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How do you get back to training?

The last few months have been unprecedented for all of us. The COVID pandemic has had an impact on every aspect of our lives: work, social life, mental health and physical activity. The effects have been unquestionably negative, and with a view to a return to normal life (or at least a new normal), we all want to get back to our pre-pandemic fitness levels. It's hard to come back after a long break from training, and most of you have never had to do it before. The biggest challenge is probably mental. It's physically hard to do a 10-minute metcon when you're out of shape. It hurts. But what can be even more mentally painful is striving to do a set of squats with less than 50% of your previous 1RM or having lost all your hard-earned pull ups. Fortunately, this return doesn't have to be painful. In fact, if done correctly, it can be an excellent opportunity to restart your training, develop good habits and overcome previous stages of training.

Here's our guide on how to get back to training:

Step 1

It may sound silly, but coming up is a fundamental step for the success of any training program. Burpees, pull-ups, snatches, swings or any other movement are exercises that help you improve your fitness, but they're also skills. And like any skill, the more you practice it, the better you'll get.

Now, we all have different levels of talent and genetic potential. You may never be able to snatch 100 kg or do 20 pull-ups. But if you train, you'll absolutely improve on your starting point and become significantly better.

Coming may seem like an absurdly simple concept, but it's extremely difficult after a prolonged break. There's a huge mental leap involved in taking that first step. You know it's going to hurt and you know you're going to suffer. The good news is that the thought process is always worse than the physical process. Yes, it's going to hurt, but it won't be as bad as your brain tells you.

Just get going. Once you get through the first session, it will get easier. Repeat the process and before you know it, you'll be back in your workout routine.

Step 2

From a practical point of view, you know that you won't be training at the same level as before the break. The biggest mistake you can make here is to try to start again where you left off. This leads to frustration and injury and serves absolutely no purpose.

If you've made the commitment to come, all you need to do is a little training. Beginners often ask me how many sets or reps they should do. I always tell them they need to do a few sets of a few reps. The reason for this is that the number of sets or reps doesn't really matter. They're beginners, so any amount of work, provided it's done with good technique, will help them improve.

After a long break, this beginner's approach is a great tool, even if you've been training for a while. Just show up and do a little work. It doesn't matter how much weight is on the bar or what time you finish the workout.

For those of you who like numbers, a good starting point is 50%. If you were doing sets of 5 squats of 50 kg in October, start with 25 kg. Whatever weight you use, you'll feel like you're working hard! The good news is that the next time you come to train, it'll be much easier. What's more, you'll be able to increase the weights from session to session and, within a few weeks, you'll be back to your pre-pandemic strength levels.

Step 3

From a more practical point of view, it's important to try and manage the physical effects of resuming training. The number-one impact is probably post-exertion muscle soreness (DOMS).

We've all experienced DOMS and know exactly how it feels. Unfortunately, there's no way to avoid DOMS, especially when you start training or come back after a break.

If you're in pain, it simply means that you've exposed your body to too much stress, and the result is the massive pain you feel in the area that's been overexposed. Unfortunately, when you start training, almost any exposure to exercise is too much and results in DOMS. It's the same when you return after a break.

So, can you manage DOMS by avoiding them or minimizing their impact? The analogy I like for DOMS is a bit like a hangover. If you drink too much, you know you're going to have a hangover the next day. There are lots of legends about how to avoid a hangover, like covering your stomach with milk or avoiding mixing drinks, but none of them really work. There's no proven cure for a hangover and you simply have to put up with it.

DOMS is pretty much the same thing! Nobody knows exactly why it happens, but once you have DOMS, there's nothing you can do. Stretching, massages, foam rollers, saunas, etc. will have no impact on the pain, which usually lasts three days. The first day after training, you feel quite sore, the second day even worse. The third day, you feel like the first day, and the fourth day should be fine.

While stretching or rolling won't get rid of the pain, any kind of movement will help you manage it and feel temporarily better. But understand that it doesn't speed up the healing process and that you simply have to go through it.

The good news is that the human body is an infinitely adaptable organism and the next time you work out, the impact on your muscles won't be as great. So, as long as you keep working out, you'll adapt and you shouldn't be sore anymore.

Step 4

How long will it take you to get back to where you were before? There's no single answer for everyone, but you can certainly speed up the process with a smart approach. We talked earlier about starting at around 50% of your previous efforts. Once you've completed that first session, it's vital to add progression in the next session. Progression is a key principle and a return after a break is an excellent opportunity to reinforce this principle as the basis of your training. 

If you want to improve your Fran time, your back squat, your pull-ups or simply improve your overall fitness, you need to incorporate progression into your training. There are many ways to progress, but the principle is that each session should be slightly more difficult than the last. This can easily be quantified by more weight on the bar, more reps, more sets or less rest. 

If you want to improve your bodyweight movements, you can add more reps or work on a more difficult variation (for example, a slightly thinner band than last time for banded pull-ups). To improve fitness, progress is measured in time or distance. A simple example is a 20-minute rowing workout (or cycling, running, etc.). If you finish with a total distance of 4000 metres, you'll need to go a little further the next time you repeat this session.

Conversely, if you come and repeat the same workout over and over again with the same result, your fitness won't improve. Progression ensures that the stimulus of the workout is always sufficient to force the body to adapt by becoming stronger, fitter, more flexible or whatever particular quality you want to focus on. 

Let's reiterate that progression is not necessarily synonymous with big jumps. The classic example is to do 3 sets of 5 back squats every week for a year. If you start at 40 kg and add 1 kg per week, you'll add over 50 kg to your back squat in a year!

Bodyweight movements can also be improved with small jumps. If you do 5 sets of pull-ups or ring rows and finish with a total of 45 reps, try doing 46 or 47 the next session. Again, small, manageable progressions in your training and the results will come very quickly.

Step 5

There's no doubt that training can be addictive. Even people who don't enjoy exercising can get swept up in the CrossFit environment and find themselves obsessed with training. It's great to be passionate about something, but if we're not careful, passion can turn into obsession and that can be very unhealthy.

Over the years, I've seen many people start CrossFit and immediately fall in love with it. They begin to identify their whole life with CrossFit and it becomes an addiction. It's fine for a while, but soon becomes unsustainable and more often than not leads to injury or exhaustion.

Training and exercise should be part of our lives until we die. This mentality can be very useful when returning from a training hiatus due to injury (or pandemic....) for the simple reason that even 12 months of hiatus is only a small amount of time if you want to train for 60 or 70 years.

More importantly, a break from training is a great opportunity for a mental reset. When something is taken away from you, you realize how much you love it. We should use this feedback to reconnect with why we fell in love with training in the first place.

For most of us, that reason is that training is fun. It's great to get together with a group of like-minded people and complete a challenging workout. Sure, it's hard, but that shared experience is what keeps us coming back.

None of us will be setting records in the next few months, and that's perfectly normal! A better strategy is to show up, have fun and remember all the reasons you fell in love with training in the first place.

Step 6

Coming back to training after a break isn't just a chance to recapture the reasons you fell in love with training in the first place. It's also an opportunity to truly embrace and enjoy the training process.

Ideas we've already discussed, like introducing yourself, having fun and implementing basic progression. These are the foundations of success. If you understand these processes and know how to implement them, it gives you greater control over your future success. Break-ups will happen again in the future (believe me, they will), but if you know what to do, you don't have to be afraid of them.

Embracing the process is a great concept to keep as part of your overall training philosophy. If you're not careful, you can become too attached to the result rather than the process. This means focusing on PRs, 1RMs or training times. These are of course important, but the more you train, the harder those new records become. 

If you focus too much on the result, the risk is that training becomes boring and frustrating. There's nothing worse than reaching a training plateau and constantly trying to beat a fixed number on the bar or stopwatch. If you learn to love the workout itself rather than the result it frees you from the emotional burden of constantly trying to break new records.

Step 7

If there's one thing I've learned over the past 15 years, it's that breaks in training aren't the exception, they're the rule. Life has an inevitable way of disrupting your plans when it comes to many things, including training. You may change jobs, have a child, travel more, get injured, have family problems, have a new boss who changes your routine, and so on. One of the most valuable lessons I've learned is to appreciate the times when I have a good workout routine and try to take advantage of them.

In the past, I was devastated when my routine was broken. All those hard-won gains were gone! But the more I practiced, the more I realized I had very little control over these breakdowns. All I knew was that they would come and that I'd have to deal with them. This was quite liberating and enabled me to take better advantage of the periods when I could train regularly. Accepting that breaks are part of the process and learning to come back after a break is an essential part of the training journey. Knowledge is power and once you know how to come back, you can not only enjoy the periods when you have a regular training schedule, but also use your breaks to refresh yourself mentally and come back even stronger.

Step 8

In the final part of our guide to a comeback, we're going to talk about recovery. Like consistency and progression, recovery is an essential element of a successful comeback. Put simply, if you don't recover from your last training session, it will be much harder, if not impossible, to improve. Recovery can mean many things, such as massage, stretching, saunas or hot and cold treatments, but it's all underpinned by nutrition and sleep.

If you don't eat or sleep enough, you won't be able to recover.

How much you eat and how long you sleep depends on each individual. When it comes to sleep and recovery, a useful tool is a heart rate monitor. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of the regularity of your heartbeat, and can indicate the state of your nervous system. If the nervous system is relaxed and restored, you can embark on an intense workout. If it's not, you can opt for an easier workout.

Many smartwatches and phones already offer HRV options. All you need to do is find an app that does the measuring for you. Other trackers on the market include the Oura ring or the Whoop. These tools not only track your HRV, but also your sleep. It's another good way to make sure you're getting enough sleep to support your training. Sleep is often the most neglected factor in training. If you don't get enough sleep, it can have a huge impact on performance and body composition, as well as a host of psychological effects such as anxiety and depression.

Nutrition is just as important as sleep. It's vital to eat enough to support your training and to know what types of food you should be eating. Finally, it goes without saying that if you want to change your body composition, the vast majority of your results will come from the kitchen, not the gym.

An Inbody test is an excellent starting point for understanding your nutritional needs. We always offer free tests to our members. If you would like to book, simply send an e-mail to jon@crossfitva.com.

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