What’s a Good Return to Running Program After Injury?

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If you’ve been sidelined by an injury, getting back into running can be more difficult than you may think! Jump back in too fast, and you can injure yourself all over again. But take it too slow, and you may lose more of your overall fitness.

If you’ve been waiting to start up again, you may wonder what’s a good return to a running program after injury. Although everyone is different, you can figure out an appropriate program by considering the information in this article.

The only one you’re competing against is yourself, so don’t fall into the trap of comparing your own return to other runners. Implement these tips for getting back to running after injury, and you’ll be back on your feet—safely—in a short time.

How to Know if You’re Ready to Run Again

Most runners are eager to get back on the road or trail as soon as possible after an injury, but the truth is, rushing back into running can do more harm than good.

So how do you know when you’re ready to run again? Well, you should be able to:

  • Walk for 30 minutes without pain
  • Climb stairs without pain
  • Get in and out of a chair with no pain
  • See no visible swelling in or around the injured area
  • Go through your full range of motion in the injured area with no pain
  • Bear weight on the injured area if the injury was to a leg or foot
  • Have completed your physical therapy, especially if you’ve had a knee injury, ankle sprain, shin splints, or soft tissue injury

How Long Does It Take To Regain Running Fitness After Injury?

A lot depends on how long you were off and your fitness level before you got injured. It’s hard to put an exact number on it, because everyone’s fitness level is different.

However, the fitter you are before you get injured, the faster you’ll be able to regain your running fitness. While your fitness can drop in as little as 2 weeks, it may take slightly longer to build it up again—perhaps 3 to 4 weeks for a fairly fit person.

However, if you do it sustainably, it can take up to 12 weeks for your running fitness and muscle memory to kick in again.

Tips on How to Start Running Again

Want to start running again after an injury? Here are the tips we highly recommend to get back on your feet as soon as possible.

Create a Plan and Set Realistic Goals

Having a plan is key to getting back into running effectively. This could be a running program, but setting goals is important to measure your progress.

Make sure you’re setting realistic goals. Don’t decide you want to run a marathon 3 weeks after your return to running, for example! You’ll need to start slow and work your way up again.

Follow a Gradual and Progressive Program

Easing yourself into your running again by taking a cautious approach is the best way to do it. Note that even if you’ve only been off for a few weeks, you shouldn’t be starting at the same level you were before.

Start slower with a reduced load and work your way up to ensure less chance of re-injury.

You can increase your effort, frequency, or mileage by around 5 percent weekly. This is a safe yet effective number to work with so you can see results without pushing yourself too hard.

Ease Yourself Into a Run

It may be a good idea to ease yourself into a run by doing some drills first. Butt kicks, high knees, A-skips, and so on can be great tools for getting your body used to the movements again. Then, ease yourself back into running when you feel up to it.

Assess Your Body’s Reaction After Each Run

It’s important to know what your body tells you after each run. Pay attention and you should be able to gauge how everything’s going and whether you can increase intensity or stay the same.

Pain

If you have pain, you should stop what you are doing and figure out what hurts. General muscle soreness and joint stiffness are normal. However, if you’re experiencing pain that:

  • Causes you to change your gait
  • Gets worse with exercise
  • Is sharp, stabbing, or shooting
  • Is accompanied by swelling

Then you may be better off stopping. These can be symptoms of a more serious problem or another injury, so you shouldn’t push through.

Swelling

Swelling is cause for concern as it suggests inflammation. Where there’s swelling, it means the body is sending white blood cells to repair. If you develop swelling during a run or after, it’s a good idea to see a doctor before you run again.

Tightness

Muscle tightness is normal to a degree. You can usually alleviate it by stopping and stretching the affected area briefly. You can do dynamic stretching to loosen up your muscles.

Build Your Base Up Again

You may notice that your running base isn’t where it used to be. Don’t rush to get it back to where it used to be. Once you’ve found your sweet spot for getting back into running again, increase slowly.

It may take a few weeks to get your running baseline level back up to where it used to be. Be patient, though—taking it slowly is the most sustainable way.

Incorporate Strength Training and Cross-Training

Incorporating strength training is an excellent idea. If you can strengthen the muscles surrounding the injury site, it will be less prone to becoming injured again. Strength training is also a great form of cross-training that can benefit runners.

Try to spend 1 to 2 days per week in the gym. Split it into upper body, lower body, and abs to get a well-rounded workout. Make sure your form is perfect—it’s easy to injure yourself here, too, which can lengthen your recovery!

Give Your Body Time to Rest and Recover

Don’t neglect rest. This is when your body heals and regrows cells. Take at least one full rest day every week and another day or two off from running to cross-train instead. Give your body enough time to rest and recover between exercises.

Example of How to Return to Running

Here’s a quick example of a return to a running program. You can adapt it to suit you at your current fitness level and injury healing level.

  • Week 1 (3x per week): Run for 1 minute, walk for 1 minute. Repeat x 10.
  • Week 2 (3x per week): Run for 1 ½ minute, walk for 30 seconds. Repeat x 8.
  • Week 3 (3x per week): Run for 2 minutes, walk for 30 seconds. Repeat x 8.
  • Week 4 (3x per week): Run for 3 minutes, walk for 30 seconds. Repeat x 8.
  • Week 5 (3x per week): Run for 4 minutes, walk for 1 minute. Repeat x 8.
  • Week 6 (3x per week): Run for 5 minutes, walk for 1 minute. Repeat x 6.
  • Week 7 (3x per week): Run for 10 minutes, walk for 1 minute. Repeat x 3.
  • Week 8 (3x per week): Run for 15 minutes, walk for 1 minute. Repeat x 2.
  • Week 9 (3x per week): Run for 20 minutes without stopping.
  • Week 10 (3x per week): Run for 25 minutes without stopping.
  • Week 11 (3x per week): Run for 30 minutes without stopping.
  • Week 12 (3x per week): Run for 35 minutes without stopping.

How to Prevent Another Running Injury

You’ve just returned to running from an injury, so the last thing you want is another injury side-lining you again! Follow these tips to prevent reinjuring yourself.

Warm Up and Cool Down

Never neglect your warm-up and cool-down sessions. They may seem like wasted time, but the reality is, getting your muscles warm before you start your workout can go a long way toward injury prevention.

Just 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio and dynamic stretching help to loosen up inflexible joints and get the blood flowing to the muscles. With warm muscles and joints, your chances of hurting yourself are significantly less.

Pay Attention to Your Form

You can never understate the importance of getting your form right. Poor form is an injury waiting to happen! This is especially important if poor form contributed to your injury in the first place, but it’s worth doing a form check every now and then anyway.

You can video yourself running and get a coach to critique it. Or, if you’re familiar with what to look for, you can analyze it yourself and implement changes to improve your form if necessary.

Use the Right Running Shoes

Wearing the wrong running shoes can cause injury. For example, if an overpronator had to wear a neutral shoe, the potential for injury would be higher as they wouldn’t receive the support their feet need.

Make sure your shoes are right for your gait, and your chance of injury will be lower. Alternatively, you can add an insole if you wear the wrong shoes. This is an easy and more affordable way of altering the arch support to suit you.

Do Strength and Flexibility Exercises Daily

Strengthening your muscles and joints is invaluable. The stronger the muscles, the less chance of injury, so incorporating strength training into your routine is important.

Make sure you do 2 to 3 days of resistance training per week. You can do flexibility exercises every day to make sure your joints stay supple.

Use the R.I.C.E Principle

If you do feel any small twinges or tweaks, use the R.I.C.E. principle. Rest for a few days, ice the painful, inflamed area, use compression gear, and elevate the injured part. It may be an old saying, but it still works!

Foam Roll and Massage

Use foam rolling and massage as part of an effective recovery routine. These will help remove painful knots in the muscles, ease up stiffness, and keep you limber and loose.

Listen to Your Body

If you notice any kind of tweaks in your body, pay attention! You must notice small hints of injury to get ahead of it. Listen to your body—if you need to rest, don’t be afraid to take a day off, even if your training program says you should be running!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.