Building fitness is hard! Really hard! But it is so rewarding when you find yourself physically fitter and stronger than you were yesterday, last month, last year, ever....
The flip side of that is how demoralizing it can be to lose fitness, and how frustratingly slow progress can feel when you can remember how fit you have been.
As anyone who knows me or follows my blog will know, I am currently grinding along that long, slow path back to fitness. And not for the first time! In the past 2 decades, I have come back from injury, chronic illness, acute illness, and childbirth, so I should be getting good at this! But it is still really, really hard! And whilst my previous experiences have all been somewhat different to this time, I have found myself engaging in the same practices, routines and rituals in order to incentivize myself to get back to where I was. I thought it might be of value to anyone trying to build or re-build fitness for me to share some of my own tried and tested hints and tips.
Measure your starting point and monitor metrics.
This is something I always stress with my personal training clientele, and is essential in order to maintain motivation. It is amazing how quickly we can lose sight of how far we have come unless we keep records. Personally, I am a massive fan of my Garmin watch and scales as they keep track of most things without me having to consciously keep notes, but a simple note book is a great low-tech means of doing the same thing. If you are coming back from injury/illness/some other lay off, use the come-back start point as the first page of that notebook or the first day of records, not your old data from before your lay-off. This is really important as it is otherwise too damned easy to constantly beat yourself up about where you were, rather than focusing on where you now are and how far you have come.
What metrics to record? Try to choose wisely in terms of where you feel you can start to make progress. Progress is a great motivator, and you can always shift focus as your recovery progresses. Strip things back to basics if you possibly can.
For me, this time around, my first 2 months were all about building up my walking time. I slowly progressed from a few minutes, up to an hour, adding small progressions initially each day, and then each week. I then shifted focus to adding in some additional light activities - swimming, yoga, pilates, stretching for the following month. After 3 months, my aim was to maintain some of the cross training, adding light impact activities into the mix, and start to build in small amounts of running. By 5 months, I was up to running for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, and my focus shifted to my running pace. I started working some drills into my workouts and started to see some improvements in my speed. I am now shifting again to build some distance/endurance. Being able to look at the graphs on my Garmin showing an improving trend on each of these metrics of the last 7 months has helped massively in distracting me from how far my fitness had declined.
My Personal Training clients may be surprised to hear it, but I am much more a fan of a carrot, rather than a stick! I'm not alone in working best when there is a reward awaiting the hard work. But please note that this only really works if we set ourselves attainable targets - there's nothing worse than slogging away trying to hit a target that constantly eludes us! By way of example, my lovely wife bought me some new running shoes for my birthday back in August. As you all know, I LOVE running shoes! But I decided then and there when I opened them on my birthday, that I would not allow myself to wear them until I had got back to running a Parkrun with a 31:something time. At the time, I was up in the mid 30s, so I knew it would take me a few weeks of hard work to get back down to that pace, but I also knew it was (in all likelihood) attainable in a reasonable amount of time. (I did not set myself a 25:something target - my old Parkrun pace - as I may never get back to being that quick again, and it would certainly take me too long to get there and so not be an incentive to keep pushing myself in the short term!) I am delighted to say that I earned those shoes last weekend, on a Parkrun where I hadn't intended pushing the pace (you know the sort... where you just feel great and go for it?). By half way through that run, I realized that a 31:something might be on the cards and knew I had to give it my best shot. I was chuffing for the last mile!!! But I pushed myself more than I otherwise would have done and earned those shoes, and they are hopefully going out on their maiden run this coming weekend (if it doesn't rain - I'm not wearing new shoes in the wet!!!!)
'Sticks' is probably an unfair definition of my other category of incentive, but I'm not quite sure what else to call them. These are races, running and other endurance events that are hard enough that I am not sure I can complete them without putting in the hard work. They literally scare me into putting in the training! Right now, I know I am progressing well along my road to recovery, as I am starting to set my sights on a few 'bigger' events in the near and distant future. Bigger, for me right now means anything longer than a Parkrun, as that is all I have built up to regularly running, although I have managed 10km once. So I have a 10 mile run in October, and then a Half Marathon in December - distances that really stretch me right now and that will force me to keep showing up and putting the miles in. Longer term, I am looking at a return to marathon and ultra-distance running in the Summer of 2024, with potentially my first foray back at 100km set for July. Now that is a scary thought right now! I honestly don't know if I can get back up to those sorts of distances that soon but I am hoping my body will quickly remember what it is meant to be doing! In the meantime, it sharpens my focus to ensure that I continue to put in quality training that will get me back out there performing my best as soon as possible.
A word of caution with using sticks though - use them sparingly and be realistic about what you can potentially achieve within a specified timeframe. The last thing you need to be doing is rushing a return to full fitness, as that carries a high risk of further injury and/or illness set-backs. Trust me on this one - been there, got the t-shirt a few times!!
Use Your Tribe
This is the time to utilize every offer you get of company to train, and the time to make it very public knowledge what your goals are and how you are proposing tackling them. Having someone else to be accountable to, and someone else encouraging, cajoling and, yes, sometimes bullying you to get the workouts done really does make a massive difference. Use your friends and family to do this, use social networking, use members of any club you belong to, use a blog, set reminders on your phone ... work every angle you can to get yourself a full support network so that you aren't just tackling this alone.
Shift Your Focus
As you are aware, I am a runner first and foremost. I have always loved my running and have always prioritized it above everything else in my training. Sure, I have always cross-trained to a greater or lesser degree, but if I only had limited time available to train, running would be my exercise of choice. This was no bad thing. It served me well over the years with the specificity of training allowing me to perform well over a good many years. But with age, I was finding that my body was asking me to be more varied with the training. I was noticing some physiological imbalances which I needed to address in order to stay healthy and performing well in the long term. But I loved running too much to sacrifice running time to really do the other work necessary! I have committed to doing things differently on my return. I was initially forced to engage in low impact, low intensity activities to allow my body to recover whilst re-establishing core strength. I made the decision to throw myself into these activities, and they still form about 50% of my training load. I have been able to see improvements in my mobility and flexibility beyond where I was pre-illness, and pre-operation. Physiologically, I actually feel like I am turning back the clock. The change of focus has allowed me to see rapid progress in this new area and had been a great incentive to keep working at it.
A return to activity should be seen as a great opportunity to shift the focus and fill gaps in the training which prior habits had prevented you from addressing. What did your prior regime lack? Changes of pace? Speed work? Core strength? Upper Body Mobility? Posterior chain activation? Flexibility? Consider where the gaps are and how your return to activity can incorporate training to bridge those gaps. This will enable you to springboard to a higher level of fitness than you had before your enforced break. How's that for a positive!
Whatever the reason, if you are facing the prospect of rebuilding fitness after an enforced break know that I hear your pain. I hope the above has provided some helpful tips.
If you need a bit more accountability, or some guidance on goal-setting or on areas of fitness to focus upon, drop me a message and I will get back to you on it. Just not this weekend - I've got some new shoes to wear and a 10 miler next month to train for!!!