Four years ago, Donald Taylor Jr., was thrilled when he ran the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in just over four hours — shaving 30 minutes from his first attempt the year before. Yet once the race was over, he stopped his regular runs and focused on other goals — he adopted a child and started a massage business. Then, when his father and grandmother died three months apart, fitness fell to the bottom of his priority list. “Yep, I was rocking the Dad Bod,” says Taylor, 37 of Louisville, Kentucky.
A few months ago, Taylor decided it was time to take up running again to drop a few pounds and hopefully get off his blood pressure medications. Although he anticipated it would take a while to get back to where he was, he didn’t expect this: On the first day, he could barely run a mile. Now, after weeks of hard work, he’s up to three miles, a few times a week. “I was completely shocked,” he says. “I knew I’d have to work to get my mileage up to where it used to be, but this has been a real challenge. I’ve been a runner for the last decade. I’m like ‘3.1 miles! Seriously?’”
The psychological shock of discovering you’re no longer your badass, formerly fit self can be disheartening. “The good news is that you can regain fitness at any age,” says Sam Zizzi, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology at West Virginia University. “But you may not be as fast or as strong as you once were. So you need to keep up your motivation in the beginning by thinking, ‘I’m going to start slower, but I’m not going to quit.’”
The danger of measuring your current performance by your old achievements, says Zizzi, is that you’ll set yourself up for disappointment. “If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t stick with it,” he says. Check out these tips to get into a new groove quickly and safely.
5 Ways to Go from Out of Shape to Strong Again
1. Start small.
Weekend warriors, beware! Trying to jump back into your old routine could lead to injury. “Mentally you’re thinking, ‘I can still run the same as before,’ but you’ve got to be cautious,” says Kevin Lewallan, a private fitness trainer in North County, San Diego, who’s worked with many recovering Ironman competitors. “Don’t do something that’s so challenging that you couldn’t repeat it the next day. You want consistency.”
His suggestion: Build up your confidence by signing up for a 5K. Then make a reasonable plan to get there. “After you train for that, you can you start kicking up the volume,” he says. If you’re not a runner, you can set a goal of attending group fitness classes two to three days a week. Or hire a trainer to give you regular homework.
“You need the structure of a good strength routine to support your other training.”
2. Don’t idealize the past.
You might recall how good it felt to cross the finish line during your first big race — but you might have forgotten all the hard work that went into getting there. That’s the same work it might take to get back there. “You need to realize you’re at a new point, and that’s where you should begin from,” says Zizzi.
He suggests not evaluating your initial progress for at least 30 days. “Can you treat it like a science experiment and wonder, ‘Let’s see what I’m capable of,’ instead of rushing to beat yourself up?’” he asks. It’s easier to settle into a regular routine when you’re not so critical of your performance.
3. Cultivate a new reason for fitness.
You’re in a different place than you were last time you rocked a half-marathon, or boasted serious biceps. So it should make sense that your motivation for wanting to get fit again also would have changed. “When people think of those new reasons, it helps them stay motivated,” says Zizzi. “Maybe you want to stay healthy for your family, or you want to be an active father.” Articulating those new reasons will help you accept the shift in your identity, he says. You’re forced to think about how fitness fits into an expanded perspective of your life.
4. Work on strength and flexibility.
Sure, you may not get a medal for being able to touch your toes. But working on flexibility and strength is critical to building yourself back up while you focus on swimming or cycling longer or faster. “You need the structure of a good strength routine to support your other training,” explains Lewallan. Plus, if you took an extended break from exercise, there’s a good chance you lost flexibility or range of motion, he says. That includes weak hamstrings or tight quads and hip flexors, which can create imbalances across your joints and cause pain.
5. Enjoy the process.
You’ve heard this advice a million times. But it’s important to enjoy all those training days instead of just focusing on the goal, says Lewallan. That includes those times when a 10-mile bike ride makes you yearn for an afternoon nap.
That’s the perspective that helped Taylor stick with his training and make it a habit. “When I accepted I couldn’t push myself any faster, I started to realize how much more enjoyable it was going slower. Now I look around and see the trees and notice the chipmunks and woodpeckers,” says Taylor. “I also try to remember that the changes that took me away from running, like becoming a new dad, make me the person I am today. All I can do is set myself up to be stronger and healthier tomorrow.”