Returning to Training after a break.
My name is Neil and I like sport. I am a Cross-country and Alpine skier, cyclist, runner, hillwalker, rock and ice climber and a few other things. Sport is my addiction, my crack habit and it is proving hard to shake off. One result of this is that since early childhood in the Scottish Highlands I have managed to break many, many bones, tear assorted ligaments, undergo more knee surgery than is ideal and pick up more sniffles and viruses than I could possibly count. This article is the slowly learned experience of a practising layman. It is what I have found, after many false starts to work for me. Feel free to disagree if you find something else works for you. Nat Muir, a top class runner from the 80's used to come back from injury straight into a punishing two hundred miles per week training schedule. For lots of us that would be a decent monthly milage at any point. At this time I would like to thank Gerald Hecht for his feedback and encouragement when a version of this article was first posted. He brought my attention to several great runners and I am grateful for his informative and entertaining correspondence.
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There is a point in any athlete’s experience when everything in training just goes perfectly. The mileage piles up effortlessly. The gym work breezes past and competitive performances improve with no apparent effort.
Sadly and predictably there also come times in any athlete’s experience when the wheels fall off completely. Chronic or traumatic injuries as well as illness can bring all exercise related activity to a grinding halt in the blink of an eye and the pause can last a considerable time in some cases.
So far so normal. It is important not to panic or worry overmuch. Everyone will have these problems at some stage. Getting injured or falling ill is not the end of the world. It has been done many times before by many people and the important thing is to make sure that you manage your return to training in such a way that you don’t just make a bad situation worse. If you try too hard or too soon to come back after a layoff the chances are that you will only delay a return to your previous level of performance.
With this in mind here are a few things you might find helpful as you work your way back to long term fitness.
Assess the history and the situation.
Whether you are a part time park runner or a sub three hour marathon runner the basics of coming back are very similar. How long have you been away from training? Obviously the longer the break the longer you can expect to take to get back up to speed and the easier you should go at first. The next question is to do with how fit you were before the break. An experienced Ultra-marathon runner with twenty years of training behind her will be starting off in a different place to the couch to 5K newcomer. Another question that really matters is “How serious was the injury or illness?”. This may be related to the question of how long you have been away from training bur not necessarily. Some things just take a lot more out of a body than others and some injuries may leave you fit to train but with sensitive areas which need extra care and future reinforcement. For instance pretty much any knee injury will involve a future programme of building up the muscle around the joint. Lots of runners and cyclists do no strength conditioning but may have to incorporate some specific weight or resistance work into their post injury regime.
The most important thing I believe is to rid your mind of any thoughts of where you were before the layoff. What you are looking to do now is be the best you can be at this moment in time. Getting back to the best you ever were is a longer term project and can’t be rushed to suit the timetable of a sports season or upcoming event.
Take it easy.
This is the slogan you can have burned into your mind. Put it on a T-shirt if you like. Forget about looming race dates and pre-planned routines. Put aside the artificial urgency of trying to aim for perfection by a random deadline. Starting fresh mentally allows you to concentrate on putting down the building blocks of sustainable health again.
Start off with several sessions way below your normal level of effort. This is a period when you want to reacquaint your muscles with the movements that used to come naturally. After a break they lose that force of habit. Keep your heart rate down to fifty or sixty percent of your maximum. If you are not using a heart rate monitor then this is a level of effort where you can easily maintain a conversation without putting in any great effort. Breathing should be easy and for most people through the nose. If you are a runner start with a couple of walking sessions and then turn them into slow jog/walk sessions and then eventually into slow runs. If weights are your thing then reduce the load way down and cut the reps. Cyclists can go for shorter rides, stay away from hills and keep in lower gears. Whatever your sport the principle is the same. Take it easy. It can be frustrating at this point to be constantly thinking that the effort you put in just isn’t enough. That you could be doing so much more or going so much further but stick with it. The slow groundwork that you put in now gives your body and your brain the opportunity to become familiar with the process of exercise once again. If you get back home after the end of a training run or gym session and feel like you had the same again in you then that is ideal. Taking it easy makes it all the more likely that you will be moving in continuous forward steps rather than doing the “Training Cha Cha Cha” of one step forward and one back again.
How long this phase lasts should be dictated by your body. If you are finding this level a struggle then dial the effort down another notch and keep taking it easy or even easier.
After a period of between two and six weeks you are feeling fine and dandy with no pain, sniffles or other problems then start to step it up to a higher level of effort.
Monitoring and feedback as you increase the load.
As time passes and training settles into a more comfortable routine it is important to keep an eye on how your body is reacting to the extra workload. If you are often tired or run down then ease back on the training again to find a less stressful level of effort. It is better to ease off and recover with no break than to get sick and have to start from the beginning again two weeks down the line. It is hard to enjoy what you are doing when you are constantly knackered and regularly starting from scratch.
As you start to build up you will find that there are two main ways to make things more challenging or demanding. One is to increase the duration of exercise and the other is to increase the intensity. Personally my preference is to opt for the former and build up the duration. Go for longer runs or bike rides. Swim an extra few laps every session and push a few more reps in the gym. Continue to keep the intensity low at this stage. You will build muscular endurance and stamina but in a way which is sustainable and controllable. At first add in a longer session to the mix of shorter ones and gradually increase your session times more generally. Try not to follow a long workout with another similar long workout. Should you want to do two long sessions back to back then make one all about legs and the other all about the upper body.
When you are once again comfortable with longer training times you might want to increase the intensity of your workouts. Do this by making your run, bike swim or whatever sessions faster add some more weight to your dumbbells. Put more effort and speed into your movements. Put in some hill sessions and generally work up a bit of a sweat. These outings will be at a higher heart rate and talking will be harder, not impossible but breathing will get in the way of conversation at times.
It is very important that if you increase the intensity you should reduce the duration of your exercise. Change only one thing at a time. Stick with long and easy or short and hard. Don’t try to do a longer and harder session so early on the comeback trail as it puts a lot of strain on the body’s resources and the recovery time is significantly greater. Which brings me to the next point . . .
John O’ Regan is one of Ireland’s most accomplished Ultra runners. He has won the Yukon 100mile race and the North Pole marathon amongst many others. Once, during a public talk he said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said “Training well doesn’t make you fitter. Resting well makes you fitter”.
What he meant was that it is important to rest enough after exercise to allow your body to recover and rebuild so that you can approach the next training session or event in good physical condition and so put in another high quality effort in the quest for good health and fitness.
If you were up half the night with a teething infant or didn’t get home from the pub until three in the morning or just feel run down and tired then remember the first point made at the start of this article.
Take it easy.
Going into the gym when still tired from a previous effort leads to poor form and potential strains. Running too hard when still tired develops bad technique and just allows little niggles to become big niggles. Take the time to fully recover from your efforts. Eat well and eat enough to cover your outgoing calories. Sleep well and sleep enough to recover from your exertions. Be prepared to adjust your training schedule if you have a couple of nights of bad sleep. Ease down if you feel unwell and adjust what you do if you feel any unusual strains or aches. There is no training benefit to be had from grinding yourself down. Learn to listen to your body and respond to the need to take it easy sometimes. Flexibility is your friend here. Ultimately we all want to get back to the times when everything goes like an absolute breeze.
Thanks for reading and enjoy your training.
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