How To Return Safely To Running After An Injury

April 06, 2016 Posted By: Bob "Wish" Wischnia

An unfortunate part in nearly every runner’s life, is that at some point he or she will suffer from a running-related injury. Nobody wants to get injured, but, fortunately, these common injuries are rarely serious. Even so, the most minor injury often temporarily derails your training and possibly, racing plans.

A running injury is almost never a blessing in disguise. The mental anguish of not being able to run like you normally would is almost always worse than whatever physical pain or soreness you have from the injury. All too often there’s a hole in your life when you are forced to miss that daily rush of going for a solid run.

And yet with most running injuries, the best cure is the simplest: Rest. Easier said than done, but with most running-related injuries the absolute key is to allow your body sufficient down time to heal itself and then once healed and healthy, not rush back too quickly to full-scale training.

Making a comeback from an injury in a methodical, progressive way is critical. Speed up the process or get too ambitious by adding too many miles too quickly and more than likely, you’ll end up being sidelined with the same injury.

The length of time you’ve been injured (and the severity and nature of your injury) determines the length of time you need to recover and then build back up your running strength and speed. Obviously, the more severe the injury and the greater the length of time you’ve been forced to lay off means the longer it will take to build back up than if it’s just a day or two layoff from simple muscle soreness.

A short layoff of a several days or even a week won’t make much difference in your fitness, but a few weeks or a month or more off will have compromised your fitness a great deal. Even if you have trained diligently for months and months, you will quickly lose your hard-earned fitness when you stop running. Again, a day or two without running won’t matter, but after a week to 10 days, you will start to lose your aerobic fitness and detrain.

There’s no getting around the physiological fact that you will lose your fitness quicker than it took to build it. Depending on how fit you are, you will lose about half of your aerobic fitness in just two or three weeks. Especially, if you do absolutely nothing during this down period.

You can minimize the detraining effect with proper cross-training. If you can find a cross-training activity that doesn’t strain or aggravate your injury any further, you can maintain some level of aerobic fitness during the period you are in dry dock.

The best cross-training activities for injured runners who want to maintain cardiovascular fitness are running in deep water in a pool, easy cycling or working out on an Elliptical Trainer. You will still lose a bit of aerobic fitness -none of these activities work your main running muscles in the same way running does – but you will lose less if you remain active. Of the three, deep-water running most closely resembles running and places almost no strain on injured leg muscles.

How do you know when you’re ready to run again? If you can walk or jog slowly with no recurring pain or soreness of the injured muscle or joint, you might be ready to start again.

Even so, don’t plunge right back into running the first day you feel better after a long layoff. Instead, wait at least four or five more days to begin. You want to give yourself a complete rest and more than adequate time to heal. Err on the side of caution.

The longer the layoff, the greater the loss of cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength. If you have had an extended period (one month or longer) on the sidelines with no running at all, your return to running should be extremely conservative. When you do start up, you might feel like you’re starting running all over again.

In a sense, you are. Mentally you still have the discipline and “know how” of what needs to be done, but physically it’s like beginning to run all over again. So start over. This doesn’t sound like a good thing, but in a roundabout way it is because your layoff will prevent you from overdoing things.

The absolute best way to start a comeback to running after being injured for an extended period is to begin by walking briskly. That isn’t much fun, especially when you’re champing at the bit to start running again, but by walking for a half hour or so, your body will get used to moving again and it allows you to monitor the injury to make certain there’s no soreness or pain. Assuming there’s no lingering effects from the injury, after a few days of walking you can then alternate short periods of running with walking. (If there is any pain whatsoever while walking, don’t even attempt to run.)

On these first few days of your comeback, try and run/walk on a soft surface such as grass areas in a park, around football or soccer fields or on forgiving dirt trails. Try to avoid highly cambered roads or concrete sidewalks because of the impact.

Running may feel a little awkward at first. It should. You’ve laid off for several weeks, but you’ll find your groove again. Don’t even think too far ahead to when you can compete again.

As you become more comfortable running again, gradually increase the time spent running and decrease the walking until you reach a point where you can run continuously again for 30 minutes. Once you can run for 30 minutes without any pain or soreness, hold it right there and run easily for at least a week or two. At this stage, you can’t run easily enough. Don’t push it and don’t even think about races, hills, long runs or speed workouts.

If you have cross-trained diligently during your layoff, you might find that your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) is still working fine and you don’t have any trouble running easily. You may not be out of breath at all, but you might be shocked how tired your muscles feel after just a few minutes of running.

That’s why it’s important during this comeback period not to get too ambitious. Just because your breathing is fine, doesn’t mean the rest of your body is ready to move back into training. It’s not.

Once you have done a few weeks of continuous 30-minute runs, begin running again at your normal easy pace. This is important to remember: Run easy, but not necessarily much slower than before the injury. Run fewer miles than you normally would, but don’t try to plod along at a much slower-than-normal jogging pace. Run normally and if you get tired, just take a walk break or shorten the distance.

Since you’ve been a runner, you’ll progress quicker than if you were a complete beginner. Within a few weeks, you’ll feel like you’re back to your old running self.

Build your mileage up very gradually though. Add 5-10 miles a week to your total. That should give you plenty of time to adapt without stressing your injury. After every couple of weeks of mileage building, reassess and try to determine whether anything’s hurting. If so, back off.

Put any races on the back burner. When you feel fit enough to race again, stick with the shorter races at first and try to keep your ego in check. Your first race back probably won’t be stellar, but try not to get frustrated with it and vow to double your mileage next week.

That’s probably what got you injured in the first place.

Tips how to get back in shape after a layoff:

  • Start slow and easy. Treat your comeback from an injury almost like beginning to run again. After a few weeks of slow running, go back to normal training pace but don’t run as many miles as before your injury.


  • Don’t try to pick up your training program where you left off. Gradually increase the pace and distance (and weekly mileage) and eventually you’ll be back at your prior level.


  • Monitor how you feel. After any increase in mileage or pace, reassess how you feel and look for any signs of overtraining, fatigue or abnormal muscular soreness. If so, cut back.


  • Never run through pain. If your original injury is still painful, stop running immediately. It’s way too soon. Treat the injury and give it additional time before running again.


  • Avoid speed work, long runs and races. Instead, concentrate on re-establishing a solid aerobic base and staying healthy.


  • Add an extra rest day. If you’ve been running six days a week before your injury, cut back to four or five. If you were running five days a week, go back to three or four.


  • Maintain your cross-training. Instead of taking a complete rest on your days with no running, use the same cross-training activity that you used while you were injured. Hint: Deep-water running is the most beneficial and most applicable to running.


  • Continue to treat your injury. If it’s a muscular injury, use ice after every running on the injured muscle to reduce the inflammation. Add post-run stretching and possibly incorporate a strength-training regimen to reduce the chances of getting injured again. Consider getting a weekly massage.


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