Injury is the inevitable side-effect of being a lifelong runner, much like death is the inevitable side-effect of being a lifelong human being. You can do everything right, and, even then, unbreakable, immortal health is only possible for vampires and Betty White. Up till 2018 I went 6 years with only injury was a rib injury, since 2018 I’ve been plagued with injuries and been guilty of coming back too soon. I also firmly believe outside factors have contributed to my downfall. The trick is listening to my body and be more patient.
In the face of my fragility (i’m not Dracula or Keith Richards), a big part of being a happy lifelong runner is understanding how to return to running after a layoff. It could be just a few days, or it could be months (even years). So by writing this article I’m also helping get my mindset right. My aim is to be fit for 2020 so I’m using the rest of this year to build back slowly.
Being patient is tough for everyone. Sometimes the only way to retain sanity is to take it one day at a time. Rather than focus on how much work you have ahead of you, look at what workouts and goals you can achieve for that day or that week. Set mini goals each week and check them off as benchmarks along your route to making a full comeback to running.
As runners the majority of us neglect our core, strength and flexibility. Make the most of the time you’re not able to run by focusing on other weaknesses. Gain flexibility, improve your core and overall strength; not only will this make you feel like you’re being productive despite not being able to run much, but it will also pay dividends when you are back and running at your optimal level.
Take baby steps. If you start to notice old injury symptoms or new injury symptoms creep up, reassess right away. It may mean not increasing your running for that week, or even taking a few baby steps back for the week. Cut back on the amount of time spent running and do more cross-training. Don’t think of this as a sign of defeat; typically, if you catch it and take steps back early, you’ll avoid anything serious and be back on “schedule” the next week.
First, the “ease of maintenance” principle indicates that the body maintains training adaptations better than it builds them in the first place. Thus, when coming back from layoff, it’ll be much quicker to get back to where you were than it was to get there in the first place (there are many complex physiological explanations for this phenomenon, from muscle fiber changes to epigenetics—alterations in gene expression over time).
Second, there are four general categories of layoffs that determine how to utilize the ease-of-maintenance principle—5 days or fewer, 6 to 28 days, 4 to 8 weeks, and 8 weeks or more. According to Daniels, the first category (5 days or fewer) involves no fitness loss using his VDOT metric, which
determines training paces in his training system. You can return with an equal number of easy running days at 100 percent of previous volume (so three days off means three days easy before returning to full training).
The second category (6 to 28 days) involves losing 0.3 percent of VDOT fitness at the low end, and 6.9 percent at the high end. That’s hopeful! A week off is less than a percent-fitness loss, and even a month is just a blip on the radar. Daniels recommends spending the first half of the return at 50-percent volume and the second half at 75-percent. So 14 days off for a 40 mile-per- week runner would be 7 days at 20 miles per week, 7 days at 30 miles per week.
The third and fourth categories involve more gradual builds starting at 33 percent before working to 50 percent and 75 percent. Notably, even with extra-long layoffs, Daniels theorizes that there is not more than 20-percent fitness loss by his VDOT metric.
I’ll say it again: The biggest deciding factor in how well you can come back from an injury is perspective. Even on the days when you’d like to burn the elliptical or bike to the ground, give yourself a little window of time to vent. But, in the end, get on the cross-trainer and get it done. Look forward to the runs and more miles as they come and do not forget that each mile is NOT a given. Be grateful for them and, as you are able to run more and are back to full training mode, remind yourself not to take them for granted. This will help you remain patient and keep your eyes focused on the long term.
Honestly, coming back from an injury doesn’t stink because, while those first few miles hurt like nothing else and may leave you sore for days, the act of “feeling” like you’re a runner again is one heck of a high. So smile, even if it looks more like a grimace, and have faith that muscle memory will eventually kick back in soon, however the second you get the green light to begin running does not mean you can jump full-force back into where you left off. It is important NOT to rush things, as patience pays off in the long haul. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend running and supplement the rest with cross-training.
Also I’m very guilty of this but do NOT compare yourself to the runner you was pre-injury. After a long break, you need to chuck out any and all comparisons to your runner self pre-injury. It will only set you up for frustration and can ultimately derail your comeback. Track the progress you make post-injury and take every victory (ie: extra miles, faster workouts, etc.) as it comes. Eventually you’ll return to “old you” workouts and times, but before you hit that realm think of yourself with a totally clean slate.
Here is a basic 4 week guide to getting back into running:
Week 1: 20 minutes slow run (or run:walk) every other day
Week 2: 30 minutes slow run (or run:walk) every other day
Week 3: 30 to 60 minutes easy run 4 to 6 times
Week 4 and beyond: gradually ramp up to normal training, building volume before intensity
There are no hard-and- fast rules for returning after injury. Just make sure you don’t return too hard and too fast.