Even the most committed fitness fans find that life sometimes gets in the way of athletic greatness. A change in location, circumstances, or your body can all force a break in the routine you worked so hard to lay out. And when you are ready, coming back to something you used to be able to do with ease can feel more emotionally daunting than the first time you tried it. Here’s how to get yourself mentally and physically back in the game.
1. Set reasonable expectations
Expecting yourself to instantly hit your previous level is a bad idea for your body and your morale. “Trying to go all-out your first session back in the gym is a recipe for injury and frustration, so avoid that temptation,” advises Greg Pignataro, a personal trainer with Grindset Fitness who specializes in strength and conditioning. “When trying to get back into the swing of things, start at a level that’s no more difficult than a four or five out of 10. Starting at this manageable level will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Slowly and consistently ramp up the challenge over your next few weeks. Do this, and you’ll be back at your old level of performance — or beyond it — before you know it.”
Pignataro should know: He suffered what he calls “a freak soccer injury” that left him unable to play soccer or work out for six months. “I coped by focusing on what I could do pain-free, which was mainly hip mobility work, core strengthening, and glute strengthening,” he remembers. “I spent a few minutes performing those activities nearly every day for about seven months.” This hard work eventually helped him ultimately lift more than he did before the injury, and go back to playing soccer. “I fully understand people’s frustrations when life’s unexpected circumstances force them to stop working out for a while,” Pignataro adds. “But as I’ve seen firsthand, setbacks don’t mean you have to give up!”
2. Go slow
You don’t even have to do the same kind of exercise you were doing before, especially if it was high intensity. “Consistently doing anything physical and/or simply going to the gym can be a fantastic ‘restarting point,’” Pignataro encourages. “Once you’ve turned physical activity back into a habit, feel free to set more challenging goals. However, cut yourself a break at the beginning by aiming to make your goal completely controllable: Work out a certain number of times per week, regardless of what it is you do.”
For example, if you used to be a runner but got out of the habit, try walking first. “You don’t need to go all out, just break a sweat and maybe breathe a little hard,” advises Meghan Stevenson, a certified running coach with the Road Runners of America and founder of Your Best Run, an encouraging coaching website. “I would recommend doing 20 minutes to start. You can go outside to do this walking or run-walking — I suggest one-minute intervals of each — or you can go to the gym and do it on a machine. Be sure to stretch! After a week or two of that, you can start to extend the time or intensity, and even start lifting weights or doing bodyweight strength exercises.” It’s not how fast you’re going, it’s the fact that you are going.
3. Remember why you used to enjoy it
Let’s talk about the biggest off-putting thing about going back to exercise: You know how much it hurts! Memories of burning muscles, breathlessness, and soreness for days can be a major obstacle when it comes to forcing yourself back into the habit when you could just, well, not. “Most often that’s because running is hard more often than it feels good,” admits Stevenson. “But when running feels good, it feels REALLY good!” She and Pignataro point to these holdups as another excellent reason to be careful when setting yourself challenges in your new routines.
“One of the primary principles of training is ‘progressive overload,’” Pignataro explains. “This basically means that our bodies won’t change unless we challenge them, but the challenge must be gradual and manageable.” In other words, yes, exercise is supposed to be harder than not exercising — but it’s most effective when the goals you’re trying to achieve are manageable enough that you won’t be put off from even trying. If you go too hard too soon, you’ll likely drop out (or possibly re-injure yourself), whereas setting small goals will eventually lead you to something bigger. “Aiming to increase the amount of weight you can successfully lift for a given exercise by five pounds a week, for instance, may not seem like much, but over the course of months to a year, it makes an enormous difference,” Pignataro says.
4. Knowing you can quit and come back will make you healthier
A lot of athletes worry that taking a break means losing fitness they’ve built up, but sometimes having to stop is inevitable. Knowing that you can pause your routine and come back to it will ultimately make you a better athlete and a healthier person. Stevenson has personal experience here: In 2017 she had to drop out of the Big Sur marathon after a serious respiratory infection knocked her out for over two weeks of peak training. “I was upset to miss the race, but more upset that I essentially had to start over from scratch,” she says. “My speed and fitness came back within a couple of weeks, but I definitely had to relax my expectations and allow my body to heal.”
Reluctance to give your body the break it sometimes needs can be a sign that you need to reassess your true motivation for working out. “I think a lot of women are concerned that we’re going to instantly gain weight the moment we stop exercising or if we don’t work out super hard, and neither of those beliefs is true,” Stevenson assures us. “We need to be more attentive to our bodies and the messages they’re trying to tell us. A day, a week, or even a month off isn’t the end of the world. We can come back from all of that better than before, but we need to take a longer-term approach to our health. Slowly losing weight and slowly gaining fitness over time is the most sustainable way for us to be healthy and, ultimately, to be happy.”
5. Keep trying
We saved the best news for last: Regaining fitness is easier than finding it in the first place! “Our brains code the movement patterns necessary for success in activities [as we learn them] and store them for future use,” Pignataro explains. “It’s similar to how you don’t need to completely relearn how to ride a bike after months or years of not going anywhere near one. Your body will remember how to do all activities it had previously been capable of performing. It may take a few sessions to ‘shake the dust off,’ but it’s possible to return to a previous level of proficiency fairly rapidly.” It’s going to be slow at first, but with time, determination, and some achievable goals, you’ll be back on track — or even further ahead — than you were before your well-deserved break.