Bounce back strongly from illness with Dr Juliet McGratten's tips for a safe and healthy return to running
Running helps to keep us physically and mentally fit. Many of us depend on it for life balance and health. When illness strikes, we can miss running so much and fear our hard-earned fitness is rapidly disappearing, meaning there’s often an overwhelming desire to get back out there as soon as possible. Tempting though it is to hit the road quickly, starting back up exactly where we left off, there is a better way to make a comeback.
We are all individuals and we all recover from illness at different rates, but knowing how to get back to running safely and healthily is key to a successful return. Read on to work out if you are ready to start running again and discover the best way to do it in a healthy, controlled and injury-free way.
If you’re not quite ready to run but are well enough to try some training exercises, here are our top 5 recovery exercises after a break from running.
Are you ready to exercise?
You need to wait until you are fully better before you run again. This may sound obvious, but when you’re eager to get back to it, it’s easy to overestimate your abilities and a full recovery may take longer than you think or want. Too much too soon will only knock you back, so it’s important to be honest with yourself. Obviously, the more unwell you have been, the longer your recovery will probably take. But even if you’ve only had a mild illness, you need to make sure you are both physically and mentally fit enough to run again.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Can I cope with normal daily activities such as showering, cooking and cleaning without feeling wobbly and ready for a lie-down?
- Can I get through my normal, working day okay?
- Can I take a brisk walk or run up a set of stairs without coughing or feeling breathless?
- Have at least 48 hours passed since I had a high temperature?
- Am I eating and drinking normally?
- Has my resting heart rate returned to its normal levels? (Only answer this question if you are used to tracking it).
- Has my fatigue lifted and do I feel strong enough to run?
Being ill is a workout in itself for your body and you shouldn’t add the extra exertion of running until you answer yes to all of these questions. Returning to running after infections that affect your respiratory system, such as Covid-19, need extra caution too. It’s important to ensure your breathing is back to normal, your energy levels are good and with Covid-19, it’s safer to wait a full week after any fever, to be certain there are no delayed spikes of temperature. Patience is key. It will be worth the wait.
How much fitness will you have lost?
There’s good news! Despite feeling as if you’ve lost all your fitness and your previous efforts are wasted, this is not true. As someone who exercises regularly, you will have a higher level of basic fitness than someone who has never exercised. You will lose your fitness more slowly than an unfit person and you will regain it more quickly too. The longer you have been off, then the more you will have lost but be reassured, you won’t be going right back to square one.
Your cardiovascular or aerobic fitness will drop off more quickly than your muscular or structural fitness but you will need to address both as you return to running. During periods of inactivity, muscles become weaker. These include the muscles that keep us stable such as our core, glutes and muscles surrounding our ankles and knees. Rushing straight back to running without strengthening these could mean a higher risk of injury. Thankfully they can be easily strengthened with simple exercises done at home.
How do I start?
Walking is the ideal way to start exercising again. You can slowly increase your pace and distance and it leads perfectly into running once you are confident your body is coping with the walking. Start with a short distance locally. Take some water and your phone with you. Always listen to your body. If you feel light headed, shaky or just weak, then have a rest, head home and try again in a day or two.
Alongside the walking, get your muscular fitness back on form by carrying out the strength exercises over the page. Do these for a few days or weeks before you run, until your muscles and joints feel stable and strong again.
If you’ve been ill for several weeks, you may want to follow a full or accelerated Couch to 5K programme to ease you back into running. If you prefer to go solo, then just start with a short running distance and go at a comfortable, chatty pace. Don’t rush to get back to a training plan, ease yourself in gently and gradually build distance and pace.
How long will it take to get back to fitness?
Everybody bounces back at their own rate. That’s partly determined by genetics, but the longer you have been off running, the longer it will take to return to full fitness. After a quick head cold you can be back on form within a week, but expect several weeks or even months after severe illness. It’s usually much quicker than you think though, so don’t be disheartened. Listen to your body. Adapt and adjust according to how you feel and remember you’re likely to feel tired afterwards, so take plenty of recovery days.
How soon can you race?
It’s not so much when you can race but rather what your goals are. If you’re wanting to bag a PB, you’re better off waiting until you feel you are back on top form. A gentle parkrun is very different to an endurance event which needs a good reserve of energy in the bank. Illnesses that have given you high temperatures, diarrhoea or vomiting are particularly prone to sapping your energy making longer races particularly hard. Choose a shorter race for your comeback and ensure you feel comfortable at that distance in training before you race it. If you have a race booked soon after you’ve been ill that you don’t want to miss, adjust your expectations and perhaps consider it as a training race or social run instead.
What are the risks?
Waiting until you’re well and gradually returning to running will help you to avoid the risks of running too soon. These include:
- Possible injury from weak muscles or unstable joints
- Prolonged illness from adding extra strain to a busy immune system
- Faintness or abnormal heart rhythms from dehydration, high temperatures and a fast heart rate
- Feeling of failure from not meeting your own expectations.
Simply waiting a few extra days and taking things slowly will mean you avoid these problems.
Does weight matter?
We often lose weight when we’re ill, especially if we’ve lost our appetite or had vomiting or diarrhoea. Weight can also go down when we lose muscle mass through not exercising. On the other hand, we might find we’ve gained a few pounds due to being less active. There’s no need to worry; our body’s metabolism will soon adjust. Once we’re up, moving and back to our normal routine, any weight gained through inactivity will quickly go. A period of walking before running will help reduce excess weight that might put added strain on joints. Muscle mass and energy levels will increase once we’re back to our usual eating patterns and exercise. Our body needs healthy, nutrient-dense foods to heal and repair, so focus on making good food choices to give it the best chance.
How can I help myself?
To make a successful return to running you need to keep in mind how unwell you’ve been and how long you’ve had off running. It’s important to set realistic expectations. Draw on your past experience of illness to consider what has worked for you previously; you can learn from your own mistakes. It is often a waiting game, requiring patience and self-control. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be at a certain point by a set date. Be flexible in your approach and take things one day at a time and remember rest and recovery are just as important as running.
Good comes from bad
Your running will soon be back on track and the memories of days in bed will fade. You certainly realise how great running is when you can’t do it for a while. Illness can lead us to fully appreciate our body and reminds us how great it is when we feel well. We can marvel at the body’s ability to heal itself and feel grateful for its strength and power that enables us to run. It’s a chance to review our successes, reset our goals and we can come out the other side with a renewed motivation.