Fit facts: Safe comeback

Play it safe

No matter how earnest our intentions, being sidelined from workouts by sickness or family and work responsibilities happens to the best of us. After time off, you may be chomping at the bit to get back on track and make up the loss.

But how do you know if you're ready? Before jumping back in full throttle, play it safe by doing a "test" workout. If you've missed three to six workouts in a row, start back with an easy 20- to 30-minute effort at warm-up intensity.

If you feel OK, then resume your training where you left off. If you feel unusually tired or sore, you may have to try as many as three more test workouts (remember to keep it at warm-up pace) before picking up in intensity or duration. Your reward for passing with flying colors: a body that's well rested and ready to go!

Breathe strong, gain power

Looking for that second wind in your workout? New evidence shows that pumping up your breathing muscles may do more than improve pulmonary function. A study by Brunel University in London finds that the inspiratory muscles -- those used in breathing such as the diaphragm and ribcage muscles -- not only tire during intense activity, but also cause arm and leg muscles to wear out faster.

Researchers examined cyclists during exhaustive bike rides and found the harder the inspiratory muscles had to work, the sooner the cyclists' legs fatigued.

Endurance training such as long runs or rides helps develop the breathing muscles, but you can supplement it with specific inspiratory training exercises. Try breathing through a straw for one minute three times a week.

Hip-flexor stretch

Tight hip flexors and running go hand in hand, right? This may be true, but runners aren't the only ones at risk. Anyone who sits or stands for long periods can feel the bind in these muscles that connect your thighs and pelvis, and lift your legs. Keeping them stretched will not only improve range of motion, but also help prevent groin and lower-back injuries.

To loosen up, try the following: Kneel on your right knee and place your left foot on the floor in front of you so that your left leg is bent about 90 degrees. Draw your navel in toward your spine and roll your pelvis backward.

Next, shift your weight forward until you feel a good stretch in your right front hip. For a greater challenge, extend the stretch to your psoas (a pair of flexors between your pelvis and spine) by reaching your right arm toward the ceiling. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Fit tip: How to choose the right weight

You want to tone up without bulking up, but just how much weight do you need to lift to get the results you're after? It's easy if you follow the plus-one rule: Choose a weight you could lift one more time -- and only one more -- while still maintaining good form.

For example, if you're doing a set of 12 leg extensions, select a weight you could lift a maximum of 13 times without cheating (no lifting your bottom off the seat). The plus-one rule ensures your strength-training sets are hard enough to produce results without undue risk of injury.

Matt Fitzgerald is a runner, triathlete, coach and author of several books on fitness and nutrition, including Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005).

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