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Hey Coach: How do I return to endurance sports after time away from training?

Now that the holidays have come and gone, many athletes are planning their return to training after some downtime. The return will depend on several things:

1.     How long have you been away from endurance sports?

2.     What did you do during the downtime?

3.     What was your level of fitness prior to the downtime?

4.     Were you rehabbing injuries during the time off?

How long an athlete is away from endurance sports and what was the level of fitness prior to the break will help determine how long that athlete needs to get back into the sport. The athlete who takes one month off after completing an Ironman will be able to return quicker and progress faster than the athlete who takes 6 months off after completing a half marathon. All athletes need to include prep work when returning after a break to allow the body to adjust to the return to training. The body needs progressive overload to get stronger and prevent injuries. Pushing too hard, too quick is a recipe for disaster and could result in injuries. I recommend at least one week of prep work before beginning the first week of base training. Prep work should be easy swim, bike and run that will “get you moving” again without excess stress on the body, such as a run that lasts 20-30 minutes alternating easy running and walking.

What was done during the break can also affect how we return to training and the rate at which progression can occur. The return to training differs for the athlete who sat on the couch for a month or two and the athlete who did cross-country skiing 3 times a week during the break, for example. Athletes may not do their sport-specific training during their break, but they may do other sports which help maintain fitness. Skiing, rowing, CrossFit, etc. may not be your normal sport-specific training, but if you continued to maintain your aerobic base during your downtime, the return is different. Additionally, even if all “endurance” activities ceased but the athlete performed strength training during the break, the return to training may be able to progress quicker than the couch potato. Strength training prepares the body for the pounding our bodies take during endurance training by strengthening muscles and bones to absorb the impact of running and cycling.

Finally, the athlete returning from injury will return slower than the healthy athlete that just took some time off. Prep time will be extended to allow for neuromuscular adaptation to return, as well as “testing” the injury to build back the ability to stress the body again. If you’re returning from an injury, it’s important to let your coach know that. Also, consider allowing the coach to coordinate with your physical therapist or healthcare provider to provide the best possible training program and reduce the risk of re-injury.

Have a question for a coach? Email and we’ll tackle your question in a future issue.


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