Getting Back into Training After a Break
Sometimes life gives you lemons..... It's what you do with those lemons that counts.
Most, if not all of us, will take an extended break from training/working out at some point in our fitness career. This can be by choice, life getting in the way, or an injury that sidelines our plans completely.
For example, two weeks ago, Rio (our horse) decided there was some imaginary, yet VERY scary bigfoot in the woods outside the arena we were cantering around and he spooked. I flew out of the saddle and landed like a ton of bricks on the hard sand. After the initial shock (and pain) of being thrown and slammed down faded, I laughed and thought, well it was only a matter of time for me to get thrown off a horse. The sport comes with inherent risk, and I knew full well what I was getting myself into every time I mounted a horse. A good rule of thumb is, if you have to wear a helmet, you may get seriously injured. With a broken rib and severely bruised tailbone and L5 S1 joint (and a bit of bruised ego as well), I am in that place of taking an unexpected break from training. I figured my current condition would be a great segue into this topic.
After taking your training break, when you are able to head back to the gym, or go out for your once daily run again, things have changed, and depending on how long you have been out of the game, they may have changed significantly. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you felt that you were making good progress prior to your "vacation" from fitness.
I have good news though, if you were exercising regularly prior to this event, your comeback will be quicker than if you were just starting out as a newbie in the workout world. Your body has muscle memory and your muscles can grow at a faster rate when stimulated than the first time when they had to learn to grow.
Now let's dive into what you lose first, and how much you lose. It is true that cardiovascular fitness will fall off quicker than strength and older adults lose both more quickly as well. If you return to the gym after just 12 days of being off, you will feel a difference in how hard your heart is beating and your breathing will feel labored during activities that didn't used to elicit this strong of a response. The reason for this is your blood plasma decreases rapidly when you stop stimulating the cardiovascular system on a regular basis and your heart has to pump harder to circulate the same amount of oxygenated blood.
The big drop off occurs after 3 weeks when our energy produced by mitochondria plummets and we feel much more fatigued during our workout. Strength takes longer to lose but by 8 weeks you will have lost a significant amount of muscle size and strength if you have been sedentary. Of course, if you have the option/ability to still continue to do small/short workouts during your time off even just one a week your decline will be slower and your comeback will be quicker.
How long does it take to get back into shape? Many factors affect this timeline, like how long you have been off, how fit you were before you took a break, and your age. The good news is, most people who are relatively fit, can gain half their fitness back in just 10-14 days after being off for as long as 12 weeks! However, getting back that second half of your fitness level can take much longer for most people. If you are motivated to get back into shape as quickly as possible, doing intense workouts will get you to your goal faster than taking the slow steady pace, but you will be in the "pain cave" for a while during this transition.
If you find yourself, like me, needing to step away for a while from your normal routine, don't fret. Your body will remember what you taught it and it won't take too long to get back up and running again.