How to Safely Restart Your Workout Routine
Avoid injuries (and immediate burnout!) with this advice.
When gyms in New York City closed their doors back in March, I’ll be honest: I breathed a sigh of relief. A great excuse to stop dragging myself to 7am workout classes for a few weeks, I thought. I never imagined they'd still be shut four months later.
In the grand scheme of COVID-19, I know that missing our favorite workout classes isn’t a big deal. Yet I also know exercise is a crucial part of overall health — both physical and mental — as well as maintaining optimal immunity, so I needed to start moving my body more again.
To help me get back into a workout routine, I went to the experts: Dylann Craig, PT, DPT, Director of Sports Medicine and Fitness at THE WELL, Hannah Davis, CSCS, CPT, and founder of Body by Hannah, and Jeremy James, DC, CSCS, creator of Fit Forever. Below, they weigh in on what to know before re-starting a running or strength-training regimen, whether at home or back at the gym.
Prep your muscles and joints
Mobility and strength in the ankle, knee and hip joints are crucial to successful run training, says James. But because these exercises can feel boring, many people skip them, leading to unnecessary injuries. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to warm up.
Do some on-the-ground exercises to activate your glutes, such as clam shells and bridges, as well as full-body exercises such as squats, split squats, lunges, lateral lunges and planks, suggests James, who recommends 15 minutes of this type of strength work before any run. "The goal is to move your body in multiple directions," he says.
“The most common mistake new runners tend to make is increase their mileage too quickly,” says Craig, who is also a certified running coach. A general rule of thumb: Increase your number of weekly miles by approximately 10 percent. This will significantly reduce joint strain and limit the onset of overuse injuries, such as shin splints or plantar fasciitis, he explains.
Take some walk breaks
"The run-walk method is a great way for runners to increase their mileage safely and improve overall cardio capacity," Craig notes. Adds James: The key here is to gradually increase the length and intensity of the running intervals, and not fall into the trap of walking simply because you feel like it, which would lead to a plateau in progress.
Don't skip the warm-up or cool-down
Research shows that dynamic warm-ups are always best, Craig says. Think: jumping jacks, high knees or anything that gets blood flowing to the lower extremities.
"Cooling down is also important to ensure a gradual transition from an active state to resting state," explains Craig. This may include slowing down the intensity of a run for about five minutes, doing some static stretching and/or foam rolling. (You want to avoid foam rolling prior to a workout, as it may reduce athletic performance, he notes.)
Aim to land softly on the middle portion of the foot known as the midfoot or midsole, with the foot landing directly underneath the body, Craig recommends. "Running and striking with your heel first and out in front of you can slow you down and reduce your overall running efficiency."
Establish your baseline
“Most people will experience a decrease in strength and endurance after a long break, though it will vary based on how much training they have been able to do,” says Craig. He recommends treating your first strength-training workout as a test to see what your baseline is. After establishing this baseline, slowly begin to increase the number of repetitions, number of sets and add weight gradually as your strength comes back.
A "very conservative" estimate for how much less weight to start lifting when you’re getting back into strength training would be around 50 percent of what you were lifting pre-pandemic (or whenever you take a hiatus) to reduce injury risk, says Craig. Around 30 percent should also be safe, while yielding a more challenging and effective workout.
"Most importantly, give yourself some grace!" adds Davis. "It’s really important that you not get frustrated with yourself for feeling out of shape or realizing you lost strength and can’t do everything you could pre-pandemic. Enjoy the journey of building back up!"
Split up your training days
"I recommend aiming for three to five days a week for strength training, with workouts divided into different body areas, known as splits," Craig says. A typical split may look something like this:
Day 1: Legs/Core
Day 2: Chest
Day 3: Back/Core
Day 4: Rest
Day 5: Shoulders/Core
Day 6: Arms
Day 7: Rest
This is a very general outline, and a mobility routine should be included at least three days of the week, Craig notes. He also recommends getting a sports medicine evaluation or consulting a fitness professional to make sure your training schedule matches your goals.
Watch out for red flags
"No one wants to be so sore they can barely move for a week," Davis reminds us. That's why you want to watch out for DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, which begins 24 to 48 hours after a workout and lasts for three to five days. DOMS is an indication you are training too hard, too quickly, Craig notes. "This is the body's way of telling you to back off and reduce the intensity of that specific exercise."
Another red flag: Having difficulty maintaining correct form throughout a set. This can indicate muscle fatigue and if you are resorting to compensatory movement patterns, that can lead to injury, Craig says.
Don't Discount Bodyweight exercises
"I highly recommend bodyweight exercises," Davis says. "They can be just as effective for building muscle as weight training!" You do need to progress the difficulty of bodyweight exercises over time as you master them to keep gaining strength, she notes. Either consult with a trainer or do the research on your own to better understand how to progress your exercise program.
Below, Davis shares five of her favorite bodyweight moves. For a balanced, full-body workout you can do anywhere, perform 10 to 15 reps of each for a total of three rounds:
- Overhead Squats: This exercise helps you improve your mobility and it’s also a surprising way to strengthen your back.
- Push-Up Alternating with 4 Mountain Climbers: Modify if necessary by starting on a countertop and progressing by finding lower surfaces until you reach the floor.
- Reverse Lunge: This moves requires little space and you can always hold on to something for balance or assist until you feel stronger.
- Elbow Plank T-Spine Rotation With Hip Dip: This exercise is a great way to strengthen your shoulders and upper back as well as your core.
- Superman: Another great posterior chain exercise to strengthen the back!
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