Staying in shape can be difficult when you’re taking time off from training. You start to worry you’ll lose your shape, lose all your progress and become a lump who everyone forgets about. In fact, it usually takes somebody else to tell you to stop training for you to actually stop, because the fear of falling behind or losing your shape overshadows the importance of recovering. But you know what’s even scarier?
Pushing through whatever it is that is stopping you from training, only to make everything worse. Be it a cold or an injury: these things will tend to sort themselves out after a week or so of rest and time-out, but for so many of us, a week is too long. We give it a day, maybe two, and go straight back to it at full gear, never giving our bodies the chance to recover.
Meet Exhibit A
I hurt my back last August and here we are, around 10 months later, still suffering from back problems. I recently took around 3-4 weeks off from training because it was hurting me too much. Initially I freaked. OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO LOSE ALL MY GAINS, HOW AM I GOING TO STAY IN SHAPE WHEN I CAN’T TRAIN?!?! But then I remembered that:
- Diet trumps exercise, and if I kept my diet in track, the damage to my progress would be minimal,
- I’ve been training for around 3 years now. If it took me 3 years to build this shape, is it going to take 3 weeks to lose? Probably not.
It’s easy to get worried about staying in shape and to start thinking you’ll go back to the start. But you’re in control. If you want to stay in shape when you can’t train, there are some really important and simple things you can do to maintain as much of your progress as possible. Let’s take a look.
keep protein levels high
We all know it’s important to eat sufficient amounts of protein when we’re training to ensure that the muscles recover after being damaged, but it’s crucial to continue this even when you can’t train in order to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. Protein is a crucial building block of our bodies and your body needs protein to repair cells and make new ones. When you’re going through a period of recovery, this process is even more important. Give your body the food it needs and ensure you are getting an adequate protein supply.
Lower your calorie intake
If you normally train often and intensely, you will be used to taking in a lot of calories to fuel your body and help it recover after working out. When you suddenly stop training, your daily energy expenditure will drop, meaning your body doesn’t need as many calories as normal.
This doesn’t mean go crazy and starve yourself to stop yourself from getting “fat”. This means knock off a couple of hundred calories, or use a calculator to work out how many calories your body needs considering your change in activity levels (I use a Mifflin St-Jeor formula to work out mine – just enter your details and select your activity level and it will advise you on a calorie goal).
*Top Tip* I tend to take the calories from my carbohydrates, as my body doesn’t need such a high carbohydrate level if I’m not working out. So I keep my protein intake the same, up the fats a little and lower the carbs.
Keep drinking lots of water
This is a point that will never go out of fashion for me. Being sufficiently hydrated is always important, whether you’re a fitness fanatic or have never even stepped in a gym. The difference you feel in your body when you drink enough water is phenomenal. It’s easy to drink less when you aren’t training as you are not sweating or exerting yourself as much, but don’t let your water intake slip. Make a conscious effort to stay on your H20. You need to find out what amount works best for you, but I always aim for at least 2 litres a day.
Eat lots of satiating foods and volume eat
A drop in calories might leave you feeling hungry, so be smart about what you eat. Eat foods with a high-satiety level so you feel fuller sooner (think high-protein/high-fat (good fat)/high-fibre) and combine these with super low-calorie foods which you can “volume eat”. I always pack my meals full of vegetables and massive salads so that I’m physically eating more, my meals look bigger, but the calories are still low.
This will depend on what your reason is for not being able to train, but there would be very few occasions where you would be advised to stop moving completely. So, unless you have been directed by a medical professional not to walk, make sure you’re getting out and moving. Aim for around 10 – 12,000 steps a day (there is a pedometer in the iPhone health app). Not only will this keep your activity levels a little higher, but it will clear your mind, get you outside and give you some fresh air, which always solves a multitude of problems. There’s not much a good walk won’t fix.
Again, unless otherwise advised by a medical professional, be sure to take time to stretch every day. Not only will it keep you feeling loose and supple, but it will mean you will be less injury-prone when you get back to the gym. Try to take 10-15 minutes two times a day to stretch off and breathe.
If you have access to a pool, go for a gentle swim a couple of times a week while you can’t train. You won’t gain any muscle mass but you will keep the body moving and keep your cardio levels up.
*Top Tip* – If you can’t train because of a cold or are sick, give the swimming a miss and stick to walking. Cardiovascular training is not at all good for a cold, and you also don’t want to spread any germs.
Your body needs as much rest as possible in order to make a full and speedy recovery, so give it what it needs. You might not feel as tired or exhausted as you normally would without your training, but your body still needs to rest. I always try and get between 6-8 hours of sleep per night.
4) KEEP YOURSELF BUSY
If you’re usually spending 1-2 hours of your evening in the gym, this is a great opportunity to spend that time on things you don’t usually have the time to do. In my couple of weeks off, I took the time that I would usually spend in the gym to see friends, do some writing, catch up on my blog and Instagram and chill out. The gym will still be there when you come back, so try and enjoy the time off and do something new. Keeping yourself busy and not being stuck in the house will also keep you out of the fridge… so get yourself out and about.
If you’re seriously concerned about losing your shape whilst you can’t train, make sure you have a second set of eyes to help you. It’s very easy to get a morphed idea of what is actually going on with your body, and if you don’t have solid picture evidence or measurements, you will start to worry and think you’ve lost weight/lost muscle/put on fat etc. So take out the uncertainty and start documenting. Weigh yourself and take pictures of your body before you stop training. This way you can track exactly what is happening, and if you find yourself losing or gaining weight, you can adjust your calories accordingly to maintain your desired weight.
7) MOST IMPORTANTLY
All of this depends on your circumstances. If you can’t train because you’ve got a bit of a cold, you’ll probably take a few days off and be fine again in no time. If you can’t train because you’ve broken your back, you’re going to need a little longer to recover and this will inevitably lead to you losing some of your progress: I won’t lie to you about that. However, if you follow these tips, you will be able to maintain a lot of your shape. And if you lose a little muscle? Gain a little fat? Don’t worry about it. It might seem like the end of the world, but your shape and your body are not what defines you. Take this time to discover more about yourself and work on the things which you can’t see.
And remember, when you do get back to the gym, take it easy for the first few sessions. You only get one body, be good to it.
Lotsa lovin and speedy recovery,
If you’re struggling to relax and let yourself recover, read my post over in the Lifestyle section: The Importance of Being Idol. Sometimes taking a bit of time out and being a bit lazy is exactly what we need.
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