How to Get Back in the Fitness Groove After an Injury or Illness

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Officer Training School trainees run during an Air Force physical fitness test.
Officer Training School trainees take off running during an official Air Force physical training test on Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, Aug. 8, 2019. (Airman 1st Class Charles Welty/U.S. Air Force photo)

Injuries or illnesses often occur and derail our fitness and progress made over many months and years of effort. This can be extremely frustrating to any hard-charging military or fitness buff. Getting back into it after several weeks or months of recovery time can be a shock to the system and a bruise to the ego if efforts and expectations are too high. Here is an email from a British Army soldier needing help after an illness sidelined him for several months:

Stew - Well, my fitness has gone completely! I am serving in the British Army. Unfortunately just over five months ago, I was struck with kidney stones. The doctors immediately stopped me from doing all physical exercise until this week, when they have finally given me the all clear to start again. I was feeling completely wasted after a 10-minute jog and struggled to complete a measly 10 minutes on the static bike! Could you please advise me as to whether any of your other programmes would help me in starting to get back to fitness. Any help would be more than gratefully received!

Whether it is a job-related or combat injury or debilitating illness, it is recommended to treat your fitness in the same manner you would advise a beginner to start a fitness program. Because if you try to start off where you left off (five months ago), you likely are going to injure yourself again.

Overuse injuries are relative. Though pre-​​injury/​illness, running five miles 4-5 times a week was common, jumping back into a five-mile run after five months of no activity or rehab likely will cause an overuse injury like tendinitis, muscle soreness, joint pain or, even worse, a stress ​​fracture. Start off slow.

Start walking first. If there is no pain, mix in a few minutes of jogging, followed by a few minutes of walking. You might find your cardio endurance has weakened, and in an effort to catch your breath, you may need to walk anyway.

If walking is painful, then definitely do not run. But you can use a non-​​impact option like biking, elliptical gliding, rowing or swimming to build your cardio endurance back up. The good thing about these non-impact options is that rarely are joint pains or​ stress fractures associated with these methods of cardiovascular exercise.

You will want to build your running pace back to where you left it, as you still will be tested in fitness regularly with your unit. I recommend building a foundation of 2-3 miles of running (3-4 times/​week) over about a four-week period, then start to work on your mile pace with interval runs and paced distance run sets. See related articles for ideas:

  • Interval Training
  • Getting Faster on Timed Runs

PT progressions: Starting off with simple pyramids is a great way to rebuild your fitness PT foundation. See the five-part series of great long-term PT options for you to start and grow with over time.

After about 6-8 weeks, you should feel close to "back to normal" and see quick results, whether it is with cardio endurance or muscle strength and stamina. But give it some time to progress, and you will be much happier with the quick results and reduced injury possibilities.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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