The first thing is to not try to make up for lost time. Avoid pulling workouts forward in time. I tell my athletes that, in general, if they miss a workout then that workout ceases to exist. It’s in the past. Yes, there are times where adjusting the weekly flow due to a disruption to the regular schedule is required. Remember, I’m speaking in general based on extended breaks from training. So, avoid adding a second workout to a single workout day. Avoid extending workout durations to “make up for lost time.”
The reason is because the flow of workouts one day to the next and week-to-week are meant to flow. They are meant to build upon each other. They are meant to take into account the immediate, short-term and long-term effects a workout carries with it. By upsetting the flow, you create friction while reducing the necessary recovery time between sessions and between key workouts.
Next, it’s important not to create stress on top of the stress you’re already going through. For example, if you’re injured, it’s typically because you over-stressed the body physically. And, the body is going through more physical stress as it works hard to repair itself. By worry about the injury and the fitness you think you’re losing (but really are not), you are creating mental and emotional stress. This added stress serves to break the body down and impair its ability to heal itself. So, you’re really only prolonging the healing process. Take a deep breath, let the body work its magic and you’ll be back on your feet in no time.
Another tip is to focus on what you CAN do. For example, a triathlete may not be able to run due to some IT Band tightness. While running is reduced, fill that time with more swim or bike workouts. I tell the athletes I work with to do more of what doesn’t cause pain and avoid what does. The added workouts, as long as they do not cause deleterious pain, will not impede the body’s ability to repair itself. And, you will be keeping your fitness progressing. If you’re sick, then you simply need to ride it out. Wait for the malady to pass and then get back into your routine.
Getting Back on Track
This is where working with a coach can really come in handy. How you get back to full-blown training is based on multiple factors – your background and experience; your goals; the time of year; how much time before your key event; and more. That said, not everyone works with a coach, so then what?
If you miss less than five days of training, it’s safe to assume you haven’t lost any fitness so your body should respond well to jumping back into your routine pretty quickly. Give yourself a couple of days to build back into the intensity so Day 3 is your first hard workout and first workout at full volume. If Day 3 goes well, then keep humming along.
Returning from injury can be a bit tricky. Scale back your first few workouts, make sure the injury isn’t flaring up again. You may have some phantom pains and you will be hyperaware of these. That’s OK. It’s more important what happens when the workout is over. Does the injury flare up again or not? If not, you’re almost assuredly in the clear and can start building one workout upon the last one. Your body will let you know if you’re pushing too long or too intensely – gently at first, so tune in to the signals to avoid a re-injury.
After a prolonged sickness, it will take a few days for the body to replenish its depleted energy stores. While you may be healthy and feel OK, your workouts may be sub-par for up to a week. Keep the effort in L1/L2 and start out by “just putting in the time.” Your “all day pace” is a great way to work out kinks, get the blood flowing again and work out the vestiges of the sickness without overdoing it. Again, tune-in to the body’s signals and you will instinctively know how long and how hard you can go on any given day.
If you’ve missed up to 10 days, you will still likely lose little fitness. But, you will definitely want to ramp things back up over a 3-5-day period of time. Keep the first 3 days shorter and easier; just get back into your regular routine. Add some short openers of 10-15 seconds at 90-95% effort toward the end of a workout to open up the body. You will feel back to normal in just a few short days.
If you missed a couple weeks, it will take about that much time to feel fully back to normal. The protocol for returning to a full routine is similar to what’s listed above, but how you feel during the workouts will probably take a few extra days to fully shake out. Expect extra stiffness and maybe some soreness in joints or specific muscle groups at first. For example, your calves might be tight and a bit sore after your first 2-3 runs when coming back from a 2-week break.
If you miss multiple weeks or months, it’s important to take a step back and restart your training just as if you were heading in to the off-season. General fitness, a return to the weight room to gain back lost strength, and starting shorter and easier makes a lot of sense here. Recalibrating expectations and adjusting the race calendar also makes a lot of sense. Avoid rushing back so you avoid taking a step forward and then 2 steps backward. Pretend it’s Fall and you’re just starting to prepare for the following year. You may come back to full fitness quicker than you think, but forcing it is not prudent at this point in time.
These are general guidelines. Your situation and your body will dictate precisely how you return from injury, sickness or any unscheduled break from training. Your coach, should you work with one, will be instrumental in getting you back on track and your continued success. If you are self-coached, then trust in the signals your body is sending you. Follow its lead and you will be back on your feet in no time!