It happens to so many runners, and in all likelihood it’s happened to you: You start running once you have goals for the new year or when it starts to get a little nicer outside. You push your body faster, farther, and start to dream about PRs in those summer and fall races you set your sights on. Suddenly, you see possibilities that you never had the courage to dream about.
Then WHAM! Something stops you right in your tracks. You get hurt. You get busy. You get tired or burned out. (Or in the case of 2020, the entire year throws everything off.) Suddenly the gains in mileage, pace, fitness, and confidence disappear as quickly as they materialized.
Get Some Perspective
What happens in your body when you stop running? There’s a decrease in blood volume and mitochondria (the power plants in our cells), plus your lactate threshold falls, says coach and exercise physiologist Susan Paul. In general, the longer you have been training, the more quickly you’ll be able to get back into it after a layoff, she says.
The longer you’ve been running, the bigger your foundation of aerobic strength, says Paul. You’ll have a much higher level of mitochondria to produce energy, more red blood cells to deliver oxygen to the running muscles, and more metabolic enzymes than someone who just started working out.
So while your fitness falls during a layoff, it won’t fall as low as if you had just begun running since you’re starting at a much higher fitness level. In general, here’s how much of your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max)—or cardiorespiratory fitness—you lose with time off, according to Paul:
- 2 weeks off: lose 5–7 percent of VO2max
- 2 months off: lose 20 percent of VO2max
- 3 months off: lose 25–30 percent of VO2max
Also, you lose conditioning in your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues. It’s difficult to assess how much conditioning you lose, or how quickly you lose it. But it’s the weakness in the musculoskeletal system that causes so many people to get injured when they return to running. This is why running slower, reducing mileage, and allowing rest and recovery days are so important when you’re making a comeback.
Walk Before You Run
Before returning to running, you should be able to walk for at least 45 minutes (without pain if returning from an injury) says Paul. Walking reconditions soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, connective tissue), preparing them for the more rigorous demands of running, she says.
Too many times a race or other goal encourages a runner to do more than they should too soon after injury, says Adam St. Pierre, an exercise physiologist. Even if you’ve been cycling, swimming, or doing other cross-training to maintain your aerobic fitness, remember that depending on the injury and the length of the layoff, it can take weeks or even months for your muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments to get strong enough to handle running again. It takes the legs much longer than the lungs to adapt to new stresses, St. Pierre adds.
How to: At first, stick with short, easy runs, and take walk breaks. Start with three to four short runs per week so that you’re running every other day. Try five to 10 minutes of running at a time, or alternate between running and walking.
“Too often people get it in their head that they need to run for 30 minutes every day, or run and not walk, in order to make progress,” St. Pierre says. When starting after a long break, you need to check your ego at the door. Let your body adapt to the stress of a workout before you start adding more stresses!” Use the following guide:
- If you’re off 1 week or less: Pick up your plan where you left off
- If you’re off up to 10 days: Start running 70 percent of previous mileage
- If you’re off 15 to 30 days: Start running 60 percent of previous mileage
- If you’re off 30 days to 3 months: Start running 50 percent of previous mileage
- If you’re off 3 months: Start from scratch
Remember the 10 percent rule. If you’ve been off for three months or more, don’t increase your weekly mileage or pace by more than 10 percent, week over week. Increase it less if you need to.
Strength training can help you tolerate a higher volume of running if done properly, says St. Pierre. But that’s only if you do it right, and if you specifically strength train your body to ready it for running again, says Colleen Brough, a founding director of the Columbia University RunLab.
“The key to having the hard work of a home exercise program payoff is carryover,” she says. “You might get strong in important target areas like the glutes and the lower abs, but you have to learn how to use this newfound strength during the run.” Once you do exercises in a sitting or lying-down position, then add drills that mimic the components of running to help improve muscle coordination, timing, and biomechanics, so you don’t get injured and sidelined again.
How to: Do these drills as running “homework” during the first mile of your first runs. Repeat them again midway through the run and any time fatigue sets in or you hit the hills, Brough says. “We see running mechanics fall apart as we push the pace or distance,” she says. “These drills are an excellent way to correct that.”
- Glute Push-off Drill: As the foot hits the ground, squeeze the glute (or butt) and drive the run forward by pushing off with the glute muscle. Do this for 20 yards.
- Midfoot Strike With Forward Lean: So many runners overstride, with their heels striking too far in front of their centers of mass. This increases force through the foot, ankle, and knee and has been linked to injuries, Brough says. To correct it, while you’re running, lean slightly forward while keeping your chest up, and think about landing less on your heel and more toward the ball of your foot or gently on a flat foot. You might pick an object about 20 yards away to aim for—say, a tree or a lamp post—and do the drill until you reach that target.
- Cadence Drill: Increasing cadence or leg turnover seems to shorten the stride length and minimize the impact with which the foot hits the ground. Increase your cadence by switching to a quicker pace, or use a metronome app in place of music for about 20 yards.
Avoid just hitting the road again right away, says Paul. The track allows you to walk or run without getting too far from your car in the event that you need to stop. It’s a controlled, confined, flat, traffic-free area for a workout. Starting on the treadmill can be helpful, too. The surface is forgiving, and you can control the pace and incline to suit your needs.
Over-the-counter painkillers might make you feel better in the short term, but they can mask pain that tells you that you should stop. And studies show that painkillers can actually do more harm than good, by causing gastric distress, and they may even detract from the benefits of a hard workout. If you can’t run through pain, don’t run. Walk or rest instead.
Working out every day will help speed up your cardiovascular fitness. But that doesn’t mean you need to run. Add two or three days of cross-training to your routine. Check in with your doctor to make sure that the particular mode of working out—cycling, rowing on a machine, swimming, or using an elliptical trainer—doesn’t worsen any injury.
Also, yoga, Pilates, weight training, and core exercises can help you get stronger. That said, if you have done no exercise at all for three months, wait for two to three months before you cross-train; take rest days between your runs instead. That will ensure that your aerobic system gets enough recovery between workouts.