Monday Musings: On Regaining Lost Muscle

It’s no secret that muscle loss happens quickly during periods of forced (or unforced) inactivity. I went through a two-week exercise hiatus, followed by another two weeks with pretty minimal activity, and another couple of weeks with pretty low intensity workouts (compared to my usual level). In total, it was about a month and a half of significantly reduced activity. I would expect some muscle and fitness loss during that time, but this weekend my muscle loss slapped me right acrossthe face (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Of course after not hiking for almost two months, I chose to reintroduce hiking with back-to-back steep trails this weekend, climbing 1000 m and 800 m respectively. Since they were both well under 20k return, I figured I’d be fine. Mostly, I anticipated burning lungs and a pounding heart (i.e. I feared that my endurance would be shot). As further proof that I am rarely right, I was wrong about this too. My cardiovascular fitness was fine. My legs, on the other hand, were not.

It is the first time that I can remember–although I admit I am outstanding at blocking exercise-induced physical pain from my memory–my quads hurting during a hike. Ever. Even more alarming, my calves hurt! I (used to) have calves of steel! How did this happen? I had to find out. In the past I’ve heard that you can lose everything from 10-25% of muscle loss after just two weeks of inactivity. Could that be true? And, if I’ve been active but just not doing the same activities as usual, would I experience the same degree of muscle loss? Once again, I had to consult with dear Google to fill in the blanks on my muscle loss woes.

Here is what I learned:

1. It takes just two weeks of physical inactivity for those who are physically fit to lose a significant amount of their muscle strength. What’s significant? Well one study quoted that “young people” (side note: I assume I still count as young people) can lose up to 30%(!!!!) of their muscle strength in that time. Well, this explains a lot about the muscle soreness I’ve experienced during my recent hiking endeavors…and how a set of 6 dead lifts leaves my glutes feeling ever so tender. I guess I just assumed losing fitness was all about the endurance and cardiovascular side of things, not the strength piece. It is just like me to drastically underestimate the importance of something like muscles. I am an Arts major, after all, and have always shied away from that pesky science.

2. While general exercise (cycling, cardio, etc.) seems to help recover physical fitness, it doesn’t do as much for muscle strength. What?!? All those hours on the cursed elliptical were for naught! This should have been so obvious given that, no matter what settings I tried, the elliptical never seemed all that hard. But had I known this, I might have avoided it altogether purely to save myself the mental hell that goes hand in hand with my using the elliptical. All I can say about this is thank goodness I started working with a trainer.

3. One study I read about said it will take three times the amount of time I was inactive to get my muscle mass back. I am giving myself a 3 week inactive period since my first week ‘back to workouts’ after the injury was pretty light. That means 9 weeks to get back to pre-injury muscle mass…which, by my calendar, means I will only get there around July 8th. Coincidentally this is right around my birthday, so I guess happy birthday to me and I will be gifted the return of fully functioning muscles. This is depressing.

4. Evidently the more muscle mass you start out with, the more you lose. It feels wrong to me that a fit person will lose more muscle than an unfit person. Physiologically, I understand it, so when I say it feels wrong I mean it feels unfair. Because the one perk of starting out fit should be keeping more of your muscle mass, shouldn’t it? This makes me want to throw in the towel and aspire to be the unfit skinny person…except that I’m not blessed with a body that will keep me skinny if I’m not fit. I would also like to file that under unfair.

The moral of the story seems to be that I lost a lot of muscle and it will take me some time to get it back. The good thing is that I’m so incredibly stubborn that I will force myself to hike at every opportunity to beat my legs into submission (i.e. fitness). The more they ache, the more I will push. That is how you teach muscles a lesson.