Dr Tim Gabbett explains returning to exercise, in a similar fashion to drinking alcohol for the first time............
Imagine you are approaching the age where you are legally allowed to drink alcohol. You and your friends plan a ‘big night out’ to celebrate the important milestone. The only problem is that you have never consumed alcohol before. You drink one beer and you are inebriated, because you have no ‘tolerance’ to beer (let’s call it “beer tolerance”). Over a period of time (e.g. the next 6 months) you and your friends party every Friday and Saturday night; you can now drink 6, 7, or even 8 beers before you get drunk. You have improved your beer tolerance.
The same can be said for exercise. The first session is always the hardest, but over time the soreness experienced following activity is reduced. However, it is important to consider that just as beer and tequila carry different risks, not all training carries the same risk either. The training tolerance developed from continuous low-speed running (analogous to beer load) does not mean that a tolerance to high-speed running or sprinting (analogous to tequila) has been developed.
Although we would stop short of recommending drinking copious amounts of alcohol to improve health, building tolerance to alcohol is a useful metaphor when describing the effects of high training loads on injury risk. It is important upon returning to sport that you gradually expose your body to loads/activity to improve your training tolerance. A sudden spike in activity commonly leads to injuries, similar to how an unplanned 'big night' leads to a hangover. If you are unsure of your tolerance to high-intensity exercise, train at lower intensities until you build your tolerance.
For example if you plan to return to running after having the winter off, start with walking 3 minutes and then running 10, repeating this three times. Gradually reduce the time walking, and increase the total time running. The first few runs should be at a slow steady pace, at a speed where you are still able to talk. Gradually increase your speed to include bursts of short fast intervals, or to a pace where you can't talk easily.
For more information about training load, and returning to activity, contact email@example.com.