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Time Out? How to Return to Running

Whether you’ve taken time out from running because of injury, illness, pregnancy, or any other reason, getting back into running without getting injured can prove challenging. One of the most common causes of injuries in runners when coming back from a break, is doing ‘too much too soon’. Our musculoskeletal tissues – muscles, tendons, joints and bones lose their resilience to impact when you’re not running and become more susceptible to repetitive strain injuries if we start back at too higher volume and intensity. Unfortunately, going straight back to your normal running volume after six weeks out is a recipe for injury, even for seasoned runners.

It is inevitable you will decondition to some extent during a lay off, and this deconditioning effect becomes more significant if you’ve had to stop running for more than a couple of weeks. Even if you have maintained some strength and fitness during your time off by cross-training, you should still follow a gradual return to running, to ensure your body can adapt to the impact forces.

Our tissues adapt to the impact forces from running, becoming stronger as a result of this `stimulus and can gradually deal with more and more impact, but this positive adaptation will only occur if the loading is gradual and appropriate. If you’re coming back from injury this applies not only to the injured tissue but all the other muscles and joints in your hips, legs and feet.

What is rehab running?

With this in mind, the initial build up in your running is really focussed on progressively loading your tissues rather than building your fitness. Think of these runs as rehab runs to help your musculoskeletal symptom get used to running, providing a solid foundation so when you hit full training, you’re able to do so injury-free. Initially it is sensible to continue to do your fitness training (cross-training) separately to maintain your cardiovascular fitness so you don’t feel the pressure of trying to build your cardio fitness with your rehab running.

How long do I need to build my running for?

The amount of time you need to take to build your running in the rehab phase will depend on several factors. This includes the amount of time you have had off, how much fitness, strength and conditioning you had prior to your break, and how much of this you have been able to maintain during your period away from running. And, if you have had an injury, what type of injury this was.

The following provides some guidance for you to plan your return, check in with your Physiotherapist if you’re returning from a long-term injury.

If you have missed less than two weeks of running then simply reduce the volume of running for the first two weeks you start running again; do this by reducing the length of your runs so your total weekly volume is reduced by 50% in your first week back and 80% of your normal weekly training load in your second week. Build to your normal volume in week 3. It’s also advisable to stick to easy runs for those first two weeks rather than higher intensity speed or hill work.

You can follow a similar formula if you have had 3 or 4 weeks off with a build of 50%, 60%,70%, to 80% of your normal training volume each week.

If you’ve had nearer 6-8 weeks off running then follow at least a six-week return to running programme. Don’t build in track/speed or hill repeats until you are back up to at least 80% of your normal training doing easy runs. Faster running places greater demands on tendons and joints because of the increased ground reaction forces. Hill-based training place far greater demands on the muscles which propel you such as the Achilles tendon so again, these need to be introduced gradually.

If you have had more than a couple of months off running then look at

following a Couch to 5K programme over 8-10 weeks. You can find an example here. Whichever programme you follow, using walk-run intervals is the best way to start the first phase of your running.

Walk-run intervals

Walk-run intervals are a great way to gradually get your musculoskeletal system used to the demands of running. Listen to your body; if you can feel a bit of a niggle you can adapt the walk run intervals accordingly and it doesn’t have to become an issue. It is actually very normal to feel some tightness or mild discomfort in the first couple of weeks, but if these last more than a few moments or recur then increase the volume of walk to run ratio until they settle. Remember these are all easy paced runs where you could comfortably hold a conversation!

Example initial walk-run programme after 6 weeks off

Week 1

Start with walk 2-3 minutes followed by run 2-3 minutes. Repeat x3

Repeat this 3-4 times in the week

...building to walk 2-3 minutes: run 5-7 minutes x3 by the end of the first week

Week 2

Start with walk 2-3 minutes: run 5-7 minutes. Repeat x3

Repeat 3-4 times in the week or your normal frequency of runs in a week

...building to walk 2-3 minutes: run 10-12 minutes x3 by the end of this second week

By gradually increase the running interval over the first two weeks you enable you to start continuous runs of 15-20 minutes by Week 3. Your weekly mileage should equate to roughly 30% of your normal training volume at this stage. Then build week on week so you reach near normal training weekly volume by Week 6.

All of your running should feel comfortable and pain-free. If you are returning from injury ensure you have completed the requisite rehabilitation and discuss your more detailed plan with your Physiotherapist.

Get in touch if you’d like to book an appointment with Rachel to support your rehab and return to sport.

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