The memory of muscles

When coming out of a period of inactivity caused by injury or force majeure, the main fear is, “What will it be like to run again? Will I be so out of shape? How long will it take me to recover?”

Aware of the efforts made up to the time of stopping, the anxiety for the return is all the greater as the more precise was the state of shape we left with.
In a nutshell, let’s face it, we are wondering if all efforts have been in vain. We can then question how much depends on us, on bad luck, on injury, or something else. What remains in our minds, however, is that question, “Will I have lost everything?”

Good news

I know they are not very common these days, but this is good news: muscles have a memory. You may have heard of it before, although you may have associated it with the memory (or ease) with which we repeat familiar gestures, such as riding a bike or playing tennis. In this case, however, muscle memory is a little different and has to do with the preparation and strength that the muscle achieves through training. In other words: when you are forced into inactivity, your muscles inevitably lose tone and strength, but when you resume training, it will take you less time to regain your initial shape. Got it? If it took you, say, 100 bars of energy to reach that state of form, to recover it after a period of inactivity will take, for example, only 80 bars. It’s not half, it’s not very little, but it’s still less than what you had put in before!

How is this possible?

The reason is not yet clear. Tests done on laboratory mice (pictures of mice working out? Isn’t that beautiful?) has shown that something happens at the molecular level: cells undergoing training develop nuclei that remain even when training ceases and are reactivated upon resumption, decreasing the time it takes to regain previous form. In short the memory of muscles resides at the molecular level.

Moving from mouse trials to human trials is not a simple proportional process. A couple of “human” experiments have been done, however.
In a recent study, a group of out-of-shape men were given a 12-week training regimen designed to build muscle followed by a 12-week break. Upon recovery, it took only 8 weeks to regain muscle tone prior to the stop.

In contrast, another study analyzed 19 young men and women with no sports history behind them. Instead of training them fully, they opted to work them using only one leg for 10 weeks. This “lopsided” training was followed by a 20-week stop period. Upon return to the laboratory, biological samples were taken from both candidates’ legs before resuming training and at the end of the second training cycle. The results showed that the trained leg had retained 50 percent of the strength gained in the first cycle of training and thus took less time to regain previous form.

The explanation seems to lie, once again, in what happens at the molecular level: not only do muscle cells “remember” something, but prior training saves recovery time for the next training cycle.

The takeaway

Don’t worry too much if your fitness suffers from this forced stop (and don’t forget the noble reason why you are doing this): when you return to your usual training cycle you should recover but not start from the starting line. It’s kind of like redoing a marathon that you had almost completed but not restarting from the start. It’s not the same as picking up exactly where you were forced to leave off, but still better than nothing.

Unfortunately, you will also not be able to collect the ten-card you are entitled to each time you pass from the start. But you can’t have everything, can you? Already you had muscle memory, accept it!

(via New York Times)


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