By Michelle Hemley
‘Coming back’ to running after extended time off is one of the hardest things you can do as an athlete. It doesn’t matter if your break has been due to illness, injury, pregnancy or simply taking some time out with different priorities, returning to training and racing is HARD, both physically and mentally. I broke my foot a year ago and I’m only just returning to my regular running load right now, so I feel your pain! It can be a tricky situation to find yourself in and as a coach, I assist people through this all the time. If this is you, here are some things to consider and expect as you head back towards athletic glory:
Coming back is a gradual process and takes a lot of patience. If you start off too quickly by doing too much too soon (or go too hard too soon) you will either hurt yourself, make yourself sick or take too long to recover from the session. I’ve seen a lot of ‘one session heroes’ who smash out a hard session after being out of it for a month, then they are too sore to do anything for the next four days. You gain more benefits being able to train consistently, so smashing yourself once a week and taking days to recover will not fast track your fitness at all.
Pick a goal and work backwards, building up the volume and intensity of your training in increments as you get closer to the event. A gradual process is particularly important for older athletes to avoid injury and it helps to give yourself plenty of time to get back to PB shape.
Don’t let your ego get in the way
Many athletes attempt to start training back at the level they were previously. For example, if they were holding four-minute kilometes for a threshold running effort before they had their break, that is the speed they try to hold from the first session back. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that and the saying ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ rings true. Start slowly, be patient and build from there. It is a great idea to include some testing as a part of your training, so you can base your current training levels on the results and gage improvements over time. This can be a simple time trial, a heart rate test set or blood lactate test to give you something to work off.
Everyone is an individual with diverse backgrounds and physiological makeups. Don’t look at others and compare how quickly they get back to peak fitness compared to you. For one thing, you don’t know the full story of what they are doing or the extent of their break. Keep the focus on you, your goals and consistently getting the work done.
Pay attention to the ‘one percenters’
Know that cardio fitness is easier to regain than strength and power. For an experienced runner, you can feasibly be back running longer distances again after a few short weeks. What takes longer to regain is power, strength and having your body’s tissues, joints and ligaments used to the impact of bearing your weight again.
Therefore, don’t just focus on improving your fitness and trying to run further each week. Take the time to do your functional strength, massage rollers and establish good nutritional practices. This gives your body a fantastic foundation, so it can handle the increased training load as you build the work, while ensuring good habits are in place.
Let the weight come off slowly
If you have put on weight during your break, be aware that weight loss needs to occur gradually so it is sustainable and so you can ensure you are losing fat, not muscle mass. Too many people become concerned with the weight on the scales, however to be a top performing athlete what you need is a high power to weight ratio. Maximising your lean body mass compared to your body fat is key. Depending on your height, if you are losing more than 1kg a week, you are probably losing muscle mass and in power generated sports, this has a big impact. In triathlon, therefore you often see people who have lost a lot of weight suddenly have big drops in power on the bike. A way to keep track of this is to have your body fat percentage tracked regularly. This can be done easily and there are many different technologies available these days. Make sure you are always measuring under the same conditions and using the same tool to ensure consistency.
Get professional help
So many athletes try to go it alone, not wanting to spend the money on a dietitian, personal trainer or coach, believing they can figure out a comeback strategy themselves. While this really does depend on your experience, I see so many people struggle along on their own getting constantly injured every few months, not making many gains in improvement and even putting themselves in harm’s way by attempting the latest fad fitness and diet information they picked up on the internet.
A return from injury or break will be so much quicker and executed better with professional guidance to keep you on track and at times, hold you back. To me, if you are not willing to invest in your improvement with a coach (or attend a coaching session to gain feedback) or exercise professional (like an exercise physiologist or strength and conditioning coach), you are not that serious about reaching your performance goals.
To conclude…….have patience grasshopper! Be prepared to feel terrible when you first start back, but remember this crucial point; consistency is key. Keep plugging away week after week, and give yourself plenty of time. believe in yourself and you’ll get there.