The effect of detraining and reduced training on the physiological adaptations to aerobic exercise training

Sports Med. 1989 Nov;8(5):302-20. doi: 10.2165/00007256-198908050-00004.


In previously sedentary individuals, regularly performed aerobic exercise results in significant improvements in exercise capacity. The development of peak exercise performance, as typified by competitive endurance athletes, is dependent upon several months to years of aerobic training. The physiological adaptations associated with these improvements in both maximal exercise performance, as reflected by increases in maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), and submaximal exercise endurance include increases in both cardiovascular function and skeletal muscle oxidative capacity. Despite prolonged periods of aerobic training, reductions in maximal and submaximal exercise performance occur within weeks after the cessation of training. These losses in exercise performance coincide with declines in cardiovascular function and muscle metabolic potential. Significant reductions in VO2max have been reported to occur within 2 to 4 weeks of detraining. This initial rapid decline in VO2max is likely related to a corresponding fall in maximal cardiac output which, in turn, appears to be mediated by a reduced stroke volume with little or no change in maximal heart rate. A loss in blood volume appears to, at least partially, account for the decline in stroke volume and VO2max during the initial weeks of detraining, although changes in cardiac hypertrophy, total haemoglobin content, skeletal muscle capillarisation and temperature regulation have been suggested as possible mediating factors. When detraining continues beyond 2 to 4 weeks, further declines in VO2max appear to be a function of corresponding reductions in maximal arterial-venous (mixed) oxygen difference. Whether reductions in oxygen delivery to and/or extraction by working muscle regulates this progressive decline is not readily apparent. Changes in maximal oxygen delivery may result from decreases in total haemoglobin content and/or maximal muscle blood flow and vascular conductance. The declines in skeletal muscle oxidative enzyme activity observed with detraining are not causally linked to changes in VO2max but appear to be functionally related to the accelerated carbohydrate oxidation and lactate production observed during exercise at a given intensity. Alternatively, reductions in submaximal exercise performance may be related to changes in the mean transit time of blood flow through the active muscle and/or the thermoregulatory response (i.e. degree of thermal strain) to exercise. In contrast to the responses observed with detraining, currently available research indicates that the adaptations to aerobic training may be retained for at least several months when training is maintained at a reduced level. Reductions of one- to two-thirds in training frequency and/or duration do not significantly alter VO2max or submaximal endurance time provided the intensity of each exercise session is maintained.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Physical Education and Training*