Losing fitness due to a break from running or having to stop training altogether because of an injury – these are risks that any runner has and they are part of the cycle of training, recovery and return to competition. However, coming back from running injuries can seem daunting, especially after a prolonged absence.
What’s the best way to come back from injury as a runner? The key is to take a gradual approach and adjust training loads progressively, while being careful of the triggers that caused your injuries in the first place.
In this article, we’ll address:
- How long it takes to lose fitness during a running break.
- What you should consider during your injury rehab to set you up for running again.
- How to plan an incremental return to running training – including strength training, normal training frequency vs. when recovering, and training errors to avoid.
Please note: We are assuming that your injury has been treated by a medical professional, and that you have the green light to start running again officially. Please always consult with your doctor and ensure that running again is safe before starting a new training plan.
How Long Does It Take To Lose Fitness During a Running Break?
When you’ve been sidelined by an injury, it’s normal to be concerned about losing your fitness. However, if you’re not running it doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot do other types of workout, which will help maintain your level of fitness without aggravating your injury. This can make a huge difference in terms of where you start again from when you do go back to running.
A running break doesn’t automatically mean your fitness level will go back to zero. Depending on the type of injury that’s caused you to take a break, here are some ways in which you can maintain your cardiovascular fitness and your muscle strength and stay active:
- Continue cross-training workouts such as strength and mobility, yoga, Pilates.
- Enjoy low-intensity movement such as easy walks and bike rides.
- Use biking training to stay in shape without putting pressure on your articulations (if your injury allows).
- Switch to gravity free workouts like swimming to stay active, release muscle tension and keep your aerobic fitness.
Rest is good for fitness. We know that observing rest days during your running training helps your muscles repair and your training adaptations to really sink in. Just like a few extra rest days won’t harm your fitness, a few weeks of rest won’t automatically start reducing it from day 1.
Research suggests that most runners will take 7 to 14 days to start seeing declines in their aerobic fitness. At the same time, structural fitness – your body’s ability to tolerate running – declines more quickly. This refers to feeling aches and pains when you start running again, and generally to your muscles’ and tendons’ health. One more reason to keep doing some form of strength and conditioning training to decrease further injury risk when you return to running.
You should first and foremost focus on recovery during your break from running. If you have stopped running because of acute injuries such as a sprain or a broken bone, you will need to carry out all the physiotherapy and rehab protocols that your doctor prescribes. In the case of a minor injury, you can of course have a short rest and potentially return quicker, but this should be analyzed on a case by case basis.
The one key piece of advice in all cases is to stage a gradual return, which will reduce the risk of injury in the future and will help you regain fitness without over-straining yourself.
Preparing for Your Return to Running
Let’s assume you have identified the mechanism of injury that led to sidelining you for a week or more. You have followed the treatment prescribed by medical specialists and you’re on your way to recovery. How should you prepare to return to running, before you’re able to fully train again?
Here are a few step-by-step tips to lay the bases for a successful running comeback:
- Listen to your body. Don’t just start doing lots of cardio exercise, even if it is cross-training and done in a supervised manner, unless you feel able to do so. Putting undue pressure on your body while you are recovering can lead to impaired recovery, or even worse, a new injury.
- Don’t neglect the physio. Physiotherapy for running rehab is extremely beneficial, treating the injury symptoms if you’ve had to stop running because of bad form or a muscle imbalance. When you start doing supervised physiotherapy, take note of the exercises and plan to keep doing them once you start running again. At the same time, don’t just stop as soon as you feel better – it’s important to carry on doing physio to condition your muscles and educate your body to move in the optimal way for injury-free running.
- Train your cardiovascular fitness differently. Whether you swim, bike, or row, there are lots of other types of workouts you can do before you can start running again. These alternatives will allow you to stay fit during your recovery, and especially swimming or rowing will have the least impact on your legs (assuming that’s where your running related injury is!).
- Go beyond running. You might be injured but preparing for a race or a personal challenge. The comeback path is not just about running. It can involve mental training and logistical preparations for your race, such as reading some good running books, studying the course you’ll run through videos and photos online, or even driving to do a reconnaissance on foot (walking or hiking, if your fitness and health permit). This way, once you can run again, you’ll have already prepared some aspects that many runners don’t focus on or leave to the last minute.
- Review your kit. Could a suboptimal running kit have caused your injury, such as maybe shoes that don’t fit quite right or a running backpack that needs adjustments? It’s worth exploring your shoe and sock choices when you’re recovering from a foot or lower limb injury. Bad choice of shoes could actually affect you even higher up the postural chain, causing pain or injury in the hips or lower back, depending on your running form. Now is a good time to look into this with your physio or sports doctor, and see how you can make some changes that will benefit you when you start running again.
- Start with walking. When you’re fit and ready to put some more pressure through those legs, walking is the best first way to move before you go all in with a running training plan. After all, walking is the closest to running, and will provide you with musco-skeletal adaptations that are essential to injury free running. Start with some relaxed walking at an easy pace, then progress to hiking or more vigorous walking.
How to Return To Running Safely and Gradually
Once you’re ready for your running comeback, you will be able to alternate running and walking to gain fitness and strength without stressing your muscles or your aerobic system too much. Remember, the best way to come back healthily is by incremental adjustments.
Start With a Run-walk Plan
To ease you into the training routine and to start running again, follow a run-walk plan where you alternate between running and walking. You will increase the time spent running vs. walking gradually. For example, the first couple of weeks can be made up of three 30-minute sessions, where you walk for 4 minutes and run for 1 minute, repeating 6 times.
Then, progress to a 3:2 distribution (3 minutes walking, 2 minutes running). Eventually, you can do a full 30-minute run and take it from there.
Increase the Frequency Before the Volume
Our bodies adapt quicker to increased frequency of exercise. Running consistently presents less injury risk than running a long way in one go. So, during your return to running, start with 3 sessions a week and progress to 5, before you increase your duration above 30-40 minutes.
Think About Time on Feet
Time on feet, i.e. how much time you spend running, is more important than distance and speed in the first phase of your injury recovery. It doesn’t matter how far you go, just that you’re practicing the movements and focusing on good running form. If you have a training plan calculated in miles per day, adjust this to minutes – then hours – of effort instead.
Add One Variable at a Time
It is easier and more practical to increase the complexity of your running training with one variable at a time. This means not rushing to do long runs, over mixed types of terrain, and with hills, from day 1!
Start off running on the flat, ideally on a track where you don’t have to weave in and out of traffic. Once you’re comfortable running continuously for 30 minutes on the flat, add in some hill work and trail running. You can also then add speed workouts, as long as you’re running comfortably and without pain at lower intensity.
Everyone Is Different
Although there may be many ‘return to running’ plans out there, remember that everyone and everybody works differently. Don’t become overly focused on following a prescribed plan. Instead, adapt to how you’re feeling and be particularly attuned to your body’s signals in the first phase of returning to running. Delaying a session for a couple of days as you give yourself the optimal recovery time will make you a better and more enduring runner over the long haul.
Avoid Training Errors and Return To Running in Style
Having to take a break from running can be disappointing and frustrating. However, you can ace your way back to fitness, regardless of the type of injury that has sidelined you, as long as you have patience and ease into your training gradually.
Don’t underestimate the importance of cross-training and physiotherapy, and always make sure to listen to your body and adapt your approach continuously. This will keep you injury free for longer and hopefully also address the original reason for having to take a running break.