Making a Comeback

In this blog Hannah Johnston, a valued member of our Tri Training Harder community, builds on her previous blog and explains how to slowly build back up to training from a period of time off. Before her life was turned upside-down, Hannah was an elite level triathlete in 2015 and has been involved with Tri Training Harder in various capacities over the last five years. Hannah currently operates the social media side of the business so head over to Facebook and say hello!

In my previous blog, I wrote about living without triathlon; when life throws you an unfortunate set of cards and you’re unable to train (and in my case, work, study, drive, socialise and do anything that required getting out of bed!). How do you cope? If I’d have been given a heads up on what my 2015-16 was going to be like, I would have certainly panicked; triathlon was my life and I’ve never had more than a 2 week break from sport my whole life. How would I manage taking almost a year out, with over 6 months of it in bed? But, when these difficult situations are forced upon you, in the moment you find what is truly important. I found enjoyment in things I would never have previously considered, and the true value of my family and friends was realised. These things hold greater importance than simply being the fastest swimmer/biker/runner.

So, where am I now? Well, I am absolutely ecstatic to say that I am well, and back to my energetic old self. The answers behind my illness have not been found, but I am focusing on the future and the road to becoming the healthy me again.

It’s a huge jump from being bedbound with extreme fatigue to cycling 40 hilly kilometres, so how did I do it? I hope this section can be good advice for anyone making a ‘comeback’ as such, and is the reasoning behind writing this blog. I am guessing that many triathletes reading this blog will have taken time out from the sport at some point during their sporting lives, maybe due to injury, illness, having a baby, work commitments, family commitments, travel, etc. So how do you get back into your old routines when you may have taken one month, 10 months or even 10 years out of training?

1. Start slowly

First things first, you need to start slow. Like, REALLY slow. For me, the first stage was walking a few steps around the garden. Sounds ridiculous right? But you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. Getting carried away and doing too much too soon would only mean a step backwards. Once I could do that without it making me too tired, I then walked 100m down the road to the post box and back. Then it was to the village centre, which is maybe 300m away. Slowly slowly, I built up to being able to walk for around 50 minutes without feeling tired afterwards or the next day.

2. Enjoy the moment

Each walk I focused on the enjoyment of being outdoors: listening to the birds, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, breathing in the fresh air or picking a bunch of wild flowers. To begin with, don’t take a Garmin or iPod; relive the feeling of being outside and don’t get obsessed by the numbers.

I also used my newfound energy to socialise with friends I hadn’t seen since I had stopped training. Just don’t get distracted, carried away and do too much!

This is a look of happiness at being on the bike, not a 'waaah' this
saddle hurts so much (although the latter is also true after 8 months of not riding).
3. Do your core

Once I was ready to start doing actual workouts, rather than just ‘being active’, I had to build up the strength in my muscles and ensure my tendons had the strength and elasticity to function. After all, you don’t want to get injured on your first sessions back after having so much time off.

Start with bodyweight strength sessions: plenty of core work, glute activation and lots of stretching and foam rolling afterwards. When you’ve been away from sport for a while your body is going to get a shock (I once got DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) from packing a suitcase!).

4. Build up your strength

It’s also important that your tendons are ready to work, and for this you’ll need to do a loading programme. When you run, a force of over eight times your bodyweight is put through your body as your foot strikes the ground. Now considering that a mile run typically consists of 1500 foot contacts, 750 per foot – that’s quite a lot of force! And you need to be strong enough to deal with that force.

The Bosworth Clinic and Run 3D have created a return to running programme for injured runners or athletes who have had a long break. It consists of a number plyometric exercises such as jumps and hops to suitably load your tendons for running. I would highly recommend that all athletes returning to exercise after a period of inactivity do a similar programme to reduce your chance of injury on commencing exercise again.

5. Be prepared to feel VERY unfit!

On completion of the return to run program, I was super excited to be able to do some running! But, man was it hard work! Referring back to rule no. 1, I started very slowly. To begin with, I walked for 5 minutes then jogged for one minute and repeated this just a couple of times. As the weeks went by the ratios shifted and before I knew it I was jogging more than I was walking!

6. Keep a log

Although I said earlier not to get obsessed by data and numbers when you start back, there is a point in your training when you do need to keep a watchful eye over how much you are doing. This is useful to look back on if you feel yourself getting ill/injured. And it’s also great to watch your fitness levels rise.

I used Training Peaks to record my metrics daily, logging how much sleep I’d had, how tired I felt, my soreness levels and mood. When I started putting in my training sessions too, a Training Stress Score (TSS) is calculated, showing how difficult that session was. For me, it was all very trial and error, but so long as I had a log of my training and how it made me feel, I was able to better schedule my future training sessions and didn’t have any major relapses.

7. Don’t be tempted to compare to the ‘old’ you

It can be daunting to think that you’re so unfit compared to the old you, or that you are still x number of minutes away from your PB, or that you used to be able to ride 180km and now can only do 40km. Instead, look how much progress you’ve made. Six months ago I wasn’t able to walk as far as the village centre and last weekend I completed a Parkrun!!! It doesn’t matter that the Parkrun was over six minutes slower than my PB, I am celebrating the huge achievement of running the whole distance.

Be rational.

Look at the bigger picture.

Remember why you’re doing this.

It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.

All of those clichés apply here. The journey back to fitness after a period of time off will be difficult at times, but keep in mind your motivations and you’ll be back up and running before you know it. Don’t rush back to try and be at the stage you left off; enjoy the process of returning to fitness, watch your body change back to its more athletic shape, appreciate the post-run buzz, see the improvements you make each training session. Don’t beat yourself up if you need to have that extra rest day, or if you need just a bit more time to recover. Be kind to yourself.

And finally, always look at how far you’ve come, not how far you have left to go.

Psst! Not literally - you still have to look where you're going!