by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC
You train to live, not the other way around.
Apparently, this is the season of vacations.
When one of my clients says, "Hey Sully, I'm going on vacation for a couple of weeks," the first thing I think is: What's that like?
The second thing I think is How much strength will you lose?
Fortunately, the answer to the second question is usually: Not much. Strength is a persistent adaptation. What we observe is that if you go without training for a couple of weeks, you will lose both conditioning and strength, but more of the conditioning.
The reasons for this are simple. Conditioning adaptations are partly structural, but have quite a bit to do with the enhancement of oxidative energy systems. That's just a sort of biochemical programming. Strength, at least after the initial period of training, is also about energy systems (primarily cytosolic or so-called "anaerobic" systems), and also about neuromuscular programming, but also very much about the addition of tissue. After a certain point, getting stronger means the addition of muscle, tendon, ligament, and even bone. These adaptations take time to accrue...but also time to decay.
A good rule of thumb, therefore, is that if you go off on vacation for a couple of weeks and don't train, as an Athlete of Aging you'll come back with at most 5-10% of your strength gone off the top, and you'll be more easily gassed in the gym. The good news is that you'll get it all back in very short order when you dive back in.
After a week or two off, we'll probably back your program off by a few weeks but leave you in more-or-less the same training pattern (depending on the complexity of your program) and bring you back from there. If you take three weeks or more, we will probably drop you into a short linear progression to get you within striking distance of your pre-vacation lifts. You'll be pushing for PRs again before you know it. Longer layoffs mean longer remedial LPs; shorter ones can have a 1- or 2-week remediation.
What about "maintenance" programs? This is a sticky wicket. I've never been comfortable programming for "maintenance," because it's hard to maintain strength without pushing for more strength. And vacations are a lousy time to try to push for more strength. Whenever I've gone on vacation (like, during the first Obama Administration), I never tried to keep to my current programming. Texas or HLM on the road just never seemed feasible to me.
Instead, I would plan on getting to any gym I could find when there was some down time planned, once or twice in a week, and exercise. In other words, I would just go into the gym, find a squat rack, work my way up to a set that was heavy without being crazy-grueling, repeat it once or twice, maybe with more or less weight, and then do the same with the press or deadlift. I'd save my conditioning for the pool or the ocean or a walk to one of the local attractions. This approach, I have found, results in pretty good "maintenance" of my hard-won gains, and less loss of strength while I'm away, while avoiding the fatigue and soreness that can come with heavy training--and which can really put a damper on one's holiday, not to mention one's relationships.
The real lesson here: You train to live, not the other way around. A vacation is an opportunity to go out and enjoy your strength and conditioning, to play and jump and swim and live life to the fullest. Training should enrich our lives, not steal from them. Go out and live and have fun.
If you can exercise while you're away, to keep the feel of heavy weights in your hands and on your back and keep those movement patterns fresh, by all means, do so. Keep it moderate and fun. Don't obsess and don't go super-heavy. Enjoy it. If you can't, just wait until you get back.
Don't worry: The iron will be waiting and ready for your return, patient and stalwart and heavy as ever. And so will I.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.