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

The most upsetting word to a runner might very well be “injury”. For many runners, running goes far beyond a daily exercise activity, and becomes a part of who you are. And the idea of having to go days or even weeks without running can bring on frustration, depression, anxiety, and more.

If you find yourself in this position, don’t despair! You will heal and get better. You can read countless stories on the internet of men and women who faced devastating injuries, but got back to running eventually and were even faster than before.

We’ll cover all the basics of how to start running again after being sidelined by an injury so you take your return at the right pace. Plus, we’ll cover some tips for how to make a safe comeback. In no time, you’ll be back to running!

The Steps to Recovery

Recovery from an injury doesn’t happen all at once. Ask yourself the following questions as you work your way through the steps of returning to a running program. And remember: above all, consult early and often with your doctor. Each body is unique, each injury is unique, and the advice of a medical professional is indispensable.

Can I walk briskly without pain?

Your very first step to start running again is to make sure that you can walk briskly without any pain. If you are unable to do this, you should not start a running program just yet. Give yourself a little bit more time to heal.

If you rush through pain to get back to running, your injury likely will sideline you for an even longer period of time because you haven’t given your body the time to adequately recover. If you can walk briskly without pain, you’re ready for the next step.

Have I started a run/walk program beginning with one mile?

While you may want to dash (literally!) straight into running once you can walk briskly without pain, you should still take your time. Start with one mile of running and walking. Make sure that you’re running only every other day, but feel free to supplement with cross-training on the off days.

Make sure that you start each run/walk with a brisk warm-up and cool down after every run, as this will assist you in preventing future injuries. And don’t go for the hills at first! Begin with flat terrain, or start running on a treadmill.

Finally, while you’ve almost certainly run much longer distances, begin with one mile. It seems really small, but it’s the best starting place for you.

How is my run/walk training program going?

After a couple days (or weeks, depending on your injury) of run/walk training, evaluate how everything is going. If pain or swelling returns, you need to stop the program or reduce the mileage, as it’s clear your body isn’t ready.

If you feel great and your body is responding well, gradually decrease the walking breaks and add in more running. Once you can run without any walking breaks at all, increase your mileage slowly—no more than 10% per week.

As you begin to add miles, keep evaluating. If things are starting to hurt again, dial it back so that you don’t injure yourself even more. If you still feel good, start to do a little bit more, but all in moderation. Don’t be the newbie long distance runner who starts off too fast in the first mile.

How are my runs going once I start to add miles?

Once you slowly start to increase your mileage, you still want to be careful with longer runs. Whenever you complete a longer run, make sure that you follow it by an easy day and then a medium-distance run.

Long runs put more strain on your body, so you want to space those out as you ease back into running the pace and distances you’re used to.

Once you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll likely be ready for whatever running program you had before. Just always be aware and listen to your body so that you can avoid injuries in the future.

women running after injury

Tips for a Successful Recovery

The process of recovery is a slow one, and you might be wondering if there are any tips to make it a little bit easier. As with many things in life, including running, the brain is a powerful place, and the better mental game you have, the faster you might recover.

Don’t Compare Past Performance to Current

If you’re competitive like I am, you probably want to get better and better every time and continue to beat PR after PR. When you’re recovering from an injury, you are setting yourself up for failure if you play the comparison game.

It will take time for your fitness to return. Experts say that it takes about three weeks for you to lose fitness, so if you find yourself past the three-week mark, you need to be gentle with yourself.

Recovering-from-an-injury-you is not going to perform as well as healthy-you, just like running on a hilly course is going to be harder and will take longer than running on a flat course.

Don’t Rush into Running a Race

Feeling good? Tempted to jump back into the racing scene after a couple weeks back running? Stop. Don’t do that. Instead, take it slow. Have an honest discussion with yourself about where you are and when you can realistically race next.

If you’re not sure how long it is going to take you to recover, err on the side of being more conservative, and give yourself that extra bit of time to recover. You’ll see the benefits in your results.

You may also consider a shorter distance as you ease back in. If you’re a fan of the half marathon, maybe get back to running a 5k first, and see how that goes. Then slowly build up to the half with a 10k and a 15k (if you can find one!) sprinkled in.

Take It Slow

And as a general rule of thumb, slower is better. Slow runs and slower recovery time are a safe and conservative approach that will ensure that you don’t injure yourself again before you’re fully healed.

Think about it this way: if you go a little bit slower during your recovery, maybe you’re a couple weeks behind where you would have been if you had ramped up a little faster. But if that faster pace causes another injury, or exacerbates the injury you already have, you’re going to be way behind what a slower recovery would have been.

Be Grateful

I’ve found that one of the biggest keys to running is being grateful. There are so many people who can’t run or walk, but you are able to do so, and that’s a huge gift. You might be temporarily sidelined, but some people are permanently sidelined.

Be glad that you will be able to run again in the future, because some people can’t. Sure, it stinks that you’re recovering when your friends are out running, but you’ll be out there soon enough.

Try to think about all the amazing things in your life that are going on right now. Maybe you’ve been able to exercise with your mom because you’re walking instead of running. Maybe you’ve gotten to watch some Netflix shows that you’ve been meaning to see.

Whatever it is, be grateful for where you’re at, just like runners are encouraged to be grateful for the mile they’re in. Recovering from an injury is the mile you’re in right now, but it’s going to be followed by some amazing, super fast miles (and runs)!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner