Returning to running after an injury or a long break? Here’s what to know.
I’ve been running for over 20 years and in that time, I’ve definitely dealt with a LOT of running injuries. Some have been injuries I was able to somewhat run through (like plantar fasciitis). Others took me out of running entirely, like the posterior tibial tendon tear I’ve been dealing with since last summer. Alternatively, if you fall while running (yep, also did that recently!), you might only need a few weeks off. (As long as you don’t break anything!)
Here’s the thing: taking a few weeks off from running won’t set you back in your fitness or with your goals too much. However, if you take a longer period of time off (like 6+ weeks), then it will take a little more effort to get back into your running groove.
For example, when I was training for a marathon, I ran 15+ miles pretty easily. I did 10-12 mile runs during the week and 20-22 mile runs on the weekends. Now, the thought of running 10 miles seems a bit overwhelming. Heck, even 8 miles intimidates me!
Feeling overwhelmed after time off is normal, whether you took 2 weeks or 2 months off and whether your “normal” distance was 2 miles or 20 miles. After time off, you can’t just hop back into your regular running routine – unless you are super-human. Or, unless you want to risk getting re-injured!
Your running hiatus may have stemmed from a multitude of reasons — injury, life, pregnancy — but whatever the reason, you want to make sure that you return to running safely and, hopefully, still sane! In this post, I’ll share the various aspects that you need to consider as return to running, both physically and mentally.
How to return to running after an injury or time off
Whether you’ve fallen, broken or sprained something, have an overuse injury, work got in the way, or wonderful life things happened, you need to consider how long you’ve been away from running before you start back again.
When you’ve taken 1-2 weeks off
If you’ve taken 10 or so days off, then I suggest you decrease your mileage by 50-60% when you return to running the first few times. So, if you used to run 4 miles, go out for a 2 mile run. And walk if you need to. If you used to run 6 days a week, ease back in with 3 days a week for a few weeks. Don’t ignore any pain! Listen to your body and give it a break by walking or an extra day off, if necessary.
When you’ve taken 6+ weeks off
If you’ve been out 6-8 weeks (or longer), then I recommend that you start your training from scratch. I know this sounds defeating, but I promise it doesn’t have to be. The key is to celebrate the little wins along the way. (More on that below.)
And remember, if an injury kept you out of running, you’ll likely need some physical therapy. Working with a PT is critical since every injury is so different and we each recovery differently. When I was recovering from my torn tibial tendon, I was at physical therapy 2-3 times a week for 8 weeks. Yes, it took a LOT of time but I wanted to make sure I fully healed and strengthened the right areas to ensure I didn’t get re-injured. A good PT will guide you on the types of exercises you need. (I’m lucky that my PT is also a runner – it helps!)
Once you get some strength back, slowly ease back into running. When I was cleared to run, I was running for 30 seconds at a time, followed by 3 minutes of walking. I could have been discouraged (heck, the year prior I was preparing for the Boston Marathon!) but I was so grateful to be running, in any amount. And over time, I gradually increased my running to walking ratio and now I’m going out for more normal, albeit slower, runs. (I talk more about how to start running from scratch in my online running course, Get Your Run On.)
Just make sure you are symptom-free and/or pain-free before increasing the amount of running, even by 30 seconds! The worst kind of injury is one that won’t go away because you won’t let your body heal. Your doctor, physical therapist, or trainer should be able to help you monitor your recovery and help you rebuild. And, remember to listen to your body and be honest with yourself!
How to return to running after giving birth
This is something I don’t have first-hand experience with (yet!), but it’s something I’ve already talked to a doctor about since I like to know what’s ahead! How you recovery from labor depends on how you had your baby. If you delivered vaginally, then you’ll likely need to stick to walking until the 6-week postpartum doctor’s visit. With your doctor’s OK, you should be able to start running again at the 6-week mark.
Keep in mind that the 6-week marker is highly dependent on your age, your body, your labor, and your pre-labor exercise. So again, CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR. It’s also not a bad idea to work with a pelvic floor specialist before diving into your old workout routine, especially if it’s high impact.
If you had a C-section, remember that this is major abdominal surgery. In most cases, you should do absolutely nothing except push the stroller around the neighborhood for at least TWO weeks after surgery. But again, check with your doctor for even that. Full recovery can take up to 12 weeks. Between the 2 and 12 week mark, you might be able to walk or swim. For the majority of women, running will be off the table until at least the 12-week mark. But don’t beat yourself up if your body takes a little longer to recover. Again, your doctor will help you make the best decisions for YOU.
The mental side of returning to running
It can be SO hard to return to running. Yes, physically, but sometimes even more so mentally. It’s easy to compare yourself to yourself pre-injury or pre-baby or pre-high pressure job. But it’s important to focus on the phase you are in and let that drive you forward, not force you to constantly look back. So, how do you focus on the phase you’re in? Find little things to be grateful for in every run. Remember that running is NOT just about the time or miles on your watch. Remember why you started running in the first place.
As I started running after my torn tendon, I was grateful for the 30 second run portion of my outings. But if I’m honest, there were days I was discouraged. It was frustrating to feel fatigue after a 10 minute mile when I used to run mile repeats in the low 6’s. I was annoyed that I had to talk walk breaks as part of my recovery build-up when I wanted to just keep running.
I had to very purposely try to shift my mindset to gratitude and focusing on the little wins along the way. So, I let the 10 minute miles remind me of my early days of running when I didn’t care about pace. And I laughed at how glad I was to be “forced” to walk up hills that I always wanted to walk up anyway!
How cross training helps
Most runners don’t necessarily enjoy cross-training. Or, they feel “guilty” if they do something other than running. So, when you can’t run, it’s a great time to learn to enjoy other activities and to LET yourself enjoy them!
Not only does cross-training help you avoid injury, it can also help you cope better when you can’t run. If you have conditioned yourself to only rely on one exercise (i.e. running) and you are fulfilled only by running, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment in the long run (no run-pun intended. Nearly every runner will need to take time off at some point.
I’m saying this as someone who absolutely loves running. I get it. Running is always my first choice for a workout. But I make sure I diversify my workout routine with things like riding the Peloton, hiking, strength training and, occasionally, yoga. I truly enjoy all of those so when I can’t run, while it’s disappointing, I at least have other workout options I enjoy.
If you have an alternative exercise routine that you do enjoy, set goals with those! I set a goal to try a new Peloton class each time I rode – and found I LOVE the scenic classes without an instructor. (Here’s my review of the Peloton.) I also set a goal to hike once a month. It’s not exactly easy to hike where I live so I have to make a point to make it happen. I’m also making a point to do strength training 2-3x a week, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
Oh, and I sure wish I enjoyed swimming since nearly every doctor or PT I’ve ever talked to when injured recommends it! It’s an exercise that is almost always OK to do, regardless of what injury or surgery you had. So hey, if you enjoy it, add that in! I am a horrible swimmer and would love to take adult swim lessons someday. Or maybe I’ll wait to take the kiddo to swim lessons someday and take notes for myself too.
Bottom line: When you only focus on running and your running achievements, it will be extremely frustrating when you can’t run or when your performance isn’t what it used to be. Don’t put all your workout eggs in one running basket! Try a variety of workouts, even before (perhaps especially before) injury or life happens.
Avoiding future injuries
Annnnd the question we all want the answer to: how do you avoid injuries? I wish I could guarantee that you won’t get injured with these tips, but things just happen! But, these tips will certainly help with overuse injuries and recurring injuries.
- Stay consistent in your workout routines. Taking large chunks of time off and then diving right back in as if you hadn’t is a recipe for disaster.
- Diversify your workouts. Read more about the importance of cross-training here
- Evaluate your training timeline. make sure you don’t try to build up your mileage or intensity too quickly!
- Evaluate and adjust your goals, if necessary. Giving yourself realistic racing or timing goals can help you avoid unnecessary injuries or strains. And if you’re recovering from an injury, remember that your endurance and speed will take some time to come back.
- Know your injury history and what your weak spots are. As I’ve gotten into my early to mid 30s, it seems I’m prone to lower limb issues, e.g. plantar fasciitis, ankle instability, etc.
- Make time to recover (foam roll, stretch, massage, etc.)
- Take time off! COMPLETE rest days!
- Fuel appropriately
I talk about all of these topics in more detail in Get Your Run On, so be sure to get on the waitlist for my running course if you want a deeper dive on these topics!
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