Returning to running after an extended break can be tricky.
Whether your break was due to an injury, scheduling issues, or just falling out of love with running temporarily.
Starting running again is not only a test of your physical ability but also mental resiliency.
The most common mistake returning runners make is jumping back into running too quickly.
In this article, I’ll share with you the guidelines you need on how to start running again – whether after a break, or after injury, surgery, quitting smoking, or to lose weight – and provide a detailed outline to help you get back on track.
My philosophy is to build a sustainable running fitness level – meaning one which serves as a strong base for your future, and keeps you injury-free.
Let’s dig in.
Dial In Your Mindset (Prepare For Frustration)
When considering how to start running again, many runners simply look at the training ahead of them.
But being mentally prepared can make the difference between you returning to running gracefully, and getting injured and then hanging up your running shoes for good.
Depending on your layoff time, you’ll undoubtedly lose some fitness, and it’s impossible to avoid comparing your performance to your former running self.
This may make you feel like you’ve lost the magic, or you’re ‘past it‘ . . . but don’t let it stop you in your tracks.
It’s very likely that with discipline and focus you can reach and exceed your previous running abilities – but it doesn’t happen overnight, and will take a lot of time to get there.
Live in the moment.
Focus on taking one simple positive step after the other.
Begin by setting a realistic goal that isn’t too challenging so that you’re feeling accomplished every time you hit a milestone.
Maybe that means running 2 miles without stopping; or running a sub 30-min 5k.
Whatever your goal is, intentionally set the bar low – this way you’re more likely to succeed and get the motivational boost from finishing a goal.
Then, set the next goal… and let momentum carry forward.
Remind yourself that you can always walk/run (or cross-train if you have to) than to completely give up on training.
How To Know When To Start Running Again After Injury?
If your running break has been forced upon you due to a running injury, it’s crucial that you know:
i) when to return to running
ii) how to gradually build yourself back up
When can you return to running after an injury?
The clearest sign that the recovery period is over is the absence of pain.
If you still experience pain or discomfort, it’s not yet time to start running again after injury.
If your injury is relatively minor – such as IT Band issues – you can often use a product like KT tape to allow you to continue running without worsening the injury (although it doesn’t heal the injury, it lets you keep running).
Otherwise, rest and recovery is what’s needed.
If your injury is caused by poor alignment or weak muscles (for example, IT Band Syndrome) then cross-training aimed at the glutes, hips, core, and upper legs can help strengthen and align those muscle groups – improving your recovery time.
During the recovery period, test yourself out and see how your body responds to different movements and training loads.
This helps you make sure everything is back to normal before you decide to take up running again.
Once you pass this with flying colors, see if you can perform the following training loads pain-free:
- Power walk for 45 minutes
- Perform 20 bodyweight squats
- Perform 10 to 12 controlled knee dips
- Perform ten plyo squats
- Do 20 single-leg calf raises
Is it all good? That’s great news! Now you can start running again after injury.
To err on the side of caution, I’d recommend to go at least three to four days without any pain—or at least until you’re passed the acute phase—before lacing up your running shoes again.
Be Humble – Avoid Too Much Too Soon
One of the common mistakes runners makes when returning to the road after an injury is doing too much too soon.
After an injury, the affected area is likely more sensitive to stress.
It’s key to start re-introducing impact slowly and gradually to provide your body enough time to re-adapt.
If you were to take up running again at your normal training volume after a few months off, your body would not be ready for such stress.
Even if you’ve been doing plenty of cross-training exercises to keep your fitness level, it’ll take a while for your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments to be able to handle logging the miles again.
The Gradual Approach
Returning to running after a break requires a gradual approach.
The goal behind your first few sessions is simple:
- To establish consistency,
- check any for residual discomfort or pain,
- and, more importantly, get your body used to the impact of running again.
During the rebuilding phase, go slow as you start back up.
Start with two to three 30 to 40 minutes sessions per week so that you’re training every other day.
If this seems like a lot, alternate between running and walking, but try to keep moving for 30-40 minutes each workout. Gradually phase out running
And feel free to cross-train on your non-running days.
How To Start Running Again – Training Plan Advice
So how do you put these strategies into practice?
It all depends on how long you’ve been out of the game.
Taking up running again following injury without a plan is like trying to run a marathon without building up mileage.
It achieves nothing but set you up for failure.
There’s no ideal way for structuring a running comeback, but the following outline should set you on the right path.
Note – Keep in mind that it helps to know your baseline training load to make this work. If you don’t know this yet, make sure to review your pre-injury training journals, or at the very least, guestimate your load.
Here’s how to adapt your training based on how long you’ve been off your feet:
One week break or less
If you skipped training for less than a week—may be due to a minor muscle strain— it’s safe to assume that you didn’t lose much conditioning, and your legs will react to taking up training again very quickly.
I’d recommend that you continue with training as you were pre-injury, but pay attention to your body.
Keep your sessions easy and comfortable.
Ten days break
Missing between a week to 10 days of training may put a dent in your fitness level. This isn’t anything to lose sleep over, but plan to keep your first workouts easy.
I’d recommend training at 70 percent of your previous mileage for the first week, before returning to normal.
Two weeks to one month break
This is when you’ll notice an evident drop in endurance and power.
When it’s the case, resume with easy training at a reduced load. Shoot for 60 percent of your usual workload, increasing it 5 to 10 percent each day. Keep the intensity to 70-80% of your previous load.
One to two months
After an injury that requires many weeks off, such as shin splints or a stress fracture, you’ll experience a significant fitness loss. Your cardiovascular system will have lost some of its capabilities and your muscles will be weaker.
But it’s not the end of the world.
Start training at 50 percent of previous mileage or intensity, then build it up gradually for up to six to eight weeks total.
Three months or longer
When you take more than three months off training, it’s time to hit the restart button.
For injuries requiring three months or longer of no-running, you’ll have to begin building up from the ground up.
Start from scratch.
Assume your body is waking up after a long coma.
Don’t relate your new training plan to your old training load. In a few months you can get back to that level, but for now it’s best to start from zero.
Take the first few runs very easy, treating them as ‘discovery’ sessions – feel free to walk as much as necessary. This should help you strengthen your musculoskeletal system and improve your endurance without risking doing too much.
Final Tip: Always Listen to Your Body
As I mentioned, returning to running is one of the fastest ways to re-injure yourself, so you need to be careful.
Get rid of your ego armor and run like a novice.
If you’re running and start to feel soreness or injury symptoms creep in, readjust your training approach right away.
If the pain is too much, or it persists for hours after a run, it means that you have gone too far.
When it’s the case, bite the bullet and take more recovery before you try again.
Remind yourself that there’s always a tomorrow to run, but not if you keep injuring yourself.
Losing a couple of weeks of running is much better than losing a couple of months because you were impatient.
Don’t view a setback as a sign of defeat.
In most cases, if you pay attention to your body and take the right precautions early, you’ll avoid any severe damage and be back on track the next week.
Cross-train, be humble, and small steps – that how to start running again after a break, and will get you back to your peak performance.