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The Use It or Lose It Principle of Fitness

Updated on August 13, 2012

Use it or lose it!

Your fitness never stands still so you either have to Use it- or lose it! This cyclist will put lots of hours of training in place to ensure he maintains and develops his fitness to guard against deconditioning
Your fitness never stands still so you either have to Use it- or lose it! This cyclist will put lots of hours of training in place to ensure he maintains and develops his fitness to guard against deconditioning | Source

Detraining and Deconditioning in action

Your fitness never stands still. It's forever evolving and developing in either a positive manner or decreasing through the phenomena of deconditioning and detraining principles of fitness.

There are a huge number of factors which can influence how quickly you gain fitness or lose those hard earned fitness gains. Put simply you have the Use It or Lose It principle of fitness.

This article will run through how quickly deconditioning and the loss of fitness occurs and what you can do to counteract such a process.

What is the definition of physical deconditioning?

A steady deterioration in the efficiency or the heart and skeletal muscles in relation to one or more of the below factors

  • a sedentary lifestyle,
  • prolonged bed rest,
  • decreased maximal oxygen uptake
  • decreased lean body mass
  • reduced cardiac output
  • exercise intolerance
  • debilitating disease or
  • clinical psychological problems resulting in decreased physical activity

What is deconditioning in athletes?

Deconditioning, put simply is the loss of fitness over time. It can lead to a long term reduction in sporting performance. It is a gradual physiological process and can simply mean that an athlete or exerciser has lost their performance edge or put in the way of the runner or cyclist as a loss of 'Race Fitness'.

Situations where deconditioning is likely to occur

  • Injury forcing the athlete to temporarily cease exercising
  • Presence of respiratory infection
  • Post competitive season (Positive deconditioning)

How quickly do athletes lose fitness?

In experienced intermediate level and elite athletes a strong base of fitness has been developed over a period of many years of training. This strong base of fitness often leads to a long period of de-training required to return to a lower, more sedentary level of fitness when compared to less experienced athletes and beginners.

No matter what you do for fitness- Use it or lose it!

Your fitness is forever evolving and devolving. You can lose it almost as quickly as you gained it if you don't maintain your activity levels
Your fitness is forever evolving and devolving. You can lose it almost as quickly as you gained it if you don't maintain your activity levels | Source

Positive deconditioning

Sometimes it's not a bad thing to lose some fitness.If an athlete appropriately uses periodisation of training during their athletic year they will factor in different phases of training which allow progression in fitness throughout the sporting year.

After completion of a main period of competition (or Race season) it is likely that the body is physiologically tired and the athlete psychologically requires a break from competition and high level intensity training. Many sports scientists and coaches respond to this as a transition period of active rest and recovery where fitness is allowed to decrease and could be deemed as positive deconditioning prior to off-season training beginning to increase progression in training workload and intensity.

The 'Use It Or Lose It' principle of fitness in the real world

A great real world example (although extreme) of deconditioning and detraining is seen in cases of broken bones where a plaster caste is required to help the bone heal. The inability to move the joint and exercise the joining muscles and ligaments. As the muscles remain inactive and unable to perform their simple basic functions associated with posture and supporting the musculoskeletal system a visible loss in both physical strength down towards a sedentary equivalent and muscle size and tonality decrease.

The Use it Or Lose It Theory and you

If you've spent a period of time building up your fitness there's no need to fret if you miss the occasional workout or even week worth of workouts whether you have other commitments or an awful cold.

As general fitness is developed over an extended period of time it also takes an extended period of time to lose that fitness. In many cases it takes almost as long as it took you to gain the fitness to lose it again. In more specific sports that top level of fitness is often lost relatively quickly whereas the general aspects of your fitness takes an extended space of time to be lost. If you stop those race pace workouts for a period of a few weeks you'll certainly find that your specific race pace will be lower in your next competition.

More on training periodisation

Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training
Periodization-5th Edition: Theory and Methodology of Training

The comprehensive resource for any athlete or coach on training principles to improve your next competitive sporting season. Bompa is one of the world's experts on Periodization of Training


What happens to your body when you stop exercising completely?

A number of physiological changes occur once you stop exercising completely for a period of just a couple of weeks such as

  • Decreased mitochondrial density (mitochondria help to break down adenosine triphosphate to create energy in working muscles),
  • Reduced VO2 max (you're body's ability to work aerobically at higher workloads)
  • Slightly reduced muscle strength and power output.

It is widely believed that your heart and lungs are initially more adversely affected in the initial phases of deconditioning after ceasing exercise. Muscular abilities initially less significantly reduced.

Good luck with your training


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