You’ve done it before, you can do it again. Here's how.
Whether forced (due to injury or holiday) or unforced (due to y’know general apathy), there inevitably comes a time when you fall off the exercise wagon when the thought of getting a sweat on can make you, well, break into a cold sweat. It’s easy to let your fitness routine slip; it’s far harder to get back in the groove.
That said, you’ve done it before, and you can do it again. Here we’ll look at why it’s so hard to get back on the workout wagon, and detail how to structure that first session, first week and first month back after an extended layoff.
Principally, because it doesn't take long for all your hard-earned gains to fall away. One study on semi-professional football players found abstaining from physical activity for just two weeks led to “significant decreases” in aerobic and anaerobic fitness. It then took another two weeks at least to get it back.
Psychologically, inactivity can also ingrain bad habits. Without a clear and defined goal, finding the motivation to train can be like cleaning the house when you’re not expecting visitors. It can wait, you tell yourself.
“When fitness doesn’t take priority in your life, it’s so easy to come up with an excuse to not make time for it,” says Peter Donohoe (NASM, ISSA), a functional performance specialist for fitness company Hydrow and founder of Donahoe Training.
And without the stimulus of regular exercise, your muscles and cardiovascular system can undergo various changes both biologically and bio-mechanically that can make it feel so much harder when you do jump back on that horse.
“Muscles can atrophy, bones weaken, joints stiffen, blood vessel capillary density may decrease, cardiovascular endurance might suffer, and excess calories could be stored as fat,” Donohoe continues.
Of course, that’s the long term outlook. A few days or weeks without hard training isn’t always a bad thing. It can give your mind and body a chance to recharge, allowing you to return to action with a renewed focus. And research suggests your body is quite capable of retaining a good level of fitness, even if you are facing an extended spell on the sidelines.
In Cell Physiology a recent review found that skeletal muscle tissue can retain a certain “muscle memory” – both at a cellular and epigenetic level – improving adaptation to later retraining, even following “significant periods of exercise cessation or detraining”.
Another study measuring the impact of 12 weeks of endurance exercise followed by 12 weeks of detraining found that while maximal VO2 max completely reversed after three months, a baseline of improved physical fitness remained.
Now you know how quickly you can undo your hard-earned training, what’s the best way to get back on track? First, says Nick Karwoski, an accomplished Team USA triathlete and rowing trainer at Hydrow, you need to flip the habit of not exercising into a choice to exercise by creating positive reinforcement around that decision.
“Most of us struggle to form good habits, not due to a lack of self-discipline or laziness, but because we are biologically predisposed to repeat behaviours based on immediate physical and emotional consequences,” he explains. “Most good habits don't automatically provide reinforcement but we can learn to create our own sources of reinforcement.”
In other words, as you start getting a sweat on, your pulse rises or your muscles start to burn, your brain will yearn for you to stop. If you can push through this initial resistance, you will unlock a release of feel-good endorphins that make you want to come back for more.
How long can that take? Research from 2011 suggests endorphin release occurs after 30 minutes of exercise, with another study suggesting moderate-intensity exercise is best. You can accelerate the process by working out in a group. One small study from 2010 identified a greater endorphin rush when participants worked out in a group, rather than when performing the same exercise alone.
Triggering an endorphin spike is one way to create positive feedback in that first session, but Karwoski says it's important not to bite off more than you can chew. “Start easy,” he says. “Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning a monster workout. You can always layer on more depending on how your body is feeling.”
Picking up where you left off is also a bad idea. Your former training regime might be the exact reason you lost interest in the first place. Instead, Karwoski suggests scheduling a workout with a friend to keep yourself accountable and booking something in your calendar that could be repeatable so you’re more likely to do it again.
If looking to get back in the weights room, Donahoe recommends starting back up at 30-40% of the load you were previously lifting, and halving the volume. So, for example, if in your last session your deadlift was 100kg for four sets of 10, you should build yourself back up with a 30-40kg deadlift for two sets of 10 or four sets of five.
Once that first session is under your belt, expect a modicum of DOMS to follow it. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is a reaction to activity your body isn’t accustomed to – and given your extended layoff should be expected. Its severity and frequency will die down as you get back into a regular routine.
Just like with the first session, Donahoe says it’s important not to set unrealistic goals in the first week so don’t run before you can walk. “Start off conservatively,” he says. “Progressively and gradually add speed, distance and sets or reps to your workouts.”
Three 30-minute sessions in that first week is more than enough, providing ample time to cover a broad range of activities while leaving plenty of room for recovery. “Choose activities that you personally enjoy,” adds Karwoski. “Don’t do something simply because someone else is doing it.”
Getting a good amount of rest each night and staying hydrated are also non-negotiables. “Eating the right food will have a huge impact on the quality of your workouts when you’re starting back up, but sleep and hydration directly correlate to your body’s ability to exert itself, so prioritise sleep and keeping your fluids topped up,” insists Karwoski
Lastly, keep track of your workouts. “Whether it’s total distance, total time, weight lifted or some other metric, tracking your workout data will give you a clear picture of how you are feeling and how you are progressing, so you can adapt each session accordingly,” suggests Donahoe.
In terms of training volume, Donahoe says you should keep it “slow and low” in the first week back as your body becomes reacquainted with exercise. “Weeks two and three are opportunities to increase the workload, while incorporating lots of recovery days,” he says.
Then, in week four, you should dial it back. “Week four should be almost as easy as week one,” Donahoe elaborates. “Your body can’t can't continue to ramp up and up, it needs time to respond to your training stimulus, and for muscle, ligament and tendon tissue to adapt to the workload.”
Patience is the name of the game. Getting back into exercise after a layoff is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal is to ease yourself in, establish a routine you can stick with, gradually rebuild your fitness levels to where they were, and then learn how to ingrain good habits that will keep you coming back time after time.
“Remember, everyone’s body is different and an individual’s response to detraining and retraining can vary,” adds Karwoski. “If you had solid fitness foundations before detraining, returning to your previous fitness level can be quick. It may take more time and effort if you were out of action for an extended period or had a low level to begin with.”
Regardless, it’s vital you celebrate the small wins on your journey back to fitness. “Reward yourself if you’re still going strong after one month,” says Karwoski. “That’s a big deal and it’s well worth acknowledging just how far you’ve come.”
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