Whether minor or severe, injuries are common for runners. However, injuries keep us from consistent training and make it more challenging to attain our goals.
If you’ve struggled with a recent injury, you’re undoubtedly anxious to return to training as quickly as possible. But if you do too much, too soon, you may find yourself right back in the injury cycle. It’s about finding that fine line between doing enough and not overdoing it.
By taking a structured approach to your return to running after an injury, you’re more likely to experience a successful, long-term comeback.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
Because injuries vary widely in their scope and severity, and runners vary dramatically in their training and experience level, there are a number of questions to consider when you plan your return to running:
- What type of injury did you suffer?
- Was it mild or severe?
- Is this a chronic injury or the first time you have dealt with it?
- What is your personal injury history (for this particular injury or any others)?
- Are you a new or seasoned runner?
- Did you take time off from running?
- Did you run through the pain?
- What is the consistency and quality of your injury treatment?
That’s a lot to contemplate! But every runner’s injury experience is different, so there are a lot of variables that come into play. If you are a chronically injured runner with a long-term, nagging injury, your approach will be different than a brand new runner dealing with an acute injury.
Most injuries require a multi-faceted approach to treatment. Rest alone is rarely the answer, though it’s almost always part of the equation. Recurrent, chronic injuries are typically more challenging to tackle, so prevention and early treatment are always the best options.
Once you have healed and addressed the source of your injury, it’s time to get back out there. For any major injuries such as a stress fracture, it goes without saying that you should always follow your doctor’s recommendations. Easing back into running can be a stressful time since you may be fearful or anticipating pain. It’s important to plan your return systematically and take it one step at a time.
YOUR 4-WEEK PLAN (AND BEYOND)
When you are recovering from injury, your first run should be treated as a test run. A treadmill is ideal since you have the option of stopping at any point if you experience pain. If you run outdoors, stick with a flat, non-technical route that has easy access to your home or car.
Running for 30 minutes is plenty for your test run, and less may be appropriate if you are coming back from a longer-term injury. While it may be normal to feel a little achy or sore, stop your run immediately if you have any sharp pain.
If your test run goes smoothly and your pain level is extremely minimal or nonexistent, you can continue to run. Give yourself at least 3–4 days of low mileage, and take days off in between your runs if needed. “Low” mileage varies based on what’s normal for you — for some this may mean 2–3 miles, for others it may be 5–7.
This is an important week. If at any point your pain returns, stop running. Cross-training is an option as long as it doesn’t cause pain. Give yourself more recovery time before trying this process again. If the pain persists, consult a doctor.
If week 1 goes smoothly, you can continue to run while gradually building back up to your normal daily mileage. Lengthen your daily runs while continuing to keep the pace easy. Once you are at a point where your daily runs are at their typical length (excluding long runs), evaluate how your body feels after 3–4 runs. Again, take days off in between as needed.
By the end of week 2, you may be itching to run a little faster or longer, but be cautious! It’s easy to re-injure yourself during this critical period if you aren’t careful. Any speed work should be introduced very gradually, and avoid any intense track sessions. Incorporating 2–3 marathon pace miles or 15 minutes of tempo work on a flat route (perhaps broken into 3×5 minutes repetitions) are good options to run a little faster without too much intensity.
WEEKS 3 AND BEYOND
Once you reach week 3, you are emerging from the ‘danger zone’ and on your way to recovery. Be smart with your training, however, and remain wary of any lingering soreness. Prioritize rebuilding your mileage first, then work on speed.
As you resume your regular running, don’t forget to continue with the strength and rehab routines you (hopefully) started while injured. Repeating the same mistakes (like not being consistent with strength training) is a surefire way to end up injured again.
If you are a seasoned runner who was training consistently prior to your injury, you can typically increase your mileage more quickly than the 10% rule. But add speedwork back gradually with strides, fartlek and tempos before venturing back into any hard interval sessions.
Prevention is always the best medicine. But once you are on your way back to running after an injury, a structured, systematic return helps ensure you don’t end up sidelined again.