Reshma Sood, 42, had sustained a shoulder injury last year. After pushing through the pain for some time, the Mumbai-based businesswoman decided to take a break from all kinds of workouts, including her favourite weight training, till she recovered completely. In Bengaluru, AK Abhinav, coach and founder of Namma Xfit, took a break from working out during the pandemic and it stretched long enough for him to put on weight.
While professional athletes take scheduled breaks depending on their season and injuries, the recreational ones take a break whenever work, family or injuries force them to. Sood’s break lasted six month and she finally started working out a month ago. Abhinav restarted in March with the aim of reversing all his unwanted gains. No matter what the reason, restarting training after a break, especially anything longer than two weeks, is a huge challenge. “Tell me about it,” says Bengaluru-based Tanya Rocque, a 27-year-old marketing specialist, whose travels had forced her to take a break. “I am quite regular with my fitness routine but every single time I take a break, the struggle to get back to it real.”
One of the prime reasons returning to a training can be difficult is the fear of how sore we’d feel in that first week. Another reason is neuromuscular fatigue, which means longer recovery times, explains Abhinav. “And in my case, like in the case of many people, even fit ones, is a general feeling of listlessness that lasts through the rest of the day,” he adds.
You would need motivation and discipline to actually return to an active lifetsyle. Also, if there is a concrete short-term goal, like a race or competition, there is a good chance that you would restart. It would be difficult and painful for the first few days, but as anyone who has trained regularly knows, all of that discomfort disappears in a week or two.
Abhinav suggests allowing yourself 36 to 48 hours to recover between strength training sessions. “Start with simpler movements which don’t load the spine. Instead of diving head first into weights after a gap, you are better off starting with bodyweight exercises. Add dumbbells to your routine next and only then progress to heavy barbell work, which loads the spine and fatigues the nervous system,” he suggests. If you are a runner or a cyclist, it is best to start with middle distance runs at lower speeds, move on to interval training and then add speed workouts and the long distance outings.
A sudden return to heavy exercise and a stricter eating regimen can be a shock to the system, and this is a mistake that people often make. That makes the re-start hard on the body, and painful too. Sood started slow when she returned to the gym last month, and sticks to moderate weights and refuses to indulge in ego lifting. When Abhinav restarted earlier this year, he continued eating whatever he wanted for the first six weeks after returning to training. “After those six weeks of exercising with whatever food I wanted, I got my diet in order. That helped me transition smoothly instead of shocking my body out of the blue. You could do it the other way around too, i.e. by switching to a strict diet and then gradually introducing exercise. But I prefer starting with exercise as your body regulates energy better when you start exercising first. This way even when you think you can eat anything, you intuitively make better food choices because your muscles are craving nutritious food,” he says.
A good coach and training partner can also play a significant role in this period. While a coach is definitely required to help you teach skills and guide you, a workout buddy plays an important motivational and psychological role. They not only encourage you to train but also hold you accountable. Many runners would tell you how they wouldn’t have gone for a run on many days had it not been for the commitment they’d made to their training buddy. A team of researchers presenting at a conference last year stated that “social support as a motivational strategy can increase adherence in exercise and can be provided by relational agents as a substitute for human coaches.”
The other thing that makes sure you persevere is by keeping track of your workouts. A 2008 study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that a buddy system and record-keeping device increased physical activity, which was evident in improved BMI (body mass index) and task efficacies. In fact, fitness experts feel that having a training buddy who is marginally better than you works best. “Psychologically, that’s the combination that works best for both. The one who is less fit of the two aspires to catch up while the fitter buddy is motivated to improve as they do not fancy being one-upped by their training partner,” explains Abhinav.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.