How to come back from an unplanned break

I think it was Wolfgang Gullich who said, “The hardest part of training is starting.” He was close, but not completely correct.

It’s true that starting to train is hard. It’s easy to procrastinate. But even worse is starting over because it’s often accompanied by regret or despair from what preceded it: an unplanned break. Unplanned breaks mean unplanned declines. Unplanned declines mean that Sisyphus’ boulder rolls back down the hill. It sucks.

Here are a few things that will help:

  1. Restore your aerobic capacity. For every day missed, plan on one day of sub-AeT training before anything more intense.
  2. Forget about the past. Restart your training log.
  3. Use a lacrosse ball to loosen up any tight tissue.

I started my most recent training cycle on April 24th. Since then, it’s been a slow gradual build-up, but a very effective one. I was able to double my average weekly volume and triple my anaerobic capacity. I was looking forward to the next phase: shaping that volume and power into its most race-specific form. But then life intervened.

Image of training progress and then sudden decline

Stress led to a nasty 10-day cold. I watched my chronic training load plummet. On easy runs, my heart rate was ten beats higher.

It wasn’t the first time that stress and illness have sabotaged my plans. And I doubt it will be the last. But learning from previous episodes have given me three tools that help me get back on the horse.

For every day missed, schedule one day of sub-AeT training.

With any layoff, the thing that atrophies fastest is aerobic capacity. The amount of mitochondria from five weeks of work drops by 50% after ten days of sedentary rest.*

The good news is that aerobic capacity restores itself faster than when it was first built. You may have seen this phenomenon in friends with a lifelong training history. They can “get back in shape” faster than someone who is getting off the couch for the first time. (Although it takes just as long for them to achieve new levels of fitness.)

Forget about the past. Restart your training log.

Perfectionism and realized loss aversion are demoralizing. Feeling weaker sucks. In these situations, quitting completely often crosses my mind. But in the end, that option is even more revolting.

To work past the despair, I trick myself. I act as if my training program has started anew (which, to be honest, it must.) Although it’s a trick, it’s not in vain. The residual fitness that is still present is a better base to start from than when the cycle first started.

By restarting my training log, the daily reminder of where I was is gone. I can focus on the slow, incremental increases that will reverse the decline.

Use a lacrosse ball to loosen up any tight tissue.

Rather than feel sorry for myself while I’m sick, it’d be much more productive to use a foam roller or a lacrosse ball. With time off, my legs and hips tighten up. Being diligent about keeping them loose would be much wiser. But in anger, that’s hard to do.

Once I start training again, that unloved tissue often causes problems. My IT bands in particular usually trigger knee pain when I get back to training. Rolling my IT bands with a lacrosse ball is excruciating, but well worth it. Along with gradual increases in workout duration, the knee pain eventually disappears.