It’s been a while since you last ran. It may not have been your choice to stop – injury or illness may have meant an enforced break, or other life priorities may have taken over. Whatever the reason, if you plan to start running again after a break of a few months or more, it’s important to be realistic about what you’ll be capable of when you first return to running. Assuming you’ve had the green light from your physiotherapist to run again, here are seven key points to consider before you go out for that first run…
1. TAKE A POSITIVE APPROACH
You may have doubts about your running ability after a long break, but set a realistic goal that isn’t too daunting so that you’re feeling positive. “It’s important to set yourself a realistic target so that it’s achievable and you’re not going to give up,” says running coach Karen Hazlitt (karenhazlitt.com).
You may not have lost that much fitness, depending on when you last ran and whether or not you’ve been generally active. “If it’s just been a month of not running, you will definitely have lost a degree of fitness but it doesn’t take that long to build it back up again,” says running coach George Anderson (runningbygeorge.com). “Take a few weeks to transition back in and get your body used to it.”
“Sometimes a rest is actually very beneficial and you often see athletes who have had periods of rest enforced on them by injury who have come back much stronger, because the body has recovered from the rigours of training,” says John Brewer, professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk).
2. DON’T MAKE COMPARISONS
Forget past performances and start again with a clean sheet. “A big mistake a lot of us make when returning from injury is saying to ourselves, ‘I was running a 10K in 40 minutes and now I can’t even manage a nine-minute mile,’ and comparing yourself to where you were,” says Hazlitt. “Take a clean sheet and put together a realistic plan so that you don’t go out and do too much too soon.”
3. GIVE YOUR BODY TIME TO GET USED TO THE IMPACT
If you’ve not run for several months or more, it’s unrealistic to expect to go out and run for the same amount of time as before. Even if you’ve kept up your fitness with cross-training activities like rowing or cycling, your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments still need time to get used to the impact of running. “Start low, start easy, just exercise at a tolerable level of discomfort,” says Brewer.
4. KEEP UP THE CROSS-TRAINING
It’s worth continuing to include all the activities you might have been doing while you weren’t running, such as cycling or swimming, in your training routine. “If your injury was an overuse injury then put some cross-training into your week to complement your running,” suggests Hazlitt. “If you’re coming back after a long time off, strength work is key, and yoga can really help.”
5. SEEK EXPERT ADVICE
Get advice from your physiotherapist. “Avoid running on consecutive days, work with your physiotherapist if you’ve had an injury and get them to give you guidelines about volume and frequency,” says running coach Nina Anderson (ninaanderson.com). “Aim to achieve a good balance of varied training within a weekly schedule.”
6. TRY RUNNING ON SOFTER SURFACES
If you had to stop running due to an impact-related injury like a stress fracture, or a joint problem, then running on softer surfaces like flat grass or in fields is a good idea. Constantly pounding the pavement is a recipe for injury, and softer ground can provide some much-needed relief. “These surfaces will have more shock absorbency,” says Hazlitt. “Even if you live in the city, there are parks or grass verges you can use, rather than the pavement. I think that is a really key thing, especially if you’ve had an injury and also if you’re getting older – you have got to start thinking about taking care of your joints.”
That said, if you’ve had a knee injury, be wary of uneven trails, as the knee has to work hard to keep you stable on unpredictable surfaces, and this may aggravate it.
A decent treadmill will offer some shock absorption, but every step is the same, which means you could be risking another injury like a stress fracture if you overdo it.
7. REIN YOURSELF IN
If you kept up your fitness with other cardio activity, you may feel strong during those first few runs and feel tempted to keep going. Be cautious and know when to stop. “It’s better to finish a run wanting more than to finish thinking it was so hard that it’s left you apprehensive to run again,” says Hazlitt. “You have to be really strict.”