A little over ten years ago, I had what was one of the most eye-opening sessions I’ve ever had in the gym. Following a weeks-long bout with pneumonia, I finally felt healthy enough to get back into the weight room and rebuild what I’d lost.
When I’d fallen ill, I was 180 pounds and in pretty decent shape. And then I dropped 18 pounds in a span of just 10 days. It would be several weeks later before I felt good enough to return to training.
I knew I’d be weak, and I was. But what was most stunning was how I looked. I was ridiculously skinny. And from the side, I looked like I was barely there, like a gust of wind could carry me off. It was almost like I was completely starting over, back in high school when I was a scrawny little twerp with more hair than muscles.
But I had a few things going for me, namely, a lot of knowledge built up over years of training. Still, it was a long road back. And I learned a few things along the way.
If you’re coming back from being sidelined because of injury or illness, then this one’s for you. Let’s start:
You’re going to be weaker. Don’t expect to move nearly as much weight as you did before. I remember doing bench press sets with 225 pounds before I fell ill. Coming back several weeks later, 165 pounds felt like I was trying to lift a Buick. So don’t push yourself past your new limits because of pride. Ease back into it.
Your conditioning is going to suck. Strength ebbs more slowly than conditioning. If you’re a runner, a cyclist or some other form of athlete that depends on a high level of conditioning, be prepared to feel almost like you’ve never ran/biked/swam before. Yes, it can be that bad. Once you accept that, you can get on with regaining your form.
It’s going to take some time. Maybe you squatted 500 pounds or ran a 20-minute 5K when things were good. But now that you’re two months removed from your training, please understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was that squat/deadlift/5K/marathon PR. Or whatever. It took a long time to build up to all of that, and rather unfairly, a short time to lose it. Rebuilding it will be an exercise in patience.
But eventually, muscle memory will take over. Too often we see our past athletic performance as purely exercises of strength and conditioning. It is all that, but it’s also skill. Lifts are skills. Running is a skill, at least if you’re doing it at a higher level. Your brain hasn’t forgotten these things, and once you get back to it, your cranial neurons are going to fire up and tell your body what to do. That’s going to help in your recovery process.
This is a great time to learn new things. Often, we get stuck in our routines when things are going well. When you’re not chasing PRs (because you’re a shadow of what you were), this lets you take a new look at training and methodologies. Things you may not have tried before might be worth looking at now since your ego is solidly held in check. You never know what secret sauce you’ll unlock to eventually make you better than you were before.
I won’t lie, there’s nothing fun about being in the middle of a comeback. But once you’re healthy enough to start down that long road, there is opportunity. You might become stronger. Faster. Able to go further. It’s hard to believe when your fitness is in its nadir, but there is always a chance that you might climb out of that valley to a higher peak than the one you fell from.