Have you been off your fitness routine for a few months … or years? If so, don’t feel bad. It happens to everyone sooner or later. Even the most talented endurance athletes must sometimes take time off to deal with injuries, illnesses, work and family pressures, pregnancy, and so on. So in today’s post, let’s talk about how to get back in shape fast after a break.
1. Do a fitness assessment.
People who want to get back in shape fast make two common mistakes.
One is finding a training plan in a book or on the internet, starting at week 1, and trying to follow it perfectly to the end. This might possibly work if the training plan starts at exactly your level. But too often, you will dive into something that you aren’t ready for and end up frustrated and overtrained.
Second is trying to do what worked for you in the past. Running 5 miles a day got you in amazing shape back in high school, right? So why won’t it work at 40?
Here’s the truth. Getting back in shape will be a lot faster and more pleasant if you take an honest look at your current fitness level. That is where you need to start. Yes, even if you’re not happy about it. 😫
So before you dive into training, take two weeks to log all of your fitness activity for two weeks.
How to assess your starting fitness
Go about your normal workout routine, and write down how many minutes of exercise you do each day.
Record any activity that is over RPE 3. (This means 3 on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 representing all-out effort).
If you are in a sport that emphasizes mileage, you can log that too.
During this assessment period, resist the urge to do more than you normally do! If your log is has some empty space — even a lot of space — that’s totally fine. In fact, it’s valuable information.
At the end of the week, add up your total workout time. This should give you a good idea where to start your training.
2. Plan your aerobic base training.
Your aerobic base is your most important asset as an endurance athlete.
We can define aerobic base a few ways. But for our purposes let’s say that it’s the number of hours you spend doing moderate intensity cardio (RPE 3–4) each week.
Having a big aerobic base will help you hike and run farther without fatiguing, especially on very long trips.
Unfortunately, of all the aspects of fitness, your aerobic fitness takes the longest to train. (Yes, it’s totally unfair. But it’s life.)
This means you should start your aerobic base training early — and do lots of it.
How to build your aerobic base
Aerobic base training should make up about 75% of your total training time as an endurance athlete. Do these workouts at a moderate pace (RPE 3–4). You should be able to breathe through your mouth or talk to a friend throughout the workout.
Here are two aerobic base building workouts to focus on:
Your long workout
Distance runners take long runs about once a week. Hikers, backpackers, mountaineers, and trail runners can also benefit from this training approach.
Your long workout should ideally represent about 40% of your totally weekly training time. If you can’t exercise for that long, pick one workout and start extending it gradually each week until you hit this benchmark.
Your long workout should be sport-specific. So if you’re training for backpacking, go out for a hike carrying a partially loaded backpack.
Whenever possible, try to do your long workout outside and NOT in the gym. This will give you a chance to test your equipment and also get used to wind, rain, cold, and other realities of the outdoor life!
Shorter weekly workouts
These should make up about 30–40% of your weekly workout time. Ideally, they should last about 30–60 minutes.
However, it’s OK to start with shorter workouts if you need to. If doing 30 minutes at once feel long, try doing 10 minutes three times a day. Build up gradually to 30 minutes and beyond.
Most of your aerobic base workouts should be somewhat sport-specific. So if you are getting in shape for hiking, stick to weight bearing exercises like hiking, running, snowshoeing, stair climbing, and cross-country skiing.
Once in awhile, you can also add some cross-training. This means substituting a cardio workout that isn’t sport-specific, like cycling or aerobics. Cross-training gives your joints a break and can also add fun and variety to your workouts.
3. Add some intervals to your program.
We’re talking about how to get back in shape FAST, and training your aerobic base alone probably won’t do it. To really push your fitness, you need to add a little bit of intensity to your program.
A great way to add intensity, especially when you are just coming back to fitness after a break, is with interval training.
How to do a beginner interval workout
Start by warming up with 8–10 minutes of easy cardio.
Once your muscles are warm, pick up the intensity for a few minutes to raise your heart rate and breathing to RPE 5–7. This is the “work” period of the interval. It can last anywhere from a minute (if you are new) to up to 20 minutes (if you are well-trained).
After a few minutes of harder work, slow down and allow your heart rate and breathing to recover. This is the “rest” period of the interval.
Repeat your intervals 3–8 times to give yourself a good workout. You can time your intervals. Or you can just listen to your body and improvise. An untimed interval workout is called “fartlek,” or speed play, and it’s a great way to dial in your starting point for interval training.
Record your total “work interval” time and intensity, and try to raise it higher each week.
If you are feeling strong and making good progress on one interval workout per week, you can consider adding a second interval workout. Give yourself at least a day or two to rest between these harder workouts.
4. Add strength training
While strength training isn’t the most important part of endurance training, it’s very important for your overall health. The benefits of strength training include:
- Increases metabolism (important if you have weight loss goals)
- Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
- Slows the rate of muscle loss (due to age and/or lots of cardio training)
- Helps maintain bone density
- Improves mood and fights depression and anxiety
And on top of all that, regular strength training makes long-distance hiking and trail running much easier.
Strength training guidelines for endurance athletes
Do 1–3 strength training workouts a week. Leave at least one recovery day between strength training sessions.
Most endurance athletes do well on what’s called high-rep, low-resistance strength training. To do this type of workout:
- Warm up with 8–10 minutes of easy cardio or bodyweight resistance exercises. Don’t add resistance until your muscles feel warm.
- Start your first exercise. Do 2–3 long sets (12+ reps) with light resistance using body weight, dumbbells, resistance bands. Rest 30–60 seconds between sets.
- Do a full body workout that includes the five functional movements: squatting, stepping, pushing, pulling, and rotation.
- Progress by increasing your weight or reps or by decreasing your rest period.
5. Check your mindset
Getting back in shape after a break can be no big deal… or it can be brutal.
It’s normal to feel frustrated — and even a sense of loss — when you can’t do what you used to do.
Some people respond by getting angry at their bodies and trying to force them to do more than they can. But please know that this never works. It just makes fitness miserable and demotivating.
Sports mindset tips
Here’s the truth. One of the best health habits you can develop is to have a strong, positive mindset.
This means being willing to feel all your feelings — good and bad. Instead of pretending the frustration or sadness or worry isn’t there, take a moment to sit with it and feel into it. Can you learn something from this emotion?
Positive mindset also means becoming aware of your thoughts. Acknowledge and release negative thoughts that keep you spinning around in anger or confusion. Some more useful thoughts to try include:
- I did enough.
- My body is enough.
- I will listen to my body and treat it kindly.
- It’s not about being perfect.
- The best thing I can do is to show up and work consistently.
6. Ramp it up
Once you’ve got your exercise program in place, it’s time to start building up. Here are a few guidelines to follow:
- Increase your total workout hours (volume) by 5–10% per week.
- Don’t ramp up if you have a very intense week planned (for example, a big hike or race).
- Train in cycles. This means taking an “easy” week every 2–5 weeks to rest your body and consolidate your gains.
- Always log your workouts.
- Grade each workout on an A–F scale. If you are mostly getting B’s and C’s, you are probably in a good rhythm and getting stronger. If you get more than a few D’s or F’s in a row, it’s time to take an easy week or adjust your program.
Need help making your training plan?
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There you have it: my best advice on how to get back in shape fast!
Need help or support on your fitness journey? Hop in my Facebook Group for Mountaineers and Backpackers in Training.
Originally published Nov. 2, 2019.