As a runner, you might have faced this scenario before: After being sidelined by an injury, you have to figure out how to get back on track with your training. And after days or weeks of time off, your enthusiasm to resume running is probably overflowing — but you’ll want to get back out there safely without overdoing it.
Your Safe Return to Training Depends on Several Factors
When you’re coming back to running after an injury, your first steps will require some self-evaluation. Every injury is different, so everyone can’t follow the same path back. Your return to training depends on several variables:
- The type of injury
- The severity of the injury
- How much time you took off from running
- The consistency and quality of your treatment plan
How to Avoid Making the Same Mistake Twice
Sometimes injuries come as a result of an unavoidable accident. But more often, they come from a series of training mistakes. When little aches and pains aren’t addressed early and appropriately, they can turn into more chronic problems that mean a longer recovery.
The path back from a chronic injury or stress fracture that required months off will require a different approach than an acute injury that happened a few days ago and is already improving. Although you want to follow the same principles, the timeframe for your return will be different.
Err on the Side of Caution
Always err on the side of caution when returning from an injury. Doug Allen, one of our board-certified athletic trainers and licensed physical therapists, notes that “Running capacity can gradually improve with gradual increases in load. If the load greatly exceeds the capacity, then your soft tissue can be compromised and your risk of injury increases.”
“After taking time off from running, your musculoskeletal system will have adapted to lower loads. You’ll need to be sensitive to how you return to running, with a gradual increase in running loads to build proper tissue adaption,” Allen says. Bottom line, it’s best to always take the time you need when getting back into running to avoid dealing with a frustrating injury cycle.
Easing Back Into Running
With a more severe injury like a stress fracture or muscle tear, always follow your doctor’s guidelines as you return to activity. You may need to spend time doing non-weight-bearing activities, like cycling or pool-running before you are ready to walk and run.
Allen understands the importance of easing into a running program post-injury. “A regular mistake I hear is, ‘I felt good, so I kept going,’ but you’re starting on the floor and want to move toward the ceiling, and the variable is time. If we take less time to move from the floor to the ceiling, your musculoskeletal system won’t be able to adapt appropriately.”
Once you’re healed and cleared to run again, Allen offers these tips:
Whether you have taken days or weeks off, your first run should always be a test run. Keep the effort short and close to home. A treadmill can be useful so you can stop at any time, if needed.
Have Zero Tolerance for Sharp Pain
While a little soreness or achiness as you resume running can be normal, sharp pain is not. Stop running if this happens and consult your doctor or take additional time off as needed.
Don’t Be Ashamed to Walk
Just because you were logging speedy 50-mile weeks before your injury doesn’t mean you can jump back into that. Use walking breaks as needed to build endurance, especially after an extended layoff.
Cross-Train for More Cardio
Use low-impact activities to build your fitness until your body is ready to handle the impact of running. Pool running, the elliptical and cycling do the best job of preparing your body to run again.
Build Consistency Before Speed
Start with only easy running when you first return. Depending on how long you’ve been injured, you may need several weeks at an easier effort before adding faster workouts.
A solid restart plan after a short layoff might look like this:
- A short test run to see if anything is painful
- Three to four days of low mileage to establish consistency
- Three to four days of normal mileage to further establish consistency
- A short test workout at a moderate pace to evaluate how you feel at a faster effort
- Continue to build stamina gradually
Ramping Your Running Routine Back Up
While you may be more cautious in the early weeks of post-injury running, injuries can happen if you’re not careful as you ramp back up to normal training. If you’ve successfully made your way through your test run and early days (or weeks) of recovery, keep these points in mind as you move forward.
Keep Up With the Injury Treatment and Prevention Work
Remember: It’s easier to prevent an injury than to treat it. While you won’t need as much treatment once you’re healed, keep up with preventive efforts to avoid another injury.
Build Strength and Mobility
Aerobic fitness will return before structural fitness, so continue with runner-specific strength training and mobility work to address imbalances.
Cross-Train as Needed
Your body won’t be able to handle your previous volume right away. Keep up with a day or two of cross-training as alternate cardiovascular training.
Test Each Element of Your Training
To stay safe, don’t add long runs, high volume and speed sessions all at once. Test each element of training in a short, modified way before increasing your overall training intensity.
With a cautious, systematic approach, your return to running post-injury can be a success. Be patient with yourself and your training, and you can come out a stronger runner on the other side of an injury.
Here to Care for Every Running Injury
As your partner in health care, we’re here to help you heal from any sickness and injury. Know that our team of experts is here to help you recover from common and complex running injuries so you can get back to your routine safely. Visit AdventHealth Sports Med and Rehab to speak with a sports medicine expert today.