Before embarking on my journey, I made a promise to myself not to fall into the trap of ticking a marathon off my bucket list and never running again. But no one told me how hard the chasm of recovery afterwards would be.
I had an amazing December break, filled with sweet treats and inactivity. Back in my work routine, I needed to come up with a new set of goals to keep myself moving – because if I don’t run, I am not the most pleasant person.
If you, like me, are at that point where you start beating yourself up over the fitness you’ve lost, and desperately need to get back on track, read on.
1. You can’t pick up where you left off
Unlike with office work, you can’t simply hit the ground running (excuse the pun). You need to realise that your muscles and aerobic ability became collateral damage when you took time off. According to coach and exercise physiologist Susan Paul, your lactate threshold and your blood volume decrease and your maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) takes a nosedive.
But a lot depends on the duration of your break. If you take, say, two weeks off, you might lose 5% to 7% of your VO2max, while a hiatus of three months would increase that level by 25% to 30%. I needed to tell myself that although the damage wasn’t that bad, I couldn't expect to suddenly break a PR in a half marathon. Baby steps...
If you want to take up running, or start any fitness regime from scratch, don't do too much too soon. You'll run the risk of running out of steam or even injuring yourself by the time February rolls around.
2. Set new goals
I had the grand intention of qualifying for the Two Oceans Ultra Marathon by running a full marathon in under five hours, but after a busy end to the year at work and a particularly indulgent holiday, this goal went south. I needed to lower my expectations.
My next goal? To simply enjoy running – by repeating races I’ve done before, discovering new ones, making more running dates with friends or doing more runs with my club – instead of desperately focusing on my next marathon. My advice? Don’t make your fitness goals about pressure or weight gained.
3. Abs (and endurance) are made in the kitchen…
This is according to the person who’s been eating her weight in chocolate for the past month. Unfortunately, you can’t outrun a bad diet. But it’s not realistic to cut your calories drastically either. Dr Liz Applegate, a renowned nutritionist and faculty member of the Nutrition Department of the University of California, advise runners to eat more “real” food when they are not out on the road.
Of course, gels and energy drinks are important when you need those nutrients and electrolytes during a long run, but what you consume during the rest of the time also has an effect on your performance.
My plan? Less alcohol, fewer sweets and more lean protein, green vegetables and unprocessed carbs. Sweet potato, brown rice and roast chicken anyone? But no, I’m not skipping my post-race chips and beer on Saturdays.
4. Don’t compare
I’m surrounded by fellow-runners: at the clubhouse, on Strava (a well-known running app that tracks and records your fitness journey), on social media, in my circle of friends, and in my own family. Focusing on your own goal can be hard when the rest of your circle diligently trained throughout the festive season and are on their way to smashing big goals (be it Comrades, a personal record, or weight loss). But you are not them...
If your best friend is training for the Comrades, you can’t look at her fitness log and feel inferior because you are not doing the same amount of running. And whether you are a novice runner or simply someone who needs to get back in the gym, the same goes for you. Whether you are getting back into an at-home yoga routine, or running a qualifying marathon, keep your eye on your own goal.
5. Be patient
In this case, I wish I could more easily practice what I preach. Unfortunately, most of us get too ambitious too soon. We felt fine during our midweek short run, so why should we hold back during our next half marathon?
Being overambitious can, however, lead to injuries and disappointment. “Too often people get it in their head that they need to run for 30 minutes every day, or run and not walk, in order to make progress," Adam St. Pierre, an exercise physiologist with the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine told Runner’s World. And most coaches (or anyone with a bit of common sense) will agree: Allow your body take its time to adapt to the strain of running again.
I allow myself to take walk breaks and I keep my eye off my pace during my runs – I simply let my breathing and heartbeat to be natural. I am not adding any sprints or speedwork to my routine just yet, and strength training is kept fairly simple, without lifting too heavy weights or doing to many repetitions of new exercises.
*Disclaimer: I wrote this as a personal, real-life account of how I’m getting back into my fitness routine. I'm not qualified to diagnose, give medical advice and draw up any fitness plans, but I am fortunate to know a couple of experts in the field. I'm also not dishing out any medical advice, but would like to share some tips I’ve picked up along my journey.