Why You Should Let Yourself Lose Fitness Sometimes, According to a Physical Therapist

Photo: Getty Images/Allan Danahar

Victoria Sekely may not have started officially training for the New York City Marathon until June 2022, but it had been on her mind for the previous two years. Big fitness goals, like completing a marathon, start taking up your time and energy long before the first day of your training plan. So when you finally cross the finish line, and suddenly your calendar isn't filled with long runs, strength workouts, and a 9 p.m. bedtime, it can feel a little jarring.

For many athletes, the instinct is to immediately chase after the next goal. But Sekely, a physical therapist, run coach, and certified strength and conditioning specialist, took a different approach after her race.

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"Running is very important to me; it's my passion. It's also part of my job," she says. "It takes a very big place in my life, but at the same time, if I want it to continue to do that, I need to take some time away from it as well."

So, she decided to enter into what she affectionately calls her "self-care era."

She didn't go on a single run for three weeks, and instead focused on rest, recovery, and all of the things in her life that she'd placed on the backburner during her marathon training. While she doesn't prescribe that amount of rest for everyone, she does believe that every athlete can benefit from time off.

Why schedule a 'self-care era'?

Whether you’re a runner or a CrossFitter, if you love being active, the last thing you want is to be injured. But moving from one rigorous training cycle to the next is a fast-track path to the doctor's office.

"What the off season is really meant to do is to prevent you from going from back-to-back training cycles," Sekely says. "That can lead to burnout, injury, and fatigue."

Think of this as part of your training cycle—an important one. Training for something like a marathon puts a significant amount of stress on both your body and your mind. Instituting an off season gives your muscles time to heal and your mind room to recuperate.

"Recovery is just as important if not more important than active training," Sekely says.

You will probably lose some fitness from taking a few weeks off. And that’s exactly the point: Most peoples' bodies are not conditioned to stay at their peak fitness level for months on end, Sekely says. This is why even professional athletes take time off. Your fitness will come back when you start training again—and maybe even stronger than before because your body is recharged, rather than burned out and exhausted.

"I want to lose fitness so that when I'm ready to gain it back, I can have that energy and be at my best performance because of that time I took off," says Sekely.

It's an idea that flies in the face of hustle culture and a lot of what we see on social media. Slowing down may be less impressive, but it's equally as important.

What should you be doing?

In short, commit to the basics: sleep, hydration, and nutrition. If it feels good, devote a few minutes each day to foam rolling and stretching.

This season is also the perfect time to explore other forms of movement you don’t usually do but that might bring you joy, Sekely says. Try out swimming, golfing, Zumba, or any activity you've been curious about. Not only can it serve as meaningful cross training, but you also might discover a new passion.

A self-care era is also about nourishing other aspects of your life. Set up a coffee date with that friend you haven't seen in forever. Pick up your guitar again. Take a road trip without having to worry about squeezing in a workout.

This off season can last anywhere from one week to two months, depending on how your body feels, Sekely says. Once you feel like your mind and body are ready to start again, start with slower, easier workouts like unstructured, low mileage runs. Ramp up gradually, and watch your fitness follow.

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