When you’re looking to stay fit and healthy, sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.Sometimes you have a nice string of months where you’ve found a good routine and are seeing real differences in your strength, endurance, and aesthetics. You’re slaying that bear. But other times the bear rises up and swats you back.
It might be an injury, often from a completely unrelated activity, like cleaning the gutters or cutting an avocado. It might be an illness, even just a minor cold. It could be a string of business trips that completely disrupt your routine and leave you exhausted. And sometimes you can’t point to any one thing in particular, you just lose the drive to keep exercising and eating right, and suddenly feel the weight of that bear on you. One missed day becomes a missed week, then a month.
These unplanned breaks really do a number on your motivation and willpower. You “know” all the reasons you need to get back to your routine, but the break has messed with your head and you’re finding it hard to get back on track.
I find the approach to coming back from a break depends on how long you’ve been out of the game. This guide will give you both mental and physical tips to shake off the cobwebs and get back to business.
A small gap in your eating and exercise routine can have oversize importance in your mind. This is especially true if you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking in perfect streaks. You might have had a flawless 15 days, and when you miss day 16 it can feel like all your effort was wasted and you’re back at square 1.
This is completely wrong of course. Those days of getting it right don’t evaporate when you miss a few sessions. All that momentum is still there, you just need to put in a small effort to get the boulder rolling again. Let go of the idea of perfect streaks being important.
I can tell you that for us on the training side, it means very little whether you’re on a perfect streak or simply a good streak with some small gaps.
When we design a 90 day training program, we estimate that for most people, of those 90 days only about 80 will be done without incident. People get sick, people get aches and pains, and people get busy. But if the person rolls with the punches and returns to routine quickly, there’s no harm done to the overall effect. From our perspective, having a few missed days doesn’t mean your plan has gone wrong, it means you’re right on schedule!
If you’ve had a small break of a week or less, DO NOT fall into the trap of putting off your restart until some upcoming landmark on the calendar. For example, if you missed 3 days and it’s Thursday, DON’T say to yourself “Oh well, I’ll just get back on track Monday morning.” It won’t be any easier next Monday than it will be tomorrow. In fact, it’ll be harder. Putting restarting off to Monday, or the 1st of the month, or after your birthday, or whatever date seems “right” is how a short break becomes a long break. Just get back to it now. If now is no good, then tomorrow. Be strong on this point!
The good news is that with just 2 or 3 days back at it your brain will quickly forget the gap and you’ll be in the groove as if nothing happened.
Physically, there’s not much to worry about with a break that’s a week or less. You won’t experience enough de-conditioning for it to be a factor in your exercise choices. Simply resume at the intensity and duration you were at before. In fact, you might find that your exercise performance increases as your body has had a good rest.
In the event that you’re feeling tired or winded, dial things back a bit during the specific exercise. For example, your workout might be feeling fine, but you notice your shoulders are really giving out during your shoulder press. You would just trim a few sets and reps off the shoulder press and keep everything else the same.
Beyond small adjustments like that, there’s no need to do any special ramping up. Just get in there and get moving!
A medium sized break is tricky. Part of your brain will still feel like it’s in the game, but the other part will be telling you, “Just pack it up, you failed this time. Let’s start over again later.” Don’t listen to that siren’s call! Even a month out from being in a routine, you’ll still have a good portion of the positive effects, and with just a week and a half of diligence can smooth over the gap and get back on track!
Imagine that you’ve been climbing a mountain, slipped on some loose gravel, and have slid back down a bit. Yes, you lost some ground. But you’re still halfway up the mountain! Why would you give up now and have to start the climb from sea level all over again? This is the time to dust yourself off and keep your eyes UP. The summit is a lot closer after a 10-30 day break than you think.
As with the shorter break, immediately getting back to work is important. Don’t wait for a temporal event that feels right. Start now, or tomorrow! Your fitness effort is still recoverable!
If you’ve gone 2-4 weeks without eating right or exercising, you’ll have begun to see and feel the effects. Muscles that were toning up will have slackened slightly. Areas of fat that were firming up will have gained some squish. You’ll have a bit less pep in your step. Again, don’t dwell on what you’ve lost, focus on how you’re starting already halfway up the mountain and are, in the big scheme of things, in a GREAT position for a good fitness result.
As you get back into exercise, you should consider scaling back about 30% from what you were doing before. So for example, if you were running 10km you would start by running 7km. Or if you were squatting 100kg you’d load the bar up with only 70kg. Otherwise, even at 30 days out, you can continue pretty much where you left off, slowly backfilling that 30% until you’re back to full strength. This process takes about 2 weeks if you don’t have any more slips.
If you’re heading into month 2 or 3 of not doing exercise or healthy eating, it can be easy to beat yourself up and want to throw the whole effort out the window. You’ll feel tempted to shove the workout gear to the back of the closet, and fill the cupboards with your favorite junk food treats. What does it matter anyway? You blew it!
At this length of a break, zoom your reference point out. Think on a yearlong scale. If you had a bad 2 or 3 months would you say your entire year was ruined? No! You just had a bad season. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, if you look at the plant and animal life of our world you’ll see they all have some seasons of energy and vigor, and some seasons of passivity and hibernation. Even that ferocious bear sleeps the winter away. It’s ok to have some down months. But that time is over and your vital force is pushing you to get moving!
There’s absolutely nothing preventing you from recovering from a bad season. You’ll be surprised how within a few weeks of getting your exercise and nutrition right, you feel remarkably recovered from your break. That’s because even out to the 80-90 day time frame your mind and body still retain some of the positive glow from your past efforts. Your brain and muscle cells say, “Ah yes, we remember this and things fall into place."
If you’re coming back from a long break like this, be sure to NOT think of it as starting over. You just had an off season, and are resuming where you left off much as a professional athlete has some down time after a time of intensity. The year is still on track!
In this case I DO recommend choosing the next “start of the week” day for you to get going. For most people this is Monday but there’s no rule that it can’t be any other day of the week. Spend the days before this date getting your gear, food, and mind prepped. It was nice to have a month or two off, but looking and feeling good is also on the schedule this year!
In sports science terms, someone who has gone more than 3 months without doing physical activity is officially considered “deconditioned”. So anytime before that you’ll still have some traces of the good effects from your previous effort.
When you start to exercise again, dial back to a full 50% of your old normal. If you ran 10km just run 5k, and at a slow pace with walking if needed. If you lifted 100kg dial all the way back to 50kg, and even then don’t push into deep sets.
One thing to be aware of is that after about 45 days your muscle cells will have lost considerable power and you WILL be extremely sore if you attempt to do an intense workout. We’re talking not being able to sit down without groaning sore. Some people don’t mind that amount of soreness, but if you think it’ll derail your attempt to get out of the doldrums, then be extra conservative and don’t work into deep, hot burns for your first two weeks back. You don’t get results faster by making yourself super sore!
You’ll also want to dial back to the basic exercises. If you had made it all the way to something like weighted chest dips before your break, you’d want to walk that back to simple push-ups. A high-level exercise is dangerous at this stage because your brain knows how to do it, but your muscles don’t have the support structure to pull it off. Keep it simple, keep it safe.
At this stage, it’s healthy to let go of the past effort as one that didn’t work out, and reset your mind completely. Think of yourself as someone who hasn’t done much nutrition or exercise work before, and have “beginner’s mind'' as you take on your next fitness challenge.
As much as possible, don’t taint your current plan with constant comparisons to what you did before. Let go of guilt or self-recrimination. These feelings waste mental energy, and when you’re spinning up a new fitness plan you’ll need every ounce of mental energy. What’s done is done. It’s beautiful to have a fresh start.
You have the benefit of being wiser this time around, and knowing what tripped you up in the past. You also have this lesson to get you through the inevitable breaks that come up as you move forward!
Past 3 months of break time, you should train like a beginner. You might be able to progress out of beginner exercises quite quickly, but let your body tell you that, not your ego. We see the largest number of injuries when people are coming off long breaks and diving right into the hardest exercises they were doing before. The body needs to ramp up (as described in this Pulse article).
There will be a hard couple of weeks as you get started where you feel fed up with your body. You’re weak in areas that were once strong. You’re jiggly in areas that were once taut. Keep a sense of humor and know that if you keep going, you WILL get all that good stuff back. If you did it once, you can do it again.
Life’s not easy, and just the fact that you’re reading this article to its conclusion means that you care more than most about your health and fitness!
Having to take a break is nothing to flagellate yourself over. As we say at Kenzai, you have 365 beautiful days a year to work on your health and fitness. There’s plenty of time and space for breaks to happen, whether the break was planned or not. It’s only when you dwell on them and how much you’ve lost that they become trouble.
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder