How to get fit again (without injuring yourself)

You may feel ready to reclaim your pre-lockdown body, but if you don’t approach it properly, you risk a serious physical setback. The experts tell Jaymie Hooper how to do it right.

Have your runners been hibernating in the back of your closet since the start of winter? Or was it the COVID lockdowns that put a pin in your training? Now, as the weather starts to warm up again, you probably see your fitness goals finally back within reach. But while it can be tempting to simply pick things up where you left off, rushing back into your old routine or trying to overcompensate for lost workout sessions could set you back even more.

Even if you don’t feel weaker, any extended period of inactivity will have degraded your strength. “When you come out of a period of sedentary behaviour, there is a tendency to underestimate how much you’ve lost in terms of strength and conditioning,” explains Associate Professor Kevin Netto, who heads up Exercise, Sport and Rehabilitation Science at Curtin University.

So take it slow for the best results. As Kate Allott, national fitness manager at Anytime Fitness notes, “The human body is incredibly intelligent and adapts quickly, so dial the intensity back and stay consistent. It is important to ease your body back into movement safely, as avoiding injury is key to seeing results.”

Keen to get back out there? Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

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1. Don’t rush in

If you were once able to run 10km without breaking a sweat but have let your cardio training take a back seat over the past few months, don’t expect a new personal best anytime soon.

“If you haven’t trained in a while and you don’t adjust your achievement goals, you’ll blow up half-way and feel really demotivated,” Prof Netto tells Body+Soul. “Have a month at 80 per cent effort rather than 100 per cent and try interval training. If you want to run 5km, try running for 1km, resting for 30 seconds and then walking for 1km and repeating that pattern.”

Speed play is another method you can use to build up your cardio endurance without injuring yourself, and it can be applied to everything from running and walking to swimming and cycling.

“It’s just changing the speed at which you do these activities,” explains Prof Netto. “If you’re running, you may run fast towards a lamppost and then slow it down when running to the next one. If you’re a swimmer, you may want to go slower for the first 50m and then go faster and faster.”

The key is to break your long-term goal into more manageable chunks. “Don’t put yourself off by starting with a massive cardio session,” tips Allott. “Start small and build it up, adding distance or time to each session and then increasing the number of sessions per week.”

2. Lighten the load

Even if you were lifting triple digits before your exercise hiatus, it doesn’t mean your muscles are ready to lift that much now. “Leave your ego at the door,” Allott tips. “A break from weight training means your strength may not be where it was before, so reduce the load, or number of reps or sets.”

Warming up is critical for weight training in general, but it’s even more important if you’ve had an extended break from the bench press. “Cold muscles can easily lead to pulled ones or a more serious injury,” notes Allott. “Check your form with a light weight or just your bodyweight before starting a heavy set as poor form is a common reason for injury,” she adds.

Prof Netto adds, “Focus more on the movement patterns rather than the weights you push.” As well as building up your bodyweight strength with moves like push-ups and planks, you can also warm up with light medicine balls and kettlebells to increase your range of motion, which will also help protect you from injury.

3. Make time to recover

Just as you should make time to warm up your muscles, you also need to make time to rest them. “Recovery is key to a new routine as it will reduce risk of injury and aid results,” Allot tells Body+Soul. “When starting a new routine, your muscles will feel sore and will take longer to recover, so you may need one or two days’ rest between sessions.”

If you don’t allow your body to regain its strength, you’ll not only stall your results, you could also end up out of action for longer.

“Don’t increase the intensity or volume of your training by more than 20 per cent a week,” warns Prof Netto. “It’s also been shown if you don’t fluctuate your training, you’ll enter an overtraining state and your body will start to break down.”

Move it or lose it

Exercise physiologist and sports scientist Drew Harrisberg reveals the three exercises you should be doing every day – lockdown or no lockdown.

1. Deep squat

“Use the deep squat as a movement ‘snack’ throughout the day to offset the negative impact of prolonged sitting. If you lack mobility, you can allow your heels to come up off the ground, but over time try to achieve flat feet. If you feel like you’re going to fall, you can elevate your heels on something like a book or against a wall. The goal is to squat to a depth where your hamstrings touch your calves, your feet remain flat on the ground and you maintain a relatively upright torso.”

2. Superman pose

“This will wake up and strengthen the back of your body while also opening up and stretching the front. To perform the move, lie face-down on the ground with your arms out in front of you and your legs straight. Lift your arms, chest and head off the ground while simultaneously lifting your feet and legs. Focus on keeping your shoulder blades down and back, squeeze your glutes and quads, and point your toes. Try to repeat several reps over the day to reset bad postural patterns.”

3. Downward-facing to upward-facing dog

“Downward-facing dog to upward-facing dog is an amazing sequence to activate, strengthen and lengthen your muscles. Downward stretches the hamstrings, calves and lats, while strengthening the shoulders, wrists, forearms and core. Upwards stretches the chest, shoulders, abs, hip flexors and shins, while strengthening the triceps, forearms and wrists. I recommend repeating this sequence throughout the day whenever you’ve been sedentary.”

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