As endurance athletes, the anticipation of returning to our favorite sports after long layoffs can make us want to hastily jump back into training, pushing ourselves to achieve our maximum potentials even if we are physically unable to do so. The result? Often, we either cause old injuries to flare up or new injuries to appear, leading to even longer layoffs.
To help prevent this altogether, Chicago Endurance Sports training program coordinator Ryan Caturan advises you to build a base as you prepare to return to your endurance sport.
“The old analogy is that training is a lot like a building, as it is only as magnificent as its base,” Caturan says. “By creating a strong base, you can return to training safely and effectively. Ease your way back into it and take a conservative approach at first by working out for 20 to 30 minutes at a time to build a routine again.”
For USTAF-certified coach Brendan Cournane, owner of Coach Brendan Running, returning to training depends on two primary factors: the length of your off-season and whether or not injuries were a principal cause. If you have taken a significant amount of time off, you should only train at 30 percent or less of the pace at which you typically train, especially during your first two weeks back
“After two weeks, you can increase your pace by 10 to 15 percent for another two successive weeks and so forth,” Cournane says. “By retaining these limits for a six-week period, you can gradually readjust to your former training methods.”
Megan Sullivan, a USTAF-certified coach and training program manager for the Chicago Area Runners Association, recommends that you avoid adding mileage too fast. Run slower than you normally do to provide your body an opportunity to adjust. In addition, Caturan suggests that you leave your stopwatch at home early on.
“Don’t base your runs on your minutes per mile, as you’ll worry you’re not on pace with your times before your break,” Caturan says. “Rather, base your runs and workouts on how you feel. Also, take a break from running a couple times a week and participate in low-impact, cross-training workouts like yoga, Pilates, and core strengthening.”
Key influences to your return
Sullivan and Tom McGlynn, founder of online coaching service runcoach, agree with Caturan’s outlook on cross-training, recommending that you not only incorporate cross-training into your training sessions but also participate in cross-training during your off-seasons to aid your transition into sport-specific workouts.
Although cross-training will help maintain your fitness, it should complement rather than replace your primary sport workouts. In fact, if you can continue your principal workouts during the off-season, even on a limited basis in frequency, duration and distance, you’ll have a more successful return, Seth Kopf, a USATF-certified running coach based in Lake in the Hills and owner of Kopf Running, says.
“There really is no substitute for practicing your craft,” Kopf says. “Cross-training should only supplement your workouts, especially when you return, as the physiological benefits of practicing primary sports are far greater than cross-training alone.”
Whether you choose to cross-train or reduce the quantity of primary sport workouts, your approach to the off-season will have a direct impact on the safety and effectiveness of your return to endurance sports.
“A key concept to understand is that ‘off-season’ does not necessarily mean you’re not performing or training in your sport,” Brian Kura, PT, DPT at Athletico Physical Therapy in Park Ridge, says. “Instead, have a renewed focus to perform other activities and decrease the workload for your specialty sport. Allow a mental break from rigorous training, but also continue to work on your fitness.”
Doing so will allow you to adjust to your typical training routine faster. As you initiate the length and exertion of your initial return to your sport, remember to also consider other factors aside from off-season workouts.
Cournane recommends regularly measuring your heart rate, mood swings and sleep and eating patterns to determine whether you should increase or decrease your training initiatives. Don’t forget to consider factors like age and genetics as well as the length of time you have trained in the past and the dates of your upcoming races. If you need to, wait to participate in later event.
By remaining fit during the off-season, you should be able to adjust to your return in a timely fashion and still compete in whichever events you previously participated in, prior to your time away from your primary sport.
“Just because you decreased your training specificity does not mean you cannot continue to work on your fitness,” Kura says. “As an endurance athlete, aerobic capacity and threshold is what fitness is all about anyways.”
Ensure a safe and healthy return
Regardless of your off-season cross-training, you shouldn’t expect to have the same level of fitness you had prior to your break. Practice moderation and provide your body and mind enough time to adjust to your return.
“It might take you two to four weeks before you become comfortable,” Caturan says. “Once you do, only adjust one variable of your workout at a time so you are not at risk for new injuries.”
McGlynn also advises adding recovery strategies to your routines, such as ice baths, massages and foam rolling. If at all possible, try to sleep eight hours every night and maintain a healthy diet. You should also schedule an appointment with a dietician or nutritionist to determine your needed caloric intake, particularly if you want to start a healthy eating regimen.
Sullivan says you should join social group runs so you can focus on the overall experience of endurance sports, including camaraderie and the beauty of the outdoors, rather than just your pace. You could also consider hiring a coach or trainer to facilitate your return and guide you towards a training program ideal for your present fitness levels. Moreover, a doctor’s visit to check for imbalances and weaknesses may be helpful if past injuries have occurred.
“All athletes must be honest with themselves about how they feel, especially during the early workouts of their returns,” Cournane says. “Relax. There will be time to increase the intensity and duration of your workouts over the summer. Provide your body enough time to adapt to training and to using muscles that have been healing throughout the wintertime.”