Restarting from zero – When coming back from injury, take it slow

Athletes often get sidelined in the early season, whether from overtraining, an overuse injury or a crash. Most miss a week or two, then get back in the game after a week of rebuilding. The unlucky ones — or the obstinate ones, trying to rush their comebacks — may end up being off the bike a month or more. Whatever the case, eventually it becomes time to start training again. But where do you begin?

Recovering from a major break of three weeks or more will take some preparation, not unlike your approach to the beginning of the season. A good rule of thumb is that for every week you weren’t training, you will need one to two weeks of training to return to competition. During that time, you’ll need to gradually build intensity and specificity before you attempt to race again.

Easy Does It

The first guideline during a rebuilding period is to start slowly. This seems rudimentary, but it takes self-discipline to do an easy hour-long spin on a Saturday when all your teammates are either racing or doing a four-hour group ride. You might be able to survive your normal group ride in your first week of training, but whether you should try to is another story.

Unless you have an absolute goal in the next few weeks after returning to training, always choose the easier road when rebuilding. You may have to go out of your way to avoid your usual challenging routes, or even seek out a nearby bike path to slow yourself down for the first few rides. If you absolutely need the company of group rides, configure your rebuilding rides so that you start out with the group, then go your own way when it gets fast, or meet up with the group toward the end of the ride, when the pace is winding down.

During those first rides you should feel slow but fresh. That is, you will likely feel lousy and out of shape, regardless of how healthy you feel, but your heart rate should rise quickly and responsively when you ride and fall just as fast when you stop.

As the days progress, if you start to feel weak, can’t raise your heart rate or power to your normal endurance-zone level, or have injury pangs, you should back off and ride more slowly, over less distance, or wait until the next week to restart again. It sounds so simple, but it’s easy to ignore when you’re eager to get training again. A coach or mentor is an indispensable resource to help analyze your feedback and keep you from going insane from impatience when you are working through a comeback.

Building Up

In the early stages of your comeback, you should follow a condensed version of what you would normally do during the fall and winter months. Include some strength and endurance work, ramp up to the moderate and intensive interval work you would normally do in the early spring, and then top it off with race simulations during group rides.

A midseason recovery program after a six-week break might look like this:

  • 1-2 weeks: recovery rides, or until you can ride several days in a row with no fatigue.
  • 2-3 weeks: endurance pace work, gradually building in time, until you can strongly complete the length of your average road race three times within one week.
  • 1-2 weeks: moderate intensity work, until you can strongly complete the length of your average criterium at tempo pace twice during the week.
  • 2-3 weeks: hard intensity work, until you can strongly complete intervals totaling 30 minutes during one session.
  • 1 week: race simulation. Do one or two days of tough group riding before racing.

Those who have gone over the overtraining edge may need to start with as few as 10 to 30 minutes a day of very slow exercise and will likely require an even longer, slower rebuild period.

Many riders will lose patience with a program like the one above after a couple of weeks and jump directly to intervals and racing. Such an approach may allow them to be able to finish races and improve for a while. However, it will most likely result in a relatively quick and abrupt fall in well-being in which the rest of the season might be spent trying to climb out of the hole dug by skipping the essential base-rebuilding period.

You don’t have to be a phenomenal natural athlete to recover from a major pause in your season. But you do have to exercise the same kind of commitment to your comeback plan that a pro would.

Lots of athletes have made it back from nearly “impossible” breaks and pauses. If you ask around, you are likely to find that you know someone who learned the hard way about returning to fitness in midseason and will be happy to share stories of how to avoid the pitfalls. The thing you’ll most likely hear again and again is that, when it comes to returning from overtraining or injury, it’s always better to underdo than overdo.