It has happened to all of us at some point: Life gets in the way and we end up taking weeks, months or even years off from swimming.
When you stop swimming, even for just a short period of time, your VO2 max decreases, your muscles start to atrophy, and you’ll lose your feel of the water almost immediately.
But before you give up on swimming or think you can never take a break, let us break down what’s really going on in your body when you stop swimming. Plus, we’ll share a few positive side effects of taking time off, and our tips to make your swimming comeback.
Detraining is a phenomenon in which you lose the beneficial effects of training, but it is reversible.
Your fitness loss is dependent on several factors:
- Length of Your Break: One week away from swimming is very different from one year away.
- How Long You’ve Been Swimming: Veteran swimmers with 10+ years of experience won’t lose their technique as much as new swimmers.
- Your Fitness Level: If you’re very fit before your break, you’ll lose fitness at a slower rate. When you’re fit, muscle memory can help you regain lost muscle more quickly when you return to your training.
- Age: As you age, aerobic capacity, muscle quality and agility naturally decline.
What Happens When You Stop Working Out
When you take a break from training, your body experiences a range of changes. Depending on the length of your break, the changes you’ll see vary from minor to very impactful.
- Days: Your feel of the water will start to decrease, and you’ll begin to lose endurance.
- Weeks: Your endurance will start to decline more rapidly, and your VO2 max will be affected.
- Months: After months of inactivity, your muscles will begin to atrophy, and you may have an increased risk of health issues such as heart disease and diabetes.
Let’s dig into some of these effects:
1. Reduction in Aerobic Capacity (VO2 Max)
Swimming requires high levels of aerobic fitness. And when you go a few weeks without hitting the pool, your heart begins losing its ability to handle extra blood flow and your body’s ability to effectively use oxygen (also known as VO2 max) declines.
Research shows significant reductions in VO2 max within 2-4 weeks of detraining.
A study found that most of the aerobic capacity gained through exercise over two to three months is lost within two to four weeks.
2. Loss of Muscle Strength
If you stop working out, you’re going to lose muscle mass and strength because you’re not using it. When you’re training regularly, your body adapts and creates new muscle tissue to support your increased activity level.
When you take a long enough break, your body recognizes that it doesn’t need the extra muscle and will signal the muscles to shrink in size to align with your new activity level (or lack thereof).
That being said, though, you will maintain your strength longer than your power or endurance. Studies have found that strength can be maintained for up to four weeks, while power and endurance will decline significantly in the same time period. The concept of muscle memory allows your body to retrain relatively quickly.
3. Higher Blood Pressure & Blood Sugar
Taking time away from the pool can cause your blood pressure to increase. One study found that in a group of men with hypertension, six months of training reduced blood pressure. But when those same men took a two week break from activity, their blood pressure rose again.
It’s a similar story with blood sugar. Regular swimming can reduce blood glucose levels, but a prolonged break from training can result in higher blood sugar after meals.
4. Slower Metabolism
Regular exercise boosts your metabolic rate, which can help you lose weight and keep it off. That means, unfortunately, that when you stop exercising regularly, your metabolism will slow down.
When that happens, your caloric needs decrease. If you continue to eat the same amount of calories you were when training, you may gain weight.
If you’re planning a long break, be mindful of your food intake and know that you may not feel as hungry because you aren’t burning extra calories from exercise!
5. Other Effects
Stopping your exercise routine can result in a host of other effects beyond those we outlined above. Here’s a look at some of the others:
- Lethargy: You might feel less energized throughout the day and have trouble focusing.
- Mood: Your mood may be affected when you don’t exercise regularly.
- Sleep Quality: When you don’t tire yourself out with exercise, you might have trouble getting a restful night’s sleep.
- Bone Health: Exercise helps keep your bones healthy. Some people may experience a reduction in bone density after stopping their exercise routine.
Benefits of Taking a Break From Swimming
After reading all of that, you may be thinking that we would never recommend taking a break from swimming. Well, that’s just not true! In some cases, taking a break can be just what you need to continue your commitment to the sport. Here’s why:
- Physical Break: Sometimes, we push ourselves too hard and get burned out. After tough training cycles, don’t feel bad about taking a week or two to rest and recover. Your body needs time to repair muscles and rebuild itself so you can crush your next goal.
- Mental Break: Training can take a toll on your mental health. It may feel good to spend some time away from swimming to focus on other areas of your health, so you can return to the sport with a positive mindset.
How to Plan a Break From Swimming
If you think you might need a break from swimming, try these tips to make sure your time away from the pool is restful and productive:
- Plan Ahead: Take a look at your training schedule and identify the best time to take a break. Maybe you have a vacation coming up soon, or you’d like to take some time to rest after a big competition.
- Stay Active: Cross-train or try light activity to stay active while you aren’t swimming. Walking, yoga, cycling and weight training are great options!
- Focus on Nutrition: Even when you aren’t training hard, don’t neglect your nutrition! Fuel your body with enough calories to feel your best. Check out our interview with a registered dietitian for healthy meal ideas!
How to Make a Swimming Comeback
If you have taken a long break from swimming and are ready to get back into a routine, patience and persistence are key. Remember, not all is lost! You can regain your swimming fitness. Detraining is just a small part of your entire fitness journey. Think about the following things as you make your comeback:
- Ease Back Into It: You won’t be able to swim as far as you did before your break. That’s ok! We recommend taking whatever distance you think you should swim and cutting it in half to start. Take it slow to make sure you stay injury-free!
- Follow the 10% Rule: Each week, only increase your total volume by 10%. Allow your body time to adapt and rebuild fitness.
- Follow a Plan: The best way to ensure you are progressing effectively is to follow a structured Training Plan. Check out the MySwimPro app for a personalized Training Plan tailored to your goals, swimming speed and distance preferences. We guarantee that you’ll be swimming 10% faster in just four weeks!
If you’ve gotten back in shape after a long break, comment below with your tips and tricks to stay consistent. Start a free trial of MySwimPro Coach to start your personalized Training Plan and build new, healthy habits!