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Holidays And Detraining - Why Christmas Doesn’t Have To Spell Disaster

Your training is going well, you’re seeing results and cycling faster and producing more power. But then it happens, Christmas – with its mince pies, endless parties and excess. Here’s how not to let the festive season slow you down. 

How long does it take to become detrained?

Christmas – a time for joy, love, cheer, indulgent eating and over drinking, which can all put a strain on our training routine. And whilst even the most diligent of cyclists has the odd ‘break out’ day, when you refuel on pizza and a pint, striking the balance between cycling and socialising over the month-long Yuletide season can be hard to do. 

Noticing an increase in cycling speed, or power, week-on-week is a satisfying thing. When you train, the stress that you place on your body causes physiological adaptations. As you gradually increase the intensity or duration of that stress, your body adapts and you make gains. But only if you include sufficient rest and allow it to return to its pre-training state. How long this takes is different for every person but we’re talking days, rather than weeks.

According to the Journal of Sports Medicine, “Detraining is the partial or complete loss of training-induced adaptations, in response to an insufficient training stimulus”. In short, it’s what happens when you’ve stopped recovering and you don’t get back on the bike.

What are the effects of de-training?

The effects of detraining start between three and five days after your last activity, although at first any losses to your fitness and strength are small.

After around a week, the changes are more pronounced – your heart is weaker and the amount of blood it can pump around your body is reduced. Your muscles find it harder to soak up glucose from your blood stream and become less efficient at getting rid of lactic acid which means that if you do go out for a spin, the burn will kick in earlier.

Spend even longer in party mode, say between two and four weeks, and according to scientists you’ll see “significant reductions in VO2max” or oxygen capacity – the maximal amount of oxygen you can take in.

How can you find time to train and party?

Most training plans build in one easy day and one day-off a week, and the traditional model of training in blocks usual works on a ‘three weeks on, one week off’ basis. During the easy week, you’ll do 60-70% of your usual ‘on-week’ training. If you or your coach can schedule these lighter days and weeks around social events, then the picture starts to look less bleak and there’s plenty of time for Christmas cheer.

But with Christmas comes other problems. Spending extended periods of time away from home, without your bike, is enough to make many cyclists start foaming at the handlebars. And for some, the thought of being placed being in cycling exile (particularly at the in-laws) begs the question, ‘what else can I do?’. But this can be a dangerous game.

Going for a run, doing a HIIT class, or pumping iron the gym is almost always a mistake. Unless you're already a regular runner or gym user, (i.e. you've been going to the gym or running at least twice a week for the last month or so) the risk of injury is high.  A gentle walk is probably a better way go if you need to escape.

Five Christmas dos and don’ts

  • Do be measured with your alcohol intake; the diuretic effects of drinking alcohol can cause dehydration, which reduces performance and can increase the risk of overheating
  • Don’t spend your evenings cruising the all-you-can eat buffet at the work do; sticking to your usual diet can help minimise the impacts of time off
  • Don’t look for any alternative form of exercise (HIIT workout, 5km intense sprint) – you’re likely to end up with an injury
  • Do make the most of the time off the bike by getting lots of rest; a few days off can be beneficial both physically and psychologically 
  • Do add Christmas into your training plan by scheduling rest days and weeks around major social events.

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