Two days before Amanda Thebe noticed her first COVID-19 symptoms in March 2020, she did a 25-minute barbell workout and ran six miles. It was the last time she would exercise for almost 10 weeks.
Although she kicked the virus and tested negative after five weeks, residual symptoms flared up every time she even tried to take a walk.
“I was in a pity party for a good six weeks,” says Thebe, a personal trainer in Houston with more than 20 years of strength training under her belt. “Then one morning I woke up and thought, I can’t let this virus keep me down. I have to find the small wins every day.”
Over the next several months, Thebe rebuilt her health and fitness. Through patience and consistency, she regained her pre-COVID conditioning by October 2020.
Illness is just one reason you might fall off the fitness wagon. Injury; surgery; postpartum recovery; a major life event, such as a divorce or death; a consuming work project; or simply losing interest in an exercise routine can all disrupt your trajectory.
And while the world may be chanting, “No excuses!” the reality is that life is full of ups and downs and pauses and resets.
Getting Back on Track
When priorities need shifting, the key to getting back on track isn’t trying to climb back on a moving wagon. It’s carefully considering what you want from a fitness routine and developing a realistic plan to help you get there. Successful reentry into a workout regimen requires strategy, adaptability, and plenty of support.
Our experts discuss what happens physically and mentally when we take a break and suggest five steps for easing back into exercise.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
Imagine you’re a seasoned runner training for a marathon PR when you injure your knee. You start seeing a physical therapist, who tells you it will be six to eight weeks before your knee heals. Your race is in eight weeks, so your goal stands. But is it attainable?
“The problem starts when people have unrealistic expectations,” says Shanté Cofield, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, a physical therapist and movement educator in San Diego.
Completing your PT sessions or recovering from a contagious illness is not necessarily a green light to resume your former fitness routine. Cofield says it’s crucial for healthcare providers and movement professionals to help patients manage expectations.
“The No. 1 thing is to realize the value of playing the long game,” Cofield explains. She advises setting goals over 18 months. The long-game mentality is vital whether your hiatus was prompted by injury, illness, or some other unforeseen life circumstance.
Setting realistic expectations allows your body and mind to get on the same page, says sport and exercise mental-skills coach Carrie Jackson Cheadle, MA, coauthor of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.
“It’s important to be able to define success in that moment and not define it based on what you could do before,” she says. “What we don’t realize is that our brain holds on to our original goal and expectations. We need to consciously redefine these.”
Cheadle frequently works with athletes who want to push their bodies hard right away. “They’re excited and they think, That’s what I was able to do before, so I should be able to do it now. They want to see if they can get to the level they were at, so they put everything out there. And they don’t feel the effects until the next day.”
In these instances, trying to “listen to your body” may not be enough to guide a return to workouts. Experts recommend listing your goals and holding yourself accountable to gradual increases in load, speed, distance, or other variables.
“Where you were is not where you should start,” says Mark Schneider, a Minneapolis-based strength coach who specializes in injury rehab and pain management. “Having realistic expectations is starting at about 60 to 70 percent capacity of where you were before and doing a solid month there before slowly progressing your capacity.”
Cofield advises adding no more than 10 percent of any variable (volume, load, speed, distance, etc.) at a time.
She also notes that pain is a lagging indicator that you’ve been pushing too hard. It’s better to start slow, make incremental changes, and track markers other than pain. “If you wait until you have pain [before dialing back], you’ve waited too long.”
Tracking your training along with your overall physical and mental health can help you recognize patterns and determine whether your goals are appropriate. For instance, once Thebe started monitoring how she was feeling on a 1-to-10 scale each day, she found that she could only do about half of what she thought she could do without experiencing residual coronavirus symptoms.
“I looked at goals I could normally achieve in a month and set them for the end of three months. Since deciding that’s what I had to do, it was actually quite empowering. It gave me control,” she says.
“There’s so much pressure to be perfect in fitness. It’s OK to press the reset button and be a beginner again.”
2. Focus on Consistency
Some athletes assume that easing back into fitness means working out less frequently. But if your old schedule worked well for you, the comeback version doesn’t have to differ much. Using the overall structure of your former routine as an outline for your new one can be helpful, says Danny King, master personal trainer at Life Time.
“I want clients to come back with the routine that worked for them — that routine is part of what made them successful — but I want them to ease back into total volume and modify really aggressively,” he says.
For example, if you previously ran five days a week with your weekly mileage totaling 30 miles, you can still lace up your shoes Monday through Friday, but maybe you run or walk only one mile at a time.
Or if you were hitting the gym every other day at 6 a.m., set your alarm on those days and go lift weights, even if it’s just for 20 minutes.
“Your priority should be frequency and consistency,” says Schneider. “Getting back into the environment you were in before should take priority over what you were doing in that environment.”
Moreover, if a routine wasn’t working for you before, a break can offer the chance to create a training plan better suited to your goals and lifestyle.
“The stopping and restarting is an opportunity to highlight your desire and the goals surrounding it,” he says. “Maybe this time gave you the opportunity to run around and play on the playground or in nature. Maybe you’ve decided you don’t really want to continue hitting the same cardio machine and doing upper- and lower-body splits in the weight room like you’ve always done.”
It may be time to try a new group fitness class, activity, or sport.
Before resuming a workout regimen, ask yourself if you enjoy it and want to commit to doing it again. “What matters to you? What do you ultimately want to get back to doing?” says Cofield. “Movement is medicine. You don’t want to take it if it tastes bad.”
3. Program Smart
Whether you’re returning to an old routine or starting a new one, focusing on form and technique and considering different kinds of movement can help you avoid injury and keep you from getting discouraged.
For example, if you were following an advanced strength-training routine, King advises starting with big-muscle groups and movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull), and spending a month or two doing more general workouts. “You’ve got to treat your body like it’s a beginner again because, in some ways, it is one,” he says.
He also recommends deliberately training stabilizer muscles, including those of the core, glutes, and shoulders. These areas don’t get worked much in everyday movements and could weaken during a break. No matter what sport or activity you are resuming, strengthening these muscle groups will make you more resistant to injury.
Thebe’s reentry into strength training started with an emphasis on her core — not just the abs but all the muscles of the trunk. “Strength and mobility come from having a stable core. Having a strong core is the foundation of all movements,” she says.
If you’re feeling discouraged, incorporating a variety of movements and training can help you avoid getting caught up in what you could do previously. “Try something you’re less emotionally tied to — whether it’s a different exercise or running a different route,” says King.
Start with single-leg kettlebell deadlifts instead of barbell deadlifts, or dumbbell chest presses instead of bench presses. Or, King suggests, manipulate tempo and slow down the eccentric part of the lift, which can strengthen tendons and ligaments prone to injury. (For more on modifying your strength routine, read “Personalize Your Strength Routine”.)
The emphasis on form and technique isn’t limited to resistance training. Whether you’re a lifter, runner, swimmer, cyclist, dancer, gymnast, competitive athlete, or simply an avid exerciser who loves all sorts of activities, it’s critical to sharpen your awareness and focus on how you’re currently moving. Prioritizing form does double-duty by keeping you safe and injury-free while also giving your mind a place to settle without judgment.
On your next run, consider your gait. On your next bike ride, pay attention to your posture. Whatever you do, make sure you are breathing. (Learn more about building body awareness to improve your fitness at “How to Build Body Awareness to Improve Fitness”.)
4. Don’t Overlook Your Lifestyle
“For a lot of people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers a lot of other good habits, and when it’s removed, a lot of these other habits are, too,” says Schneider.
Think about lifestyle factors, such as diet, sleep, hydration, and stretching: Have any of these habits changed since your hiatus?
“A key in both fitness and fitness longevity is the ability to monitor and recover as needed,” he explains. “Your rituals around exercise may have to be reset for this to happen.”
Lifestyle becomes especially crucial after illness, injury, or a stressful life event. Adequate nutrition helps your body rebuild and restore tissue and makes you less likely to get injured or sick, or overtrain.
Incorporating mental-health practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, can reduce your overall stress and cortisol levels, which cause fatigue and interfere with muscle remodeling when elevated.
“It’s OK to slow down. Take the time to think about how much time you really have here and consider how you’re sleeping, your resting heart rate, your mood, your breath,” says Cofield. “Your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between your boss swearing at you and you lifting weights. If you want to recover, the answer is not more stress.” (Learn more about the importance of recovery at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness”.)
Thebe says that going out of her way to sit in silence and drink a cup of coffee has helped her start her days on the right track, both mentally and physically. She’s prioritized nutrition and movement outside of deliberate exercise, such as going for walks and swimming. “Recovery is holistic. I’m focusing on things I can control,” she says.
5. Surround Yourself With Support
We know that adequate support is key to coping with an injury or illness, but it can be equally valuable during a return to exercise, says Cheadle. She’s seen athletes who self-sabotage their return by pushing too hard too fast, as well as those whose fear and anxiety prevent them from moving forward.
“Sometimes in the moment that people need the most support, they are getting the least. People don’t realize that they need to recover mentally as well,” she says.
The Association for Applied Sports Psychology identifies three types of social support — educational, tangible, and emotional:
- Educational: Information gathered from specialists can help you make better choices about your recovery and comeback. For instance, your doctor or physical therapist telling you that glute strength is key to avoiding injury as a runner can help you choose appropriate exercises to supplement your return to running.
- Tangible: Practical assistance with your daily efforts. For example, a friend might offer you a ride to the gym.
- Emotional: Informal or formal counseling to help you cope with frustrations and negative emotions. For instance, a friend who’s dealt with a similar hiatus and comeback may encourage you and remind you to see the big picture.
Cheadle’s mindset for coaching often includes both educational and emotional support to athletes. For those who are resuming training after an injury, it’s common to feel anxious about reinjury.
“We become hyperaware of any sensation in that part of the body, even if it is normal,” says Cheadle. She employs mind–body techniques, including breath work and positive mantras, that athletes can use to reduce their stress response.
Cheadle also encourages her clients to connect with a physical therapist, who can help them improve mobility, increase their range of motion, or develop greater strength or cardiovascular capacity. Focusing on the “before” can make it difficult to see some of the subtler indications that you are on the right track to recovery.
Regardless of your reason for taking a break, Cheadle stresses the need to treat your-self with compassion.
“Whether you were taking care of a loved one, or you were just called to put more energy into your business, this is life. You don’t have to punish yourself because life pulls you in a different direction.”
What to Expect in a Comeback
Expressions like “falling off the wagon” and “use it or lose it” can make it seem like we start from ground zero after we take a break from working out. Sometimes it may feel as if that’s the case, but does taking time off really send us back to the beginning?
“When you’re looking at loss of fitness during a break, the question is more like how long have you been training versus how long have you stopped,” says coach Mark Schneider. “The longer you’ve been training, the more your body has adapted to what you were doing, and the longer the break would have to be to affect you.”
Most of the time, any loss you incur within a week or two off is typically the extremes of which you’re capable, he says. For instance, your top running speed or one-rep-max bench press will decrease, but your foundational strength and endurance will remain.
“While peak ability does tend to drop quickly, it also increases quickly — it’s why athletes do a peaking cycle before a competition,” says Life Time master trainer Danny King. “What doesn’t drop quickly are the long-term aerobic-fitness adaptations the body builds over time.”
“This is why a person with a long history of aerobic exercise can train for a marathon much quicker than most people. These adaptations tend to stick around.”
Studies on endurance athletes have found that with inactivity, it takes as little as two weeks for cardiovascular adaptations, such as VO2 max and enzyme levels, to decrease. A study published in 2018 by the Journal of Applied Physiology found that after four weeks of relative inactivity, marathoners incurred significant changes to their heart, affecting how hard a certain pace would feel.
It’s important to recognize that these studies show a decrease in peak performance, as opposed to loss of endurance.
As for strength, research finds that it takes about three weeks for loss to occur. A 2017 study noted that men who did resistance training maintained their strength after two weeks of detraining. A 2013 study involving rugby and football players found that it took three weeks of inactivity before they started to lose muscle strength, which continued to decrease from that point.
Beginners may notice more significant losses than longtime exercisers, but that’s because their progress was likely more neurological and skill-based, explains Schneider. With a shorter training history, your body has less time to solidify fitness adaptations.
The good news is that what you lost will return much faster. Thanks to muscle memory and coordination of your nervous system, your body will find it much easier to perform a move, as compared with the first time you tried it.
It’s also worth noting that any muscle growth you achieved before taking a break gives you an advantage. When you first build muscle, part of the process involves creating additional nuclei for your muscle cells. When you lose muscle, you retain these nuclei. This greater number of nuclei allows you to build muscle faster the second time around.
Research shows that loss of fitness happens much more quickly and drastically if you’re bedridden and inactive, versus engaging in day-to-day physical activity. If you know you’re going to be taking some time off from deliberate exercise, don’t beat yourself up over it. And if you have the chance to keep moving, remember that every little bit counts and will make your comeback much easier.