Extended Training Break – How To Get Back Into Shape Quickly & Safely
As much as we’d like to, we can’t endlessly push our body to the edge and squeeze all the juice out of it. At some point it will run out of reserves and will demand an extended training break.
Such break is a healthy practice that compensates the effect of a grueling training schedule and helps to keep the athletes healthy. In fact, it’s one of the most important factors that ensures longevity in any sport.
However, despite having a good effect on the health, many athletes (especially amateur ones) make the mistake of not taking the time to fully rest. Instead, they try to preserve the fitness they worked hard to build by training through the year and not taking the time off.
And, indeed, some fitness will be lost during an extended training break. But it’s necessary compromise to allow the body to fully recover and complete adaptation processes.
It’s all about how athletes come back from a training break. If done right, that period of rest will set the athlete up for an even better result.
Purpose of a training break
Training process takes a significant toll on the body. It adds a lot of physical & mental stress, as well as compromises immune system making athletes vulnerable to illnesses and injuries. Keeping the body constantly under stress can lead to accumulated fatigue, training plateau or even over-training.
Even elite athletes are only able to maintain peak condition for a limited amount of time. Usually just a couple of weeks.
A break after a race or at the end of every season helps the body to recover. Heal any injuries or muscle damage, replenish energy and vitamin/mineral reserves, as well as ‘restart’ and recharge the nervous system and willpower.
On top of shorter breaks (2-3 days) after major races, professional and elite athletes tend to take 2-4 weeks of almost complete rest after every season. They do stay active during that time, though, by doing a form of cross-training or enjoying other activities (like surfing), but there’s no purpose in that training.
However, training breaks can be unplanned as well. Vacation with no access to proper equipment or possibilities to train (hot climate, bad or non-existing road surface, etc.). Business trips. Illnesses, like catching a cold or a stomach bug. Or even a sudden injury. In athlete’s life anything can happen.
That’s when resuming training the right way gets even more important. It helps to efficiently re-build fitness and save valuable time.
Dealing with injuries and illnesses
Illnesses and injuries are a very sensitive topic.
These usually start as small discomforts (tightness and aches in muscles & joints, dizziness, chills, etc.), but if not treated, grow into serious problems.
Injury or illness is the body’s natural way of telling us to slow down and take a break.
Many athletes prefer to ignore these discomforts and continue to follow the training plan, hoping it will get better. Of course, pushing the body harder when it’s already at the limit only makes the situation worse. So, instead of taking a couple of days easy to get better these athletes end up compromising months of training.
The bottom line is – don’ train through pain and don’t go hard when you’re feeling down. Health should always come first. Wait until inflammation, swelling or sharp pain is gone, go easy on the body, focus more on recovery and sleep it out.
After all, it’s not worth it. When you’re not 100% ready for a hard session you won’t get much benefit from pushing yourself anyway.
How to resume training after an extended training break
Regardless of the cause of the training break (holiday, injury, laziness), the strategy to resume training depends on the length of it.
Up to 3 days – no big deal, this is not even a break. Treat it as recovery time. Feel free to jump back into training process, but don’t try to compensate skipped sessions by doing more. A good idea is to take the first day a bit easier.
One week – still not much fitness is lost. Athletes can get back into the original training schedule and still maintain the same intensity. However, do adjust the first week by reducing both volume and intensity by ¬ 30%. Also, a good idea is to take the first two days easier.
Two and more weeks – that’s what I call an extended training break. At this point athletes need to re-plan their training, adjust the goal (for the race) or start from scratch.
Assuming the inflammation from the injury is gone, you’re back from that 3-week holiday or you’re ready to start the new season – how to efficiently resume training after a long break?
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The concept of gradual adaptation
When resuming training after a long break jumping right back into where you left off is not a good idea. The longer we are away from training the more the body adjusts to a decreased workload and loses fitness.
The concepts of gradual adaptation and supercompensation are very important in exercise physiology. They imply that consistently putting the body through a slightly more stress than it is used to will trigger adaptation processes that will make the body more resilient to that stress in the future.
Putting the body through too much stress, however, will reverse the effect and lead to accumulated fatigue.
So, if an athlete tries to push too hard and resume training where he was weeks ago, he’ll most probably get burned out (mentally), over-trained or injured quickly. And end up very sore.
It requires patience and discipline to accept where you currently are. To lower the volume, speed and intensity. To keep yourself from doing more than the body is ready for.
Those who ease in into training will find that getting back in shape is not that hard and is only a matter of time.
The 10% rule
Easing in into training means not only starting easy, though. It also means building up slowly. We’re all different and have our own speed of adaptation. Some are able to build back fitness quickly, while others need a bit more time.
However, there’s a general adaptation guideline that works well for all athletes – the 10% rule. And that stands for not increasing weekly training load (i.e. volume, duration, frequency, intensity) by more than 10% every week.
When planning how to resume training after a break there are 3 areas to consider – mobility, strength and endurance. All of them require gradual adaptation and for all of them 10% is a great rule to follow.
Step #1 – addressing mobility issues
The thing that suffers the most from periods of inactivity is mobility. The less we use the full range of motion of our joints the more the body restricts it over time.
And that has a direct effect on all areas of performance ability. It causes muscle tightness, lack of freedom of movement, inability to apply maximum power, premature fatigue.
Tight and restricted muscles don’t transport oxygen well. So, athletes with lack of mobility can’t perform to their full potential. In fact, at high intensity lack of mobility often results in injuries.
For instance, besides being super strong elite CrossFit athletes are also very mobile, which helps them to produce maximum power. Beginners, on the other hand, often cause more pain to themselves than gain.
During extensive training athletes might develop some stiffness in their muscles. Periods of inactivity can make things worse.
Therefore, the first thing athletes need to do when coming back from a training break, is to address mobility issues. Test every joint through a full range of motion and notice any restrictions. Is there any tightness, cracking sounds, pain?
If there are – prioritize those areas. Spend a week or two mobilizing affected joints and deep stretching adjacent muscles. Consider getting a massage or visiting a physiotherapist to locate and fix those restrictions.
Self-massage and foam-rolling are both great alternatives to a traditional massage practice.
On top of that, focus on consistently putting the body through a full range of motion at this point. A yoga class a couple of times per week or a short yoga sequence (like sun salutation) every day will do wonders to improve overall mobility and create a strong foundation.
Step #2 – regaining stability and strength
Because our bodies are great at optimizing and don’t want to carry the weight they don’t need, they decrease the size of the muscles they don’t use. As a result, periods of inactivity – be it due to sedentary lifestyle or injury – cause muscle atrophy.
While it’s obvious that we’ll lose, for instance, leg strength if we don’t run or squat much, that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest risk for athletes comes from stabilizing muscles – hips, glutes, upper back, etc.
These muscles make sure joints move efficiently and support prime movers (legs, back, chest) to produce maximum power. All of that allows to tolerate more training load, promotes efficient movement patterns and makes athletes faster and more efficient.
For instance, weak posterior chain muscles causes our body to ‘hunch’ forward and leads to pains in shoulders, back, etc.
In fact, top athletes spend lots of time in the off-season to work on these muscles to reduce injury risk, improve their form and efficiency. Skiers do a lot of balance drills, runners and triathletes work on their core muscles, kayakers and swimmers strengthen their shoulders.
After a training break muscles will lose not only maximum strength, but also their conditioning. So, it’s best to come back to basics.
Start with overall strength exercises that target as many muscle groups as possible. It’s best if these exercises will use own body weight – push ups, pull ups, deep squats, core exercises and all variations of movements on TRX bands are great.
Arrange exercises in a circuit (5-10 per circuit) and perform them with little rest. Don’t try to reach fatigue – instead, allow the muscles to adapt to training load gradually.
Spend 2 to 4 weeks in the ‘adaptation’ phase before moving on to building maximum strength and then muscular endurance.
Step #3 – re-building endurance
Endurance is how long athletes can maintain the same power output and is directly related to the number of mitochondria in our muscles. The higher the mitochondrial density of the muscle, the faster it can produce energy and the longer it will take until it starts to accumulate fatigue.
Out of all three – endurance, mobility, strength – it’s the first one to suffer from a training break.
The lifespan of mitochondria is short – only a week or two. Without active stimulation they die, resulting in loss of endurance.
Mitochondria can also die due to too much intensity in the workout.
On the positive side, though, it takes much less time to build endurance than to build strength or resolve mobility issues. With correct training it takes up to 2 months to achieve the maximum density of mitochondria in muscles.
There are 2 ways to train endurance – long aerobic efforts (1+ hours in Zones 1 & 2) and short high intensity efforts (5-8 second sprints or 1-3 weight lifts at close to maximum intensity with a long resting period).
I use this explosive kind of training at the beginning of every season myself. In fact, I’ve put together a free 4-week training program based on this approach.
It’s important, however, not to overdo it and finish the session feeling strong – not beaten up. Mitochondria grow within 24 hours after a session, so with a smart schedule it’s possible to build endurance in a rather short amount of time.
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How did I get here?
Hey there! My name is Andrejs and I am here to inspire, entertain and get you fit for any adventure.
I went from being an over trained pro athlete to an endurance coach sharing how to listen to your body and live life to the fullest.
Traveling, new sports & activities brought new meaning to my training and made it much more effective, fun and enjoyable. And I'm here to help you do the same.