How Can I Get Back in Shape After a Long Time Off?

How Can I Get Back in Shape After a Long Time Off?
Photo: GP PIXSTOCK, Shutterstock

For about 10 years, I trained Brazilian jiu-jitsu three times a week — a consistent level, if one you’d still consider recreational. Sure, there were times when an injury or work got in the way, but for the most part I found myself tussling with other weekend warriors on a regular basis.

And then the pandemic happened. My training regimen understandably evaporated. I did my best to stay in shape, but jogging, HIIT workouts, and the odd boxing session didn’t run me through the same cardiovascular ringer as those competitive grappling sessions.

Now that I’m vaccinated and ready to get back on the mats, an unexpected challenge has emerged: I’m going to be 32 in a couple months, and my cardio and overall fitness is a shadow of what it was a year ago — not to mention what it was when I was 23. How do I get back into shape after all this time off without overdoing it, mentally and physically?

Though my needs might be a little bit different than yours, when it comes to getting back into the old exercise groove, a few standard rules cut across the broad spectrum of folks who saw their routines shattered by the pandemic (though they’ll apply equally whatever the reason you stopped hitting the gym).

Start slow and build from there

You can’t just jump back into your old routine — you’re going to have to start from a much more forgiving and less intense place. How much more forgiving/less intense? Luckily, you can look to professionally-vetted scientific knowledge for a good sense of where to begin, regardless of your previous fitness levels.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends everyone experience “20 to 60 minutes of continuous aerobic activity” around three times a week. Twenty to 30 minutes of those minutes should include more rigorous exercises if you were previously used to tougher workouts. The ACSP notes the goal is different for those who are “severely unconditioned,” as these people might need “multiple sessions of short duration” per week instead — under ten minutes at a time, three to five times a week.

That’s just a general baseline for building back your fitness, and everyone’s starting point is different. The point is you have to start slow — whatever “slow” means, relative to your athletic history and comfort — and re-acclimate your body and muscles to strain.

If you’re lifting weights or trying to get back to your beloved wind sprint routine, don’t try to max out until at least your third week back. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, you run the risk of muscle injury by not playing it cautious in the early days of your return:

This can make you very uncomfortable in the days after the workout or open the door to a muscular injury. It is best to start at a low level to build endurance and to retrain your muscles.

Another good way to think about it: Assess the difficulty of your workouts on a scale of 1-10. When you’re just starting out — for the first two weeks — don’t go above a four. Gradually increase the intensity by a number or two every week afterward.

Set reasonable expectations

This one is particularly hard for me. When I’m getting back into doing a sport I’ve trained in all of my adult life, I expect to perform at a level that I’m accustomed to right away. But after a long hiatus — especially from a sport as cerebral as jiu-jitsu — that’s basically impossible.

When measuring your expectations, you need to take care of your mind as well as your body. The only thing that’s working against you is the pressure you put on yourself, which is counterproductive — if you approach getting back into shape with real consistency, you will eventually see results. It’s important to look at this as a longterm project, rather than thinking success hinges on overnight improvement.

As personal trainer Greg Pignataro told Ladders, small triumphs won’t seem like much at first, but you’ll notice the progress as a cumulative effect:

Aiming to increase the amount of weight you can successfully lift for a given exercise by five pounds a week, for instance, may not seem like much, but over the course of months to a year, it makes an enormous difference.

Take care of yourself

The majority of us won’t or can’t dedicate as much time as would be ideal to staying fit. We might be confined to a computer for most of the day, juggling the myriad demands of life with our workout routines. With this in mind, it’s important to remember the basics: stay hydrated, stretch, and warm-down after your workouts.

Depending upon your ideal level of training, you’ll probably want to opt for either dynamic or static stretching. Dynamic stretches emphasises activity and movement; they’re primarily meant to ease the body into rigorous activities, and research indicates that they’re a great means of sustaining flexibility and strength.

Static stretching is probably what you’re more accustomed to, as it involves bending over and touching your toes or standing on one foot and pulling your foot back towards your butt to stretch your quads. It’s suitable for lighter workouts, and also for warming down after a more strenuous workout.

One of the universal rules of getting back into shape is that it’s a process, one that necessarily merges physical, spiritual, and mental factors. It’ll take a little while for you to get into the swing of things again, but you’ll ultimately be glad you made the effort.

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