During Covid, many of us have lost significant amounts of muscle tone. To be clear, the tone I’m referring is much more than the external buff sought in the gym. It’s about the layers of muscles around everything inside our bodies. These layers are working 24/7 to support organs and posture, offsetting the effects of gravity. Without tone, we would be lifeless blobs! Of course we don’t see these inner layers but lost tone may present itself in various ways: feeling more tired during the day and stiffer than usual when starting our runs; slouching more when sitting; and after a while and even if not gaining weight, slight appearance of a double chin and softer abs and triceps.
I can think of two basic reasons for these changes. One, Covid isolation has us being home much of the time, significantly reducing our out and about, some of which was done carrying a backpack or bag. The benchmark number of steps for an active person is 10,000 a day, though the average for Americans is only about 4,000 steps. Whatever the baseline, my guess is current activity is way down. Also, even though we may go for a run or bike ride, you may find, as I have, that the drive to push it is down with races cancelled. Two, we are less likely to be doing resistance training, which benefits all those layers of muscles. This includes lifting things during the course of the day as well as gym work. For three months, the gyms were closed and while some may have a set of home weights, hardly anyone has a full array of weights and for sure not the machines accessible at the gym. Plus, I find the atmosphere of the gym incentive to go harder and longer.
While we runners tend to focus on the attributes of Type 1 (slow-twitch) and Type II (fast-twitch) muscles, both of which are vitally important in movement and performance, we should not overlook the importance of strong muscles surrounding our joints. These both strengthen and stabilize the joints and muscle laxity around them can certainly contribute to stiffness we might be feeling. In the long run, keeping this layer strong is one of the best ways to cushion the forces imposed on joints in our hips, knees, and ankles, all of which are increased when we run.
So how do we maintain tone during Covid? One, we need to take every opportunity to stay active. When we walk, up the pace so it is exercise, not a saunter. (Sorry, walking the dog may be physical activity but it’s not exercise.) Two, gather what weights you do have (or buy a small set) and diligently use them. Eccentric heel dips and squats, with or without handheld weights, will help. Three, mix up our exercise to include a good portion of weight-bearing activity. While biking and swimming is good for aerobics, to work all the layers requires some on-the-ground work. Four, depending on our home setup, head to the gym often, maybe even 5+ days a week and perform a head-to-toe routine. Suffice it to say, avoid just going through the motions — rather deliberately exert ourselves. However, such exertion should be built back gradually. Expect that it will take many weeks, not days, before working back up to pre-Covid levels.
We didn’t ask for Covid, but it is what it is. The good news is we do have some things under our control. We can wear masks and practice social distancing to minimize the risk of transmission. And we can make sure our muscle tone remains intact. We’ll feel better for it, and when we up the intensity to prepare for races, we’ll be ready for that too.