ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Kurt Ott remembers his glory days. Single and in shape, he could work out whenever and wherever he wanted to.
Hop on an airplane and fly to Australia to bust out an Ironman? No problem. In his 30s, the entrepreneur had no worries, no responsibilities, other than train, race and rest.
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But then, when he turned 40, his life took a detour. "I got married and had my first kid in the same year," said Ott. "Before I knew it, one thing led to another. I had a new house, another kid. Suddenly I had other priorities."
Ott is quick to point out that he stopped competing in triathlons because he wanted to, not because he had to. "I only had so much time and I wanted to spend it with my wife and kids," he said.
But it has been a decade since Ott, now 48, has been in what he considers peak physical condition. With the local triathlon season kicking off in April, Ott has decided to get back in the saddle and run another race.
"I used to be concerned about my (race) time," he said. "I used to look at these people at the back of the pack and wonder 'Who are these people?'"
Now he has a new perspective.
"I just want to finish," said Ott, who has three Ironman-distance events under his belt. "I'm happy to be a back-of-the-packer."
Ott plans to start off with a "sprint" triathlon on April 13. The Escape from Fort De Soto Triathlon, with its half-mile swim, 10-mile bike and 4-mile run, is ideal for beginners, and veterans such as Ott, who has taken a breather from the sport.
Triathlons may seem like purely physical challenges, but racers know the mental side is crucial. In fact, Ott says, getting his head into the game was job one.
"I think the first step is just to decide that you are going to do something," Ott said. "Once you sign up for a race, you're committed. That might give you the incentive you need to get back into it."
Family commitments, work obligations, health issues -- there are many reasons top athletes and everyday exercisers take breaks.
Whatever your game is, if you've been out of it for a while, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before you start pounding the pavement.
"After a period of inactivity, resumption of strenuous activity should be careful, slow and deliberately steady," said Dr. David Parrish, director of the family-medicine residency at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. "The basic idea is start off slow and build slow."
Parrish said athletes who have been on the sidelines should give themselves at least six weeks for muscle strength to peak. "Hurry it along and you will get injured," he said. "There is no shortcut."
If it has been years since your last 5-K, get a full physical. "You may need screening labs looking for everything from anemia to diabetes,'' Parrish said. "If you have a history of heart disease in yourself or in your family, tests may be needed that include the basic EKG or even an exercise stress test."
But if you have been injured and have had surgery, don't think you will be back in your race form as quickly as someone who has been out of the game for other reasons.
"Whether you are recovering from an abdominal-hernia repair or a knee reconstruction, it's important to get advice directly from the surgeon who carried out the procedure," said Dr. George Canizares of All Florida Orthopaedics in St. Petersburg.
Many athletes go through structured physical therapy and then return to the field before they are ready.
"It is important to have all your range of motion before proceeding to strengthening exercises to avoid stresses on the surgical site," he said. "Strengthening activities should start slow, and weight-bearing should be minimal."
Once your surgeon has given you the green light to proceed, remember to stretch before and after a workout -- which is a good rule for anyone.
"Allow for a good cool-down period as well," Canizares added. "Icing the injured area to keep the swelling to a minimum is also a good idea."
Ott draws a lot of support from other triathletes. He keeps in touch with his Mad Dog Triathlon Club buds even though he no longer competes. "They have great runs and rides," he said. "They will keep you going."
Joe Burgasser, the coach of a local running club called the Forerunners, said athletes who socialize usually succeed.
"It is a great atmosphere," Burgasser said of his group's Tuesday-night workouts at the St. Petersburg College Track. "Other runners can keep you moving in the right direction."
Burgasser's runners range from beginners just hoping to jog a mile to seasoned athletes working to shave seconds off their personal records.
"The key is consistency," he said. "If you keep running with people that are faster than you, sooner or later, you will get faster, too."
Burgasser's Forerunners welcome athletes of all ages, experience and level of fitness. And he is always willing to offer free advice to anybody in need -- even if all you need to know is how to get started.
"The trick is to establish a pattern ... make exercise as routine as going to work or brushing your teeth," he said.
"The first step is getting out the door. I don't care if it's just for a walk. Do it again and again, day after day. Each time you go a little faster. Before you know it, that fast walk will turn into a run."