We have all been there, we had good intentions of keeping our new found fitness regime up, but due to injury, work, family commitments, or just plain life getting in the way it can be hard to going again. First of all, don’t feel guilty and don’t worry, we have all had to start again, whether it is after a week, a month, a year or since the kids were born. Trust us, when we say that you will get your strength and fitness back. I should know; I’ve had a few serious breaks over the years. I was an avid and competitive runner who then had 8 months off after an Achilles injury, I’ve had to start again after family, I have also more recently had a long slow recovery following heart surgery and a virus.
If you are someone who has previously trained, your training history and experience will give you a distinct advantage over someone who has never trained, and that muscle memory and experience will make it easier to get back to form.
And not to mention, your first win! The fact that you now want to go back into the gym and train – this positive mindset can sometimes be the hardest part of beginning again. However, if you're having a few psychological battles getting back into a routine these five steps I have used will help you in returning to the gym:
1. Stop the guilts & self pity: Don't beat yourself up
2. Be honest with your current level – eg evaluate your losses
3. Be thankful for how far you've come
4. Make a plan & set some goals (10k race, 5 pull ups, 20 press ups, 70kg squat)
5. Execute that plan (Get a personal trainer, set aside gym time, renew your gym membership, get family members/friends on side to support you)
So what does happens to your body during extended time off, and what you can expect when you head back into the gym. The good news is that with a sensible plan, you'll get back to your stronger, faster self soon — just as long as you're careful to avoid injury.
The honest truth - how unfit am I now?
Lots of different body & energy systems come into play with exercise, and can revert back when you become sedentary again. The amount of blood in your body, which increases when you're fit, is one of the first things to decrease. You might start huffing and puffing a little more, as studies have found that just two weeks off, the VO2max of runners begins to drop, and they're out of breath sooner than before. After two months, you'll have lost around 15% of it, according to another research study. If you were an athlete or someone who has trained for years, even after three months you'd still be better off than somebody who's never trained. However, this doesn't apply to new gains and new fitness endeavours, for example if you did your very first learn to run 5k program and then went straight back to the couch. You would have to start over.
Strength doesn't decline as quickly as your cardiovascular capability. After 4 weeks of no training, you'll still have most of your strength and power. However, after a year you are looking at around 50% of the strength you originally gained when you were training regularly.
The good news is that not all the gains are lost. The extra capillaries you've grown to supply blood to your muscles are still there after a year. Your heart will still be strong, and your lungs will still have a greater capacity than before you started training.
So how much fitness have you lost?
If you’ve only taken a few weeks off: you'll have a small decrease (but fairly negligible) in your cardiovascular fitness, and lost next to none of your strength.
If you’ve taken a year off (but you were in good shape prior to this break): you'll have lost between 15%-20% of your cardio fitness, and about half of your strength.
If you’ve taken many years off: its fair to assume you're starting from scratch. You may be able to make some gains faster than if you were a genuine first timer, due to muscle memory.
Before you head back on the comeback trail, it's important to look at why you took that break, and what has happened to your body in the meantime. For example, if you have gained weight, the additional kilos are likely to make it harder run your old times and could put more pressure on your joints and knees and cause injury, or completing the same number of pull-ups you used to do may become a goal to aim for not start at. If it was due to pregnancy, you may find that abdominal exercise is more of a struggle.
If you had a break because of injury, you'll want to make sure you have fully addressed that injury. If not, now is a good time to visit a physio or sports medical professional to find out what's wrong and get it fixed. A physiotherapist can work on correcting any muscle imbalances or weaknesses that were either a cause or a result of the injury.
You need to also review anything else that might interfere with your routine. If you took time off for a new baby, are you now getting enough sleep, and eating properly? Do you have someone to watch the kids while you train? If work got the better of you have you figured out how to get that elusive work/life balance back? (a hint – exercise can help). If you just got bored of the old workouts and training and then stopped training have you considered how to make your workouts more fun or found better ways to motivate yourself?
How Quickly Will You Regain your Fitness?
If your break was only a few weeks long — just over the holidays, let's say — you might only need to take it easy for a few sessions before you're back up to speed. I normally say to my runners, if you take 2 weeks off – it will take 2 weeks to get back, if you take 6 months off it will take you 6 months to get back that fitness, however 9-12 months off it should not take you that long, gains are make by the 6 month mark.
What if you've been on break for a year or more? Like me — the middle of last year saw me recovering from heart surgery, and ended it with a virus on the heart and now a new business to take up all my time. Trust me, it feels like forever since I've really challenged myself running or in the gym. Not to mention the guilt I felt and then self pity.
Remember no guilt trips, you took a year off you do need to be realistic. It's not going to take a year to get back to where you were, but you're not where you were a year ago. So start gradually and with lighter weights or shorter distances or run/walk depending on what you are doing. Its recommended to start back with a third to half of the weight that you lifted, and then take a week or two to get back into your regular routine. Your muscles and body will start to adapt and improvements will be pretty quick.
That doesn't mean you'll be lifting your old personal bests after a week or two, but you'll be well along the way. For strength and power it is more realistic to be back to normal within about two months, however running and PBs might take a little longer.
So if you normally squat 100kg, don't expect to do much more than 60kg your first day back. If you had just worked up to full pull-ups, you may have to go back to lat pull downs for a few weeks or use a band to assist.
For the runners out there, you will need to reduce the intensity and volume of your workout. I recommend going back to walking at first, then adding in some jogging intervals until you're able to jog your full workout at your old speed. Don’t get caught up on the distance & pace on your watch when you are going back to running. (however hard that is for runners – I know!) Trust me, exact pace and distance doesn't matter, go with how you are feeling. Us runners love to obsess over mileage and pace, but you need to ensure you go easy and don’t go too hard too fast and get injured.
After two months, if you're not back to where you were, your workout program likely needs to be adjusted — especially if you've been doing what you have always done, but now have new goals. Book a personal training session and make sure that your program is challenging enough and geared towards your new goals.
So What Should I Do the Next Time I end up taking Break?
Alas even the best of us get caught up in life, work, family – even if you promise never to take time off again, you'll travel, or get injured, or take on an exciting new project that sucks up all your free time.
My number one rule is don't stop completely (as long as that is realistic). Even if you can't do your regular workout, find something you can do. Stationary bikes, rowers and treadmills are an easy go-to when the weather is bad, or if its injury depending on the injury try swimming, aqua jogging or maybe a cross trainer which requires less pressure on the joints (ask your physio for recommendations to keep you moving). Other options might include quick HIIT workouts, if time is your issue – just 25 minutes of rowing and tabata intervals, trust me – you’ll know you’ve worked out. Talk to a personal trainer about exercises you can do at home or in a hotel, if access to equipment or outdoor spaces is the issue.
These mini workouts help because you can keep up most of your aerobic fitness with short but intense workouts. Take that 60-minute run you might otherwise do, and pare it down to a 20-minute version of your regular routine, speedwork and all. For strength training, the same idea applies. You may be able to go down to just a single workout per week, as long as you keep working just as hard as before.
If you can keep some semblance of a fitness routine going while you're on a break, you'll be in much better shape once you come back to the gym. That way you won't waste the hard earned fitness that you're building now and feel like you are starting again.
Good luck and if you need help staging your comeback feel free to contact us @simplyfitgymnz