Finally, here in Ireland, we have come to the end of our Level 5 lockdown and sports, training and leisure centres have begun to reopen.
As many of us are eager to return to our much-loved activities, there are some essential factors to consider to return in a physically safe manner, to avoid injury and get the most out of your exercise sessions. After weeks of not hitting the gym or maintaining your usual training regimen, it is crucial to return gradually to avoid injury.
Remember that your joints, muscles and tendons may have 'weakened' a little and need some time to redevelop the ability to withstand the additional stresses and strains required. In physiotherapy, we refer to this process as load management, which must be progressed carefully to avoid overuse injuries.
Your cardiorespiratory fitness may have also decreased and trying to pick up where you left off may place excessive strain on your heart, immune and nervous system.
In terms of muscle size or 'mass', you'll be happy to know that it generally takes about 6-12 weeks of little to no exercise to see a real decrease in muscle mass- so all is not lost! How quickly muscle atrophy takes place depends on your current fitness level, muscle size and the amount of time you were less active or inactive. This reduction in muscle mass is due to deconditioning and is entirely normal; we often observe this phenomenon in patients who have had surgery and done very little in the weeks afterwards.
You shouldn't expect your performance to resume at the same level as you left off. Be patient with yourself, aim for 2-3 workouts a week or 1-2 training or sporting sessions. If needed, decrease the intensity of your training temporarily and listen to your body's response; avoid excessive fatigue or muscle soreness after workouts. Your fitness and strength level will return, but be patient. It is recommended that you build up the intensity or duration of training by 10% a week, which is a safe level for the body and will reduce the risk of injury.
Completing a warm-up before physical activity is also advised. A gentle warm-up consisting of stretching and light exercise will increase blood flow to the working muscles preparing them for work. In turn, this can reduce your chance of injury and reduce potential muscle soreness.
Be sure to include rest or recovery days throughout the week. Generally, it is the day following activity that soreness can be felt, with studies showing that muscle soreness can peak 48 hours after the training session. It is important to note that slight muscle soreness is normal and nothing to worry about, this is commonly referred to as the 'DOMS' (delayed onset muscle soreness). It is wise to monitor the level of soreness after your session and make sure that it is at a manageable level. If soreness is at an uncomfortable level, this is a sign that you may have over-exerted yourself too soon and may need to reduce the duration, intensity or loading temporarily. An excellent natural way to ease muscle soreness is by applying heat using a hot water bottle wrapped in a covering, a heat pack or by heating the area in a hot shower.
Make sure you are fuelling your body with good nutrition and staying hydrated as your return to your activities. Protein is an excellent macronutrient for muscle recovery and for building strength and should be part of a healthy diet, especially when partaking in sports, gym or training. Good sources of protein include lean meats, eggs, beans, fish and nuts.
If you are nervous about returning to sport or training and feel some guidance would ease with your return, here at Mount Merrion Physiotherapy and Health we offer a return to sports screening which includes an assessment, treatment if required, individualised exercise programme and advice. The return to sports screening session aims to identify problem areas and fix them before they lead to injury.
I wish you all a happy and safe return to your chosen physical activity!
By Rachael Cleary BSc Physio, MISCP
Image by Taco Fleur from Pixabay