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What’s the Minimum Dose of Training to Stay Fit?

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Move it (fast) or lose it....

What’s the Minimum Dose of Training to Stay Fit?​

A new review assesses what it takes to maintain endurance and strength when circumstances interfere with your usual training

My college coach used to assign us a week of complete rest every November, after the conclusion of the cross-country season. But one of my teammates, an exercise science student, discovered the research of Robert Hickson, who did some classic studies in the early 1980s on maintaining fitness with reduced training. So, during our yearly week of sloth and bacchanalian revels, we would sneak out for two 30-minute bouts of hard running, hoping that would allow us to be both well-rested and still fit when we started training for indoor track.

Life as a grown-up is more complicated, and the reasons for temporarily reducing training are sometimes considerably more pressing—like a pandemic, say. But the question endures: what’s the smallest dose of training you can get away with temporarily while staying mostly fit? It’s particularly relevant for military personnel, whose ability to train while on deployment is often severely constrained, which is why a group of researchers at the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, led by Barry Spiering, has just published an interesting review of the “minimum dose” literature in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

The review addresses three key training variables: frequency (how many days per week), volume (how long is your endurance workout, or how many sets and reps do you lift), and intensity (how hard or how heavy). It only includes studies in which the subjects reduced their training for at least four weeks, to distinguish it from research on tapering before big competitions—although some of the conclusions are similar. And it’s focused on athletic performance, not weight loss or health.

Maintain Your Endurance​

The main conclusions about endurance are still based on those Hickson studies from the early 1980s, with a bit of confirmation from more recent studies. Hickson’s basic design was to put volunteers through ten weeks of fairly hellish training, involving six days a week of 40 minutes of cycling or running at intensities that reached 90 to 100 percent of max heart rate by the end. Then, for another 15 weeks, they reduced either the number of weekly sessions (to two or four), the duration of sessions (to 13 or 26 minutes), or the intensity of the sessions (to 61 to 67 percent or 82 to 87 percent of max heart rate).

The vertical axis shows VO2 max, a measure of aerobic fitness. On the horizontal axis, you have baseline pre-training values on the left, for subjects who were recreationally active but untrained. After the ten-week period of hard six-day-a-week training, they’ve increased VO2 max by a very impressive 20 to 25 percent. Then, for the next 15 weeks, their VO2 max just stays at the new value, regardless of whether they drop down to only two or four days a week.
The overall conclusion of the new review, then, is that you can get away with as few as two sessions a week as long as you maintain volume and intensity of your workouts. But they caution that maintaining your VO2 max isn’t the same as maintaining your ability to perform long-duration endurance activities. Don’t expect to run your best marathon after a few months of twice-a-week training: your legs, if nothing else, won’t be able to handle it.

The picture was similar when Hickson’s volunteers reduced the duration of their training sessions to 13 or 26 minutes (i.e. reducing their baseline duration by one third or two thirds). Once again, VO2 max gains were preserved for 15 weeks. This study also included tests of short (~5-minute) and long (~2-hour) endurance. Short endurance was preserved in both groups, but the 13-minute group got worse in the two-hour test.

The third and final variable that Hickson manipulated was intensity—and here, finally, we get confirmation that training does matter. Dropping training intensity by a third (from 90 to 100 percent of max heart rate to 82-87 percent) led to declines in VO2 max and long endurance; dropping it by two-thirds (to 61 to 67 percent) wiped out most of the training gains. The takeaway: you can get away with training less often, or for shorter durations, but not with going easy.

There are a few important caveats here. Most notably, we’re drawing these conclusions based mostly on one specific, unusual, and probably unsustainable training protocol: hammering six days a week. If you have a more balanced training program that mixes hard and easy training, does it take more or less training to maintain fitness? It’s not obvious.

 
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