Training Comeback

The last few months have been unprecedented for us all. The COVID pandemic has impacted every part of our lives from our work, social life, mental health and physical activity. The effects have been undoubtedly negative and as we look to a return to a normal life (or at least a new normal), we all want to get back our pre-pandemic levels of fitness. It’s hard to come back from a large gap in training and most of you will have never had to do it before. The biggest challenge is probably mental. It’s physically difficult to do a 10 minute metcon when you’re unfit. It hurts. But what can me even more painful from a mental viewpoint, is struggling to do a set of squats with less than 50% of your previous 1RM or losing all your hard earned pull ups.Fortunately though, making a training comeback does not have to be too painful a process. In fact, if done correctly, it can be a great opportunity to reboot your training, develop good habits and overcome previous training plateaus.

Here is our guide on how to come back:

Step 1

It might sound stupid but “just showing up” is a foundational step of success for any training program. Doing burpees, pull ups, the snatch, swings or any other movement are exercises that help you to improve your fitness, but they are also skills. And like any skills, the more the do them the better you get.

Now, we all have different levels of talent and genetic potential. You might never be able to snatch 100kgs or do 20 pull ups. But if you practice you will absolutely improve from your starting point and get measurably better.

Showing up may sound like an absurdly simple concept, but it’s extremely hard after a layoff. There is a huge mental leap that needs to be taken to make that first step. You know it’s going to hurt and you know you are 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 anywhere near as bad as your brain tells you. Just show up. Once you get over the first session it will get easier. Repeat the process and before you know it you will be back in your training routine.

Step 2

From a practical viewpoint 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 from where you left off. That path leads to frustration and injury and serves absolutely no purpose.

If you have made the commitment to showing up, you just need to do a bit of training. Often newbies ask me how many sets or reps they should do. I always say they should do a few sets of a few reps. The reason for this is that it really doesn’t matter how many sets or reps they do. They are beginners so any amount of work, provided its done with good enough technique, will help them to get better. After a long layoff, this beginner approach is a great tool, even if you have been training for a while. You just need to come in and get some work done. It doesn’t matter how much weight is on the bar or what time you finish the workout in.

For those of you who like numbers, a great place to start is 50%. If you were squatting 50kgs for sets of 5 in October, start out with 25kgs. Whatever weight you do will feel hard! The good news is that the next time you come to train, it will feel much easier. Furthermore you will be able to increase weights from session to session and within a few weeks you will get back to your pre-pandemic strength levels.

Step 3

On a more practical level, it’s important to try to deal with the physical effects of getting back into training. Probably the number one impact is delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). We have all experienced DOMS and we know exactly how they feel. There is unfortunately no way to avoid DOMS, particularly when you start training or you come back after a break.

If you get DOMS, it simply means that you have exposed your body to too large a stress and the result is the massive soreness you feel in whichever area was over exposed. Unfortunately when you start training, almost any exposure to exercise is too much and will result in DOMS. It’s the same when you come back after a break.

So can you deal with DOMS by avoiding them or minimising their impact? The analogy I like for DOMS is a bit like a hangover. If you drink too much, you know you are going to be hung over the next day. There are lots of old wives tales about how you can avoid a hangover such as lining your stomach with milk or avoiding mixing drinks, but none of them really work. There is no proven treatment for a hangover and you have to just suffer through it.

Doms is pretty much the same! Nobody knows quite why it happens, but once you have DOMS there is nothing you can do. Stretching, massage, foam rolling, sauna etc will have no impact on DOMS once you have done the damage through training. The typical DOMS cycle lasts for three days. Day one after training feels pretty bad, Day two even worse. By day three you feel the same as day one and by day four they should have disappeared.

While stretching or foam rolling won’t get rid of DOMS, any type of movement will help to manage the pain and make you feel temporarily better. But just understand that it won’t accelerate the healing process and you just have to go through it. The good news is that the human body is an infinitely adaptable organism and the next time you train, the impact on your muscles will not be as large. So as long as you keep training, you will adapt and should no longer have DOMS.

Step 4

How long will it take to get back to where you were previously? There is no single answer for everyone, but you can definitely accelerate the process with a smart approach. We talked previously about starting out at around 50% of your previous efforts. Once you have completed this first session, it’s vital that you add progression in the next session. Progression is a key principle of training progress and a comeback after a break is a great opportunity to reinforce this tenet as a foundation of your training.

If you want a better Fran time, a bigger back squat, more pull ups or just to improve your general fitness, you must have progression in your training. There are multiple different ways to progress but the principle is that each session must 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 it could be adding more reps or working on a more difficult variation (ie a slightly thinner band than the last time for banded pull ups). For improvements in conditioning progression is measured in time or distance. A simple example is a 20 minute row (or bike, run etc). If you finish with a total distance of 4000m then you need to go slightly further the next time you repeat this session.

On the flip side, if you come in and always repeat the same workout with the same result, your fitness will not improve. Progression ensures that the training stimulus is always enough to force the body to adapt by getting stronger, fitter, more flexible or whatever particular quality you want to focus on. Let’s reiterate the fact that progression does not need to mean major jumps. The classic example is doing 3 sets of 5 back squats every week for 1 year. If you start out at 40kgs and add 1kg per week, that would result in adding over 50kgs to your back squat in 1 year!

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

Step 5

There is no doubt that training can be addictive. Even people who don’t like exercise can find themselves swept up in the CrossFIt atmosphere and find themselves obsessing about it.
It’s great to be passionate about something but if we are not careful passion can turn into obsession and this can be very unhealthy.

Over the years I have witnessed many people come into CrossFIt and fall in love with it immediately. They begin to identify their entire life with CrossFit and it becomes all consuming. This is great for a while but soon becomes unsustainable and more often than not leads to injury or burnout.
Training and exercise should be a part of our lives until we die. This mentality can be very helpful when coming back from training breaks due to injury (or pandemics….) for the simple reason that even 12 months off is a small amount of time if you want to train for 60 or 70 years.
More importantly, a break from training is a great chance for a mental reset. Once something gets taken away from you, you realise how much you love it. We should use this comeback to reconnect to the reasons why we fell in love with training in the first place.

For most of us, that reason is that training is FUN. Its awesome to come together with a group of like minded people and get through a tough workout. Sure its hard but that shared experience is what keeps us coming back for more.

None of us will be setting PRs in the next few months and that is absolutely OK! A better strategy is to show up, have fun and remember all those reasons why you fell in love with training in the first place.

Step 6

Coming back to training after a break is not just a chance to reconnect with the reasons why you fell in love with training in the first place. Its also an opportunity to really embrace and appreciate the process of training.

Ideas that we already discussed, such as showing up, 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 more control over your future success. Breaks will happen again in future (trust me on this, they will happen), but if you know what to do then there is no need to be afraid of them.

Embracing the process is a great concept to keep as a part of your overall training philosophy. If you are not careful, you can get way too tied to the outcome instead of the process. That means focusing on PRs, 1RMs or workout times. Those are of course important, but the more you train the harder those new records get.

If you focus too much on the outcome, the risk is that training can get stale and frustrating. There is nothing worse than hitting a training plateau and constantly trying to beat a fixed number on the bar or the clock.

If you embrace the process, you learn to love the training itself rather than the outcome. This liberates you from the emotional toll of trying constantly to hit new PRs. Ironically, it can also help you to reach new PRs as they become a by-product of embracing the process of training rather than focusing only on the outcome

Step 7

If there is one thing I have learned in the past 15 years, it’s that breaks in training are not the exception, they are the rule. Life has an inevitable way of messing up your plans when it comes to many things, training included. Maybe you change jobs, have a kid, need to start traveling more, get injured, have some family issues, get a new boss who changes your routine etc etc… There are innumerable things that can break your carefully constructed and cherished routine.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is to appreciate the times when I have a good training routine going and to try to take advantage of it. In the past, I was devastated when my routine got broken. All those hard-earned gains just gone! But the more I trained the more I realised that I had very little control over these breaks. All I knew was that they would come and I would have to deal with them. This was quite liberating and allowed me to take better advantage of those periods when I could train regularly.

Accepting that breaks are a part of the process and learning how to come back after a layoff is an essential part of the training journey. Knowledge is power and once you have the knowledge of how to come back, not only can you take advantage of those times when you have a consistent training schedule, you can use your breaks for a mental refresh and come back afterwards even stronger.

Step 8

In the last part of our guide to a comeback, we are going to talk about recovery. Just like consistency and progression, recovery is a vital part of a successful process. 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, sauna or hot and cold treatments, but everything is underpinned by nutrition and sleep.

If you are not eating or sleeping enough, you won’t be able to recover. How much to eat and how much to sleep depends from individual to individual. When it comes to sleep and recovery, a useful tool is a heart rate variability tracker. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the measurement of the regularity of your heartbeat and what it can show is the state of your nervous system. If the nervous system is relaxed and recovered, you can go and put in a hard training session. If its is not recovered, you might want to have an easier session.

Many smartwatches and phones already offer HRV options. You just need to find an app which does the measurement for you. Other trackers on the market are the Oura ring or the Whoop.
Not only will these tools track your HRV, but also your sleep. This is another good way to ensure that you are getting enough sleep to support your training.

Sleep is often the most overlooked factor in training. If you are not getting 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. Eating enough to support your training is paramount as well as knowing what types of foods you should be eating. And hopefully it goes without saying that if you want to change your body composition, the vast majority of your results will come from the kitchen and not the gym.

An Inbody test is a great place to start when it comes to understanding your nutritional needs. We are still offering free tests for our members so if you would like to book, simply send an email to jon@crossfitva.com.