decrease in their performance during interval, time-to-exhaustion, and intermittent running and cycling tests. Among the previous research analyzed, the authors noticed that decrements in force generation and strength, a reduction in lean muscle mass, and compromises in mass do not take hold to any significant decree until someone has stopped training for at least three weeks.

The takeaway from this research? Fears that cutting back or even halting training over a long weekend or extended personal vacation are completely unfounded. Share this with any athlete who’s reluctant to take a break to put their mind at ease, so they can go enjoy a well-deserved break. If they do insist on getting in some kind of training, suggest that they pursue a minimum effective dose approach and choose activities that score no more than five on a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of one to 10. Examples would include a recreational bike ride and a steady-state tempo run around their destination.

Avoid Overtraining and Non-Functional Overreaching

Sometimes you might want to increase the intensity of a client’s training to prompt functional overreaching, a temporary performance blip at the end of a programming block followed by improved output. This adaptation is also known as supercompensation, which Vern Gambetta defined as follows in his book Athletic Development:

This is the adaptive rebound above the baseline; it is described as a rebound response because the body is essentially rebounding from the low point of greatest fatigue. This supercompensation effect is not only a physiological response but also a psychological and technical response.

The trouble is that athletes often try to skip the key step that ties functional overreaching and supercompensation together. After pushing themselves in hard training, they need to back off a bit with what Gambetta describes as “a lighter training session, a recovery session or active rest.” As a result of the recovery period, the energy stores and performance will return to the baseline.”

When an athlete tries to stack multiple high-effort runs, swims, or rides on top of each other, they don’t join the dots correctly to allow optimal adaptation. In his book “Peak,” Dr. Marc Bubbs describes what happens if this pattern is repeated for too long:

When athletes fail to respect the balance between training and recovery, things start to go downhill. The fatigue, weakness, and poor performance you naturally experience during an overload linger, and you don’t bounce back after rest. Your energy levels are low, your muscles ache more than normal, and the bar feels heavier than usual in the gym. You’re stuck in a rut. This is known as nonfunctional overreaching (NFOR). You’ve pushed yourself too much, or you haven’t had a sufficient amount of recovery (or worse, both!).

In such a scenario, athletes have lapsed into NFOR because they haven’t been able to bounce back sufficiently between sessions and from the cumulative load placed upon them.

Advocate Extra Physical and Mental Recovery

Bubbs urges coaches to prioritize recovery and adjust their programs so that they catch their athletes before they “fall over the edge into overtraining.” An athlete could start experiencing declines in performance and mood and hormonal disturbances, frequent bouts of sickness, sleep and appetite disruptions and other side effects. Holidays and vacations are the perfect opportunities for your clients to stop pushing so hard and cycle down into a parasympathetic (rest and digest) recovery state. This will allow them to adapt to their most recent training and come back fresh for the next block you have planned for them. So implore your athletes to back off their usual training routines by explaining that a break isn’t just preferable but necessary to optimize their gains.

Your athletes’ recovery can be passive, like lying on the beach under an umbrella reading a book. Yet they don’t have to confine themselves to sedentary pursuits. If they do have a stretch of sand at their disposal while on a trip, why not use it to play some beach volleyball or soccer? A visit to a friend’s lake house presents an excellent opportunity to paddleboard, canoe or kayak. Or, if they’re heading to a destination that boasts a lot of open terrain, why not take a relaxing, leisurely hike instead of feeling the need to tear up the trail? Active recovery could also include soaking in a hot tub, bath or sauna, mobility exercises and slow, calming activities like walking and yoga.

Weekend breaks and longer vacations don’t merely serve as a physical reset for your athletes but will also provide a welcome cognitive downshift. The grind of continually training at a high level for long periods can start to wear people down mentally. A study of elite rowers found that the participants felt more fatigued, emotionally exhausted, and stressed during periods of intense training than usual, even though their physiological stress markers like creatine kinase and cortisol weren’t highly elevated. It’s likely that at least some members of your client base are feeling similarly drained. Getting away for even a couple of days might provide as much mental recuperation as physical recovery, enabling them to resume training afterward with a clear mind, a rested body, and a renewed sense of motivation.


Grivas, Gerasimos V. 2019, October. The Effects of Detraining on Cardiovascular Parameters in Distance Runners. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337001553_The_Effects_of_Detraining_on_Cardiovascular_Parameters_in_Distance_Runners.

Girardi, M. et al. 2020, October 15. Detraining Effects Prevention: A New Rising Challenge for Athletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7593778.

Gambetta, V. Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning (Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006), p69-70.

Bubbs, Dr. Marc. Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance that is Revolutionizing Sports, p178.

Maestu, J., Jurimae, J. and Jurimae, T. 2003. Psychological and Biochemical Markers of Heavy Training Stress in Highly Trained Male Rowers. Retrieved from https://www.minervamedica.it/en/journals/medicina-dello-sport/article.php?cod=R26Y2003N02A0095.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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