I’ve never seen more runners starting over than I have within the last year. Many, like me, have had to start over after a bout of Coronavirus. Others have had to do so after race cancellations robbed them of motivation. Even outside of pandemic years, though, starting over is a common phenomenon in running. More often than not, injuries are the reason.
Endurance athletes of other types have to start over too sometimes, but running’s high-impact nature makes it special. Numbers don’t lie: Runners get injured far more often than swimmers, cyclists, rowers, cross-country skiers, and stand-up paddleboarders, and the comeback process is trickier. As someone who has been through this process more times than I care to remember, and has also coached many other runners through it, I know the do’s and don’ts. Here are my top five do’s for starting over with running:
1. Use the 48-Hour Rule
If you’ve gone more than three weeks without running, you can trust that the tissues of your lower extremities have lost some durability—a classic case of “use it or lose it.” To regain this durability, you need to expose your legs to repetitive impact, but you also must give them sufficient time to adapt to this stress between bouts. Hence the 48-hour rule. In the first two weeks of your return, limit yourself to every-other-day running. This will help you avoid shin splints and other issues that commonly set runners back when they’re starting over.
2. Lean on Cross-Training
If you limit yourself to doing only as much running as you can without undue risk, you won’t get fit very quickly. Thankfully, there’s a plethora of low- and nonimpact options for cardio exercise that you can use to supplement your running and accelerate your fitness development. These options include cycling, elliptical running, and uphill treadmill walking.
You can further accelerate your comeback by doing some work at high intensity. There’s a tendency among runners who are starting over to do everything at low intensity under the assumption that, when your fitness level is low, you can’t handle high intensity. This isn’t true. Research has shown that even elderly cancer patients can handle and benefit from high-intensity exercise. Sure, you might not be very good at high-intensity exercise when you’re just starting over, but that’s not the same as being unable to handle it.
In fact, in one sense, there’s no better time for high-intensity training than when you’re starting over, because a little goes a long way. A good starting point might be two light interval sets per week, such as 6 x 20 seconds in Zone 5 and 4 x 1 minute in Zone 4.
3. Listen to Your Body
It’s okay to have a plan for your running comeback, but know that your body is going to have the last word regardless. High energy levels and low levels of pain and soreness indicate that you can safely increase your training load, while fatigue and moderate to high levels of pain or soreness are cautions to take it slow. Don’t make too many assumptions about what your comeback will or should look like. Be willing to take the occasional step back in response to pain or fatigue to spare yourself from a greater involuntary setback.
When I was coming back from COVID in the spring of 2020, I went out for a 23-mile run that became a 12-mile run when I discovered it just wasn’t my day, and I’d be foolish to force my way through the planned distance. Four days later, I tried again and succeeded. Who knows who deep a hole I would have dug for myself if instead I’d forced it the first time. Let that be a lesson to you!
4. Focus on Now
Runners who are starting over after extended time away from training often get stuck in the past or in the future. Some beat themselves up by comparing themselves unfavorably to the runner they were in the past, while others fret over how far they have to go to reach their desired level of fitness. Both of these orientations drain all the fun out of training and lead to poor decisions. In particular, runners who fail to embrace where they are in the process tend to try to rush it, which never ends well.
When an athlete I coach starts looking back or ahead in unhelpful ways, I tell them this: “As long as you’re training, you’re either already fit or getting fitter, and neither is bad.” Those who take my advice find that, by focusing on the present, they are able to enjoy getting fitter despite being unfit just as much as they enjoy being fit. Now you try!
Keep it Fun
Speaking of fun, I strongly believe that enjoyment should be a top priority at all times in training. It’s hard to improve when you’re not having fun, and it’s equally hard not to improve when you are having fun. At the beginning of a comeback, many runners make the mistake of thinking, “If I can just get through this awkward first phase, I can start enjoying my training again.”
Wrong attitude! The first phase will be far less awkward and more fruitful if you make enjoyment a point of emphasis. Do whatever it takes to stay positively engaged in the process, whether it be by mixing up run formats and venues to running with people (or pets) whose company you enjoy.
Some of my fondest running memories are of times when I was starting over after an interruption. The same can be true for you if you practice the tips I’ve just given you.