Friday, July 21, 2006

The Comeback - a Practical Guide to Reigniting Your Running

By Pete Rea, ZAP Fitness/Running Journal/March 2006

Muhammad Ali had three, as did Michael Jordan. Madonna, and Hulk Hogan had a couple each; even Ted Kennedy had one. They are comebacks, otherwise known as rebirths, second chances, and resurrections. Comebacks require fortitude and passion, and in the world of long distance running comebacks require (among other things) fresh thinking and extreme patience, perhaps more patience than any other venue. Most of us have been there: muscles are sorer than ever, workouts have become a chore and it has been months, years, even decades since we have seen a personal best. If this describes you, perhaps you are ripe for a comeback.

Comeback Step #1 -- Rest/Time Off

Few dedicated endurance athletes ever allow themselves time to rest, truly rest. I am not talking about a day off here and there but time completely away from intense training. It is indeed a paradox: this "never miss dotting an I or crossing a T" thinking that allows so many runners to be successful is also what can knock us off the pedestal. When all else fails one of the best ways to begin a comeback is with, ironically, some time off. Time away from running (or at least intense running) has the benefits of healing the body both physiologically and psychologically, and more often than not will stoke the fire of desire. My former coach and ZAP Fitness co-founder, the late Andy Palmer, made a career out of coaching broken down athletes who had seen more valleys than peaks, and the first place he began with each new client was with rest.

Comeback Step #2 -- Forget What You have Done in the Past

One of the most important factors in reigniting your running career is focusing on who and where you are now, not who you were three, 10, or even 20 years ago. Too often athletes get caught up in their personal bests or performances from years past and fail to focus their energies on the here and now. Particularly after a long break I encourage the reborn runner to apply the "new PR plan" that was suggested to me by Depaul University Coach Gordon Thompson. Essentially the idea behind the "new PR plan" is that once you begin to train after an extended break your slate of PRs is clean. Even if you are a 16:00 5K runner from years prior, if your first race back is a 21:30 5K -- that is your PR. Dwelling on how far you've fallen from performances past will only increase frustration and reduce motivation.

Comeback Step #3 -- More Recovery -- Less Intensity

Another common mistake in making a successful comeback is assuming that you need to train harder and more intensely than in years past. On the contrary, a comeback requires a runner to give themselves more time between hard sessions and be open to the need for a novel, more gradual approach, especially in the dangerous "ramp-up" period. Time and time again I have seen athletes starting comebacks who fail because they transition into all-out running in the first handful of weeks. I suggest more relaxed to moderate work and little to no top end 90 percent-plus sessions for the first four to six months. As a side note to the older runner getting back into the sport competitively: while I am personally not a big fan of large amounts of weight work, thwarting the body's natural loss of muscle mass in the 50s and 60s through light to moderate weight lifting is an intelligent way to remain injury free as you build back into training.

Comeback Step #4 -- Your Body is a Temple -- Treat it that way!

Most of the people I coach are likely sick of my constant nagging about taking care of their bodies properly in training, but for the recovering comeback runner this is even more important. I am a strong believer in regular massage therapy, osteopathic and/or chiropractic work, acupuncture, and of course the two biggies: post-run icing and pre hard-run muscle warming. These little tricks of the trade will undoubtedly increase your chances of a healthy comeback.

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