How to Safely Return to Running After Injury or Illness 

Ever have to take time off from running due to injury or illness and now you’re wondering what the best, safest approach is to get back to training? We’ve got you. 

Just about everyone at one time or another, has been forced to take time off from training due to injury or illness.  Running is a lot of fun when everything goes smoothly. But, when something hampers that run fix, all of a sudden there is panic and fear. It is natural to think: “I’m going to get so out of shape!” or “What about my upcoming race?” It isn’t the short illness or tight muscle that upends training. Those circumstances usually do not require major changes to the training plan; just a little TLC to the body usually is enough to get back on schedule within a day or two. It is the prolonged absence from running that presents the challenge and necessitates a whole new approach to training.

Illness

Coming back from an illness can be difficult, especially if you have an upcoming race. The problem with coming back too quickly is the potential for a relapse or prolonging lingering symptoms like a cough.  Don’t try to make up for lost time by doing too much intensity; and, definitely don’t try to pick right up with the same mileage you were doing prior to your illness.

If you missed 1- 2 weeks of training: Your first week back, cut your volume by 1/3 of what you were doing before you got sick. Don’t attempt any intensity until you’ve been back training for 3-5 days.  Opt for consistency with your aerobic workouts and build your strength training back into the routine gently. For the first week back, don’t run more than two days in a row.

If you’ve been off more than 2 weeks: Cut your first week volume in half and do not attempt any intervals until you’ve been back to training for 7-10 days. In any case, you do not want to attempt a hard workout while you are still having symptoms such as coughing. No matter what, do not train with a fever. The first week, only run 3 days and then add 1-2 days the following week depending on your normal routine and by the third week you should be ready to get back to your normal routine.

Injury

Injuries can be very complicated, especially if you don’t know exactly what you are dealing with. It is imperative to get a proper diagnosis. This step cannot be ignored and can take a very long time. Until there is a diagnosis, it is difficult to treat the injury or know the long term prognosis. Don’t give up on this step, even if it means seeing or talking to multiple doctors.

Once you know what you are dealing with, make an action plan. Determine how long recovery should take. Read up on the injury until you are an expert.  You need to understand how it happened, how to make it better, and how to prevent it in the future.

Find good rehab therapists. Massages, acupuncture, PT all play an important role in recovery. I have used all of those modalities with a lot of success.

Be diligent with rehab exercises. Getting into the gym to strengthen muscle imbalance and weakness will help facilitate recovery and will make you a better runner.

Cross-train. One of the biggest problems with an injury is the inability to get the endorphins we love so much. Be creative and find other activities that you enjoy or somewhat enjoy and embrace it/them. Doing something is better than doing nothing.

Don’t give up. Long term injuries, by the very nature of their name, last for extended periods of time. It is easy to become disheartened and lose faith that there will be a conclusion.

A positive attitude goes a long way in recovery. Believing in yourself is probably the most pivotal step in the process. If you know you will get better, eventually you will.

When you start running again, work on your form to prevent further injury in the future.

In terms of getting back to training, a lot will depend on the nature of the injury. Start back to running gradually; usually a walk/run program is best (eg. 1 minute run/1 minute walk for 20 minutes). Increase the amount of time running by 10% each week. Do not run if the pain is more than 3 out of 10 – that is your body’s way of telling you to STOP.

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