Life happens. Whether it’s due to injury, scheduling challenges or simply taking time off, we’ve all had a period of time when we’ve been away from running longer than intended. Barring a current injury, there’s no time like the present to make a comeback. By planning your return to running with some patience and foresight, you’ll be back on track to run and race again soon.
As you plan your return, it’s important to remember most injuries happen when you are ramping back up, not when you have been training continuously. No matter how eager you are to jump back into training, it’s essential to start gradually. There’s nothing more disheartening than having the enthusiasm to train, only to be sidelined by an injury.
PLANNING YOUR COMEBACK
Before you resume training, take time to create a realistic plan. A coach is helpful if you aren’t sure how to structure your training appropriately, but be sure to consider the following factors:
- How much time off have you taken?
- Was your time off due to injury, and are you completely healed?
- What did your training look like prior to your time off?
- Have you been cross-training to maintain fitness?
- Do you have any races scheduled you are trying to prepare for?
If you have taken 4–6 weeks away from running but have been biking and strength training continuously, you’ll be in a different starting place than someone who has had minimal activity for the last 4–6 months. If injury or life changes have kept you away from running for more than a couple of months, you may want to start with a beginner plan, even if you have run and raced regularly in the past.
Running fitness begins to deteriorate significantly after two weeks of inactivity. Cross-training can slow this decline, but you should still gradually rebuild your running-specific fitness. As you return to running, strength training can also help you improve your structural fitness to reduce your injury risk.
RETURNING FROM INJURY
This is the time to be most cautious with your comeback. Whether you have been sidelined for weeks or months, make sure you have your doctor’s clearance to resume high-impact activities such as running. Treadmills can be useful in the first couple weeks since they are more cushioned, and you can stop immediately if anything feels acutely painful.
As you resume running, try to put your pride aside. You may need to alternate running with walking as you rebuild your fitness. Start with 2–3 short runs (around 30 minutes or less) for the first couple weeks. If everything feels good, you can gradually lengthen these runs and eventually increase the number of runs each week.
In the early stages of training, keep all your runs easy. After 3–4 weeks of easy running, you can add some short, fast efforts, like strides or unstructured fartleks. Be cautious not to increase both your weekly mileage and your workouts all at once, however. Most important, try to learn from your injury and change your training in a way that is more sustainable to help you stay healthy.
WHEN LIFE GETS IN THE WAY
A job change, move or new baby are some of the many reasons running gets temporarily pushed aside. If you haven’t been injured, it may be tempting to think you can just jump back in where you left off. But this is where many runners are mistaken and wind up injured, trying to do too much, too soon or run too fast.
If you have been away from running for a month or more, ease in gradually. Expect some soreness and fatigue. Your aerobic fitness may come back quickly, but your structural fitness (muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons) may be slower to catch up. As with previously injured runners, don’t try to increase both mileage and speed all at once.
REBUILDING AFTER AN OFF-SEASON
If you have planned your downtime, you’re probably in the best place to return to running. But the rules still apply. Time off is time off, so you’ll still need to be cautious as you return. If you have been cross-training, you may have some aerobic fitness to help expedite your return.
While the often touted 10% rule for increasing weekly mileage is a good guideline, you may find you’re able to build back more quickly after the first couple of weeks. This is especially true if you are a long-time runner, while newer runners may need to be more cautious with increasing mileage. Add speedwork gradually, starting with easier workouts such as unstructured fartleks and short tempos before getting into harder interval workouts.
No matter how much you love the sport, runners need downtime without the intensity of hard training. Working hard year-round can be a recipe for burnout.
Moving forward, try to back off in intensity rather than stop running completely so you aren’t spending so much time getting back into shape. This reduces your risk of injury and allows you to improve year after year.