If you're like a lot of everyday athletes, you probably spent more time this winter cursing the sleet and snow than you did bundling up and getting in a work out. The struggle is real, we know. But now that spring is officially here, that means warmer days are right around the corner and it's time to get back on the bandwagon (or running path, or bicycle or kayak.) So how hard is it to get back in shape after a prolonged break?
First, the bad news. It generally takes less time to lose fitness than it does to gain it. But there is good news; with a break of just a couple of months, it's unlikely that you lost all the fitness benefits.
There are a number of factors that affect how quickly you get out of shape, such as age, the length of your training program prior to your break, and the type of exercise you usually do. But in general, your aerobic fitness (for activities like running, cycling, swimming, etc.) tends to drop off significantly after two weeks and then continues to decline until it stabilizes after a period of about three months. The same is basically true of muscle strength. So if you had a good routine going until you were derailed by the holidays, now is a good time to jump back in the game.
How do you get back in shape after a break?
"Easing back in is essential," said Maryland-based running coach Amanda Loudin, who talked to me at length about what's involved. "Rushing the process is only going to invite injury and frustration." Loudin recommends taking plenty of time just to re-establish your fitness base and then building up from there. In other words, save the speed workouts for down the road. "Leave the GPS watch at home right now and just worry about getting in nice, easy mileage," added Loudin.
Whatever your exercise of choice, Loudin suggests that you make sure to space out your activity with rest days and cross training. "Slowly add on to your exercise duration each week," said Loudin. "After about a month it will start to feel easier and more natural, and your body will be better prepared to up the pace and volume."
Should you start with a training plan if you want to tackle a summer or fall race? "It's OK to start a training plan after time off provided that training plan includes some easy base building," advised Loudin. Don't look at plans that start where your fitness was last year but where it is right now. "Check to see what it's 'pre-requisites' are before taking it on," Loudin noted. "Don't skip that base building in the interest of getting into shape faster — it will backfire."
So if you took some extra down time this winter, don't fret. Start now, start slowly, and before you know it, you'll be right back where you want to be.