The 7 Key Steps In Returning To Running After Injury

Plus, how not to get injured in the first place!

All our injury and recovery resources are rigorously vetted by our expert team and adhere to our Injury Guidelines.

Like many recreational and pro runners, you probably run for a variety of reasons. Running offers distinct positive effects on your physical, emotional, and social well-being.

Working with runners and athletes throughout the years, alongside dealing with my own injuries, has helped me understand the frustration, despair, and lack of direction that comes with recovering from a running injury.

The journey back to the trails or tarmac is rarely linear and is more accurately experienced as a testing two-step forward, one-step backward rollercoaster. A successful and reliable return to running demands patience, active participation, and discipline.

To be clear, this will be a blueprint that may hopefully offer you some insight, not a treatment plan for your specific injury.

In this guide, we will delve into the key steps in returning to running after injury, employing the latest scientific insights and embracing the fundamental principle of progressive overload.

Let’s get into it!

A physical therapist working with a patient.

Our Step-by-step guide to returning to running After Injury

In this section, we will look at a general blueprint of returning to running after injury.

Whether the blueprint we go over is relative to you relies on a number of variables, which is why step 1 is so important!

Later, we will look at what you can do to avoid getting injured in the first place. The two are inextricably linked.

Step 1: Assessment and Consultation

To give yourself the best chance of an accurate and, therefore, effective road of rehabilitation, get a thorough assessment and consultation with a healthcare professional or qualified physiotherapist.

Identifying the nature and extent of your injury is crucial for devising a personalized rehabilitation plan.

A rehabilitation plan should be tailored to your individual needs and goals. Consider your lifestyle, preferences, and any specific factors that may impact your rehabilitation.

This initial step sets the stage for a tailored approach that acknowledges your unique physical condition.

A person resting with their feet up.

Step 2: Rest & Pain Management

At times, pain may seem inexplicable, appearing as if it serves no purpose other than to cause discomfort. On other occasions, pain acts as a crucial messenger, signaling warnings like “refrain from running; it may lead to harm.”

During the acute phase of an injury, the pain is almost definitely telling you to stop!

During the acute phase of an injury, it is important to rest; during this phase, it may also be beneficial to try and reduce pain through the use of pain management.

Experiencing pain can be a challenging ordeal, and effectively managing it is a pivotal aspect of the rehabilitation process.

Through the instruction of a medical professional, you may find relief through treatments like NSAIDs, massage, or ice packs.

A person swimming.

Step 3: Begin To Move

As the saying goes, “Walk before you can run.”

When confronted with an acute injury, our ability to handle force is temporarily compromised.

In instances of more severe injuries where pain-free load-bearing capacity sees a significant reduction, it is important to meet the body where it is.

Take an example: For an extreme Achilles tear, you may only be able to plantarflex (point your toes towards the floor) before you start feeling pain. For a minor strain, you may have to try double-legged calf raises instead of single. Each scenario is unique.

The design of rehabilitation exercises is strategic, aiming to systematically challenge the injured area without exacerbating any existing damage.

This remarkable adaptation showcases the body’s innate capability to restore its previous load-bearing capacity, even in the face of severe injuries.

Active and consistent engagement in rehabilitation becomes paramount for ensuring a successful recovery journey.

In our context, this means engaging in low-impact cardiovascular exercises to rebuild aerobic capacity without subjecting your body to the jarring impact of running.

Activities such as cycling or swimming provide a cardiovascular workout while minimizing stress on the injured area.

A person working with a physical therapist.

Step 4: Slowly Build Strength And Function

As we incrementally intensify the load on the affected region—whether through controlled movements, stretching, or resistance exercises—we prompt the body to adapt and fortify itself.

A robust return to running hinges on a solid foundation of strength. Incorporate a targeted strength training regimen that not only addresses the injured area but also promotes overall muscular balance.

Throughout the weeks and months of recovery, you will progress through gentle movements; this could be assisted bodyweight squats all the way to squatting under a heavy bar.

This step is not a shortcut; it’s a slow and consistent investment in the longevity of your running journey.

Step 5: Crosstraining

Although crosstraining will feature later as a preventative measure, it is also a highly useful tool for maintaining aerobic capacity while you are unable to run.

If cycling or another sport continues to aggravate your injury, stop, reduce the intensity, or find a different exercise!

A runner warming up and smiling.

Step 6: Gradually Introduce Low Intensity, Low Volume Running

The gradual reintroduction of running is a delicate dance between progress and caution.

Begin with low-impact activities like brisk walking or jogging on forgiving surfaces. Pick a distance or time and aim to complete it. If it’s too much, reduce it. If it’s too easy, slowly increase it.

Develop a structured running plan that adheres to the principles of progressive overload.

Start with short, easy runs and incrementally increase duration and intensity. This stepwise progression is the essence of progressive overload, promoting adaptation without inducing unnecessary stress.

Pay close attention to the cues of the body. Monitor for signs of discomfort, fatigue, or pain. Regularly assess your progress, making adjustments as needed.

This phase allows your muscles and tendons to slowly adapt back to running without subjecting it to the full impact on joints and muscles.

A person running.

Step 7: Gradual Return to Full Training

In the later stages of a rehabilitation plan for running, the focus is on progressively transitioning from rehabilitation exercises to fully returning to running after injury.

The finish line is in sight, but it’s crucial not to sprint towards it prematurely.

Only resume full training when you’ve successfully navigated the earlier steps without encountering pain or setbacks.

7 Proven Strategies to Safeguard Your Running Journey

So we’ve looked at the road to recovery, but how do we avoid going down that road again?

Strategy #1: Realistic And Thoughtful Training Approaches

The essence of steady progress lies in consistency. When you’re gripped by the running bug or gearing up for a sports event, the impulse to go full-throttle is undeniable.

However, sustainable improvements demand a measured, progressive approach to both running intensity and volume.

Picture it as constructing a robust foundation for a house — a gradual process of building strength and conditioning in your muscles. Incrementally increase the speed, distance, and intensity of your runs as time unfolds, much like adding bricks to a foundation.

A person cycling.

Strategy #2: Crosstraining

Variety is the spice of life! For the everyday runner, engaging in a variety of sporting disciplines isn’t just enjoyable; it’s a key safeguard against injuries.

Those who exclusively specialize in one sport face a higher risk of sports-related injuries due to repetitive movement patterns.

Incorporating cross-training and diverse sports into your routine offers low-impact, varied workouts.

Activities like cycling, swimming, or gym workouts provide cardiovascular benefits without overburdening muscles prone to overuse.

Cross-training also serves as an effective strategy for active recovery, promoting blood circulation and reducing injury risks.

Strategy #3: Strengthen the Foundation

There is strong evidence supporting the role of lower extremity muscle strength in reducing injuries for adult runners. It is crucial that injury prevention programs incorporate strength training.

Thoughtfully designed strength and conditioning routines enhance your body’s resilience, reducing the risk of future injuries.

Resistance training, when initiated with care and guidance, stabilizes joints and strengthens muscles, addressing imbalances and minimizing discomfort.

A person warming up.

Strategy #4: Prioritize Your Rest

Sleep is an often underestimated ally in injury prevention.

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a conducive sleep environment, and limiting disruptive factors like caffeine and screens close to bedtime contribute to the recommended 8 to 10 hours of nightly sleep.

During sleep, essential processes like muscle protein synthesis and growth hormone release occur. These mechanisms actively repair and fortify muscle fibers.

Strategy #5: Power Up with a Proper Warm-up

Warming up is more than just a preamble to a workout; it’s a shield against injuries. A comprehensive warm-up routine significantly reduces injury risks for runners of all ages.

Benefits of warming up include increased muscle temperature, improved blood circulation, and nervous system activation.

Incorporating a thorough warm-up into your routine creates a protective buffer against severe and overuse injuries.

Fruit, granola and yogurt.

Strategy #6: Fuel Your Recovery

As runners, we burn A LOT of calories.

Intense physical activity during periods of rapid growth demands increased nutritional support. Runners should prioritize a well-rounded diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and fats to sustain sufficient repair.

Meeting recommended intake levels for vital vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, vitamin D, antioxidants, and B vitamins, is essential for overall health.

Proper nutrition not only fuels your runs but also plays a crucial role in maintaining your body’s resilience against potential injuries.

Strategy #7: Gait Analysis and Form Correction

We all run slightly differently, as we all have slightly different bodies! That said, consider getting a gait analysis conducted by a running specialist to identify biomechanical issues contributing to your injury.

If you are indeed in need of form correction, you can ensure that your return to running is marked by optimal mechanics, reducing the risk of recurrence.

Final Thoughts

Embarking on the journey back to running after injury is a testament to your resilience and commitment to your craft. As a sports therapist who has worked with many runners, I emphasize the importance of a holistic and progressive approach to rehabilitation.

Remember, the path to recovery is not linear, and setbacks may occur. Patience and perseverance, guided by the principles outlined in this comprehensive guide, will be your allies.

For a guide to some of the most common running injuries and how to treat them, click here.

A runner holding their foot.
Photo of author
Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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