Coming Back After Extended Time Off

Many of us love training regularly and keeping our normal routines. But sometimes things come up that keep you from your routine.

How to get back into shape (summary):

  • Ease into it. Start easy and build up.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Get sufficient rest.
  • Sleep well.
  • Make your workouts progressively more challenging as your fitness comes back by adding duration and/or intensity.
  • Always listen to your body to know what’s enough stress to get better, but not too much that you’ll get burnt out. (Yes, I said to listen to your body twice. That’s deliberate.)
  • Start adding a little bit of intensity a couple of times a week after your first 2-3 weeks. Ramp up from there.

Keeping regular training habits is the best way to stay fit and keep progressing while enjoying the activities you love. But, sometimes you get sick, or injured, or things in your work or personal life get in the way for a time. At some point when you’re ready to get back into it, you may struggle to find the best way back, mostly because everything feels different because you’ve lost fitness.

After 2 or 3 months away from training or more, you’ll probably feel almost like you’ve lost all fitness. You’ll feel like you’re starting from scratch. Your normal weekend endurance session will seem like more than you can possibly do. That’s fine. Your body was much more fit at some point in the past, and given enough time and training, your body can get at least that fit again. It’s your job to get back into a routine and pay attention to your body so that you can tell what’s an appropriate amount of stress today and what’s an appropriate amount of recovery to go with it.

As you get back into training, you just need to get out there. Try not to do more than you can handle right away, but don’t be afraid to get tired. Just pay attention to how tired you are and give yourself some recovery between harder sessions. If you need to do one or two recovery sessions before the next moderate training session, then simply take a few days off or easy as needed.

Take 2-3 weeks to just slowly increase the number of days per week that you’re training, the time each week that your training, and the average intensity of those sessions. As you get fitter, and the sessions feel easier, start to add little bits of intensity.

Start with some easy training every other day. Then go to 4 or 5 times a week. Start with sessions that are shorter, say, 40-60m. If you have time, lengthen them to 1-1.5h, if you’re riding. If running, these times could be 50-70%. Do a long ride that’s 2-2.5h, and go up by 30-40m every week or two for the first few months until you reach the length of your old long rides. Or, start at an hour and go up by 10-20m every other week if you’re running.

After 3-4 weeks, start adding a few sprints once per week, and some tempo once or twice per week, depending on how you feel. Try to avoid the temptation to go a little bit hard (or a lot hard) on all of your rides. As always, having a little bit of stress on your body all of the time isn’t the best way to take care of it. This applies to physical stress as well as mental/emotional stress. Try to focus most of your harder work on 2 or 3 days each week. Pay attention to how you feel during your sessions and throughout the day. If you’re sleeping well, have a lot of energy most of the time, get tired after your harder sessions, but can recover and be ready for the next one, then you’re probably on the right track. If you are always a little tired, your easy rides usually feel hard and your hard rides never feel good, then see if you can get in a little more recovery (sleep, food after rides, easier recovery days).

Overall, you want your training to have a good balance of stress and recovery. You want your moderate to harder days to be stressful enough that it’s driving your fitness forward. You don’t want to feel like all of your training is totally easy. You also want your overall training volume to be enough to keep increasing your aerobic fitness. But, you don’t want to always feel like you’re straining. You don’t want to keep loading up on stress beyond what your body can handle. It’s fine to feel tired after your harder days, even desirable. You just don’t want to feel tired all of the time.

To provide an extremely simple example from cycling, here’s what your first month could look like if you’re getting back into it from scratch:

1h easy1h easy1.5h steady1h easy
1.5h steady1.5h steady
4-5×15 accelerations
2h steady
option: 20m tempo
1-1.5h easy
1.5h steady
2x10m tempo
1.5h steady
5x30s at 90% effort
2-3h steady
20m tempo
maybe a few sprints
1.5-2h steady
1.5h steady1.5h steady with
4x3m at 90% effort
2-3h steady
20m hi-tempo
2h steady
5x30s hard