So the lockdown has eased and you were allowed out for your first comeback run.
Finally! You hit the road with your mask on, and your 5km radius memorised.
Time to fly!
But for some reason, instead of flying, you feel like a newborn giraffe might feel taking its first steps. All stiff and full of niggles. But you push on. You make it to the end of the block, but you’re already huffing and puffing. Your heart rate is going through the roof!
What’s going on? What happened to all your fitness and conditioning?
Detraining, that’s what happened! Here’s how it works and how we can get our fitness back safely.
Science of detraining
When training for a race, most training plans follow a fairly similar basic process. You start with the easy base building or endurance volume, your long runs, and general aerobic runs. As race day approaches, you increase the intensity progressing to lactate threshold efforts like tempo runs or threshold runs. Finally you perform max effort sessions: Three to five-minute intervals, or hill sprints, for example.
When we stop training, or significantly reduce the training load we tend to lose our fitness in the opposite order to which we would train it.
First to dip is your VO2 max. That’s the sharp end of your fitness. The last to decrease would be your endurance or aerobic base. So while it’s unlikely that you’ll set a new parkrun PB after the lockdown, you should manage okay on your weekend long run if you keep the pace nice and easy.
During the lockdown, it’s also very likely that you have lost some mobility and sport-specific conditioning too, due to the reduced daily movement and more time spent sitting. So with this loss of fitness and general athleticism, it’s very important that we make our training comeback with a safe and measured approach.
Getting back to training
We’re currently allowed out to exercise for three hours a day, great! So we can head out to run for three hours every day, right? Wrong!
We need to safely reintroduce the training load and build it progressively over time. Sadly, most of our goal races have been postponed or cancelled, but in terms of safely getting back to training, this is a positive. With no immediate goal races around the corner, we have no pressure to aggressively ramp up the training volume and risk injury. So we can now use this time to feel out where our current fitness is, listen to our bodies, and gently build up the load.
Practical tips to get back to training:
- Turn off your watch! Or at least change your settings so you can only see time or distance. It’s very likely that your heart rate will be a little higher and your pace a little slower than you would like, and that’s okay! Just head out for your run while listening to your body. Struggling to breath? Heart beating out of your chest? Slow it down, don’t try to run your old easy pace for now, just run. The fitness will come.
- Start with easy effort runs. During your comeback, these will be the safest sessions to do, and will allow you to spend the most time outdoors.You can use the talk test to ensure that you aren’t working too hard, you want to be able to maintain a conversation while out running during these sessions. No one to talk to? Try singing your favourite song! If you can only manage a few words between breaths, you’re running too hard.
- Being more active in general will help ease your comeback. If you really want to make use of your whole three-hour window to get outdoors, try including some walks, or hikes if your area allows it.
- Allow for more recovery time between sessions. In the beginning, you are going to take a bit longer to absorb the training and feel recovered enough to train again. If you’re following a training programme, don’t be afraid to add a recovery day here and there if you feel you need it. Your recovery time will improve over the coming weeks and you won’t be walking funny the day after your long runs for much longer!
- Cross-training is great. Most of you may feel that you have spent more than enough time during the lockdown watching series on your indoor trainer, or doing core exercises while the kids climb all over you. But now is the time to keep up the momentum. Cross-training will allow you to use your three-hour window every day without the risk of injury from running every day. So if you’re known to dabble in lycra, alternate between rides and runs. Keep up those weekly yoga or mobility sessions. They will do wonders for those tight hips and rounded shoulders from all that time sitting and sharing banana bread or sourdough recipes on Facebook.
The mental comeback
While our bodies are very quick to adapt and should be feeling back to normal after just a few weeks of training, it’s often our minds that take a little longer to return to the party.
If running with a friend is good for your head space, then go for it (metres apart, obviously!). If you feel you are too competitive and running alone will be easier to build up safely, then that’s what you need to do.
It’s not easy starting again, feeling slower and more uncomfortable than before. Before we know it we’re beating ourselves up for not being as fit or fast as we used to be. But now is not the time for comparing to your past form. But rather a time to be a little kinder to yourself. Don’t overthink your current form. If you keep training, the fitness will come. Rather just focus on each day’s session.
Just appreciate getting outdoors, breathing, moving, and running again.
Good luck for your comeback!
Erin van Eyssen found his love for running 12 years ago, and has been a student of the sport ever since. Running both road and trail, he has been fascinated with the training methods and approaches of all the great coaches. He founded Flat Rock Endurance upon completion of his National Diploma in Coaching Sciences in 2017, and has been working with athletes of all levels, from complete beginners to elites covering distances from 5km to 100 miles.