(Updated January 30, 2022): Oh, the roller coaster ride that comes with running injuries and the return to running. Over the past two years, I’ve had two major injuries—a partial hamstring tear and plantar fascia tear—both have taken me out of the sport for a very long time. Combine that with having two kids and coaching several athletes who have had to take running breaks, I can say I’ve become very experienced with the return to running.
With the return to running come setbacks and detours, some of which are unavoidable and some that have arisen in large part to me being in a hurry to get back to my former self. However, if you truly want to return to running quickly, you need to listen to your body over your mind.
When in doubt, take extra time to rest and make healing your priority–not miles or pace.
To help you on your return to running after injury, return to running after a break, or a return to running postpartum, I am sharing 9 tips that will help you get there safely.
Related: How to Start Running Postpartum
How long does it take to get back into running?
How long it takes to get back into running depends on how long you took off. If it is a week or less, you haven’t lost any fitness and can resume running as normal. If you took off up to three months or more, you need to start from scratch.
According to renowned running coach Jack Daniels’, here is how to get started running again after time off:
- 0-5 days off running: Easy running at 100 percent volume equal to the number of days off with strides
- 6 days off: 3 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 3 days easy running at 75 percent volume with strides
- 28 days off: 14 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 14 days easy running at 75 percent volume
- 29+ days off: 9 days easy running at 33 percent volume; 10 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 10 days at 75 percent volume with strides
- 8 weeks off running: 18 days easy running at 33 percent volume; 19 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 19 days at 75 percent volume with strides
- 8+ weeks off running: 3 weeks each at 33 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent, 85 percent, 100 percent with strides.
- 72 days off running: A runner is almost completely detrained.
How long does it take to lose fitness?
While many runners feel like they start losing fitness after one day off running, they don’t. Thankfully, while it takes time to build fitness, it also takes time to lose it.
And fitness is also easy to maintain. Daniels’ Ease of Maintenance principle supports that even a few short cross-training activities a week can help maintain your fitness.
Here is how long it takes to lose fitness when not exercising at all, according to Daniels:
- 0-5 days off running: no change
- 7 days off running: 6% change
- 14 days off running: 7% change
- 28 days off running: 9% change
- 72 days off running: A runner is almost completely detrained.
Why is it hard to get back into running?
Your first several runs (or about two weeks) back to running after a break will feel hard. This is because your running economy including your neuromuscular and musculoskeletal systems have gotten out of the practice of running.
But your aerobic development is still there. Your body will need to work hard to meet the demands of running, but then it will remember, and your body will become efficient in its movement patterns and use of energy again.
Also, even if you’ve taken a long break from running, it is easier to regain fitness once you’ve developed it in the first place, according to Daniels. Your neuromuscular efficiency and capillary and mitochondria density, for example, don’t completely reverse with time off running.
Related: Free Return to Running Plan
What is the fastest way to get into running shape?
The quickest way to get back into running shape is to be patient and consistent. More running sessions are going to spur those physiological adaptations you need to become fitter.
And not going too fast or too far before your body is ready will ward off injuries or aggravate past running injuries.
How can I run longer without stopping?
The best way to run longer without stopping is to do a run-to-walk running program.
Walking is the best cross-training exercise to prepare the body for running. It’s similar biomechanically and provides similar stress on the musculoskeletal system. It doesn’t provide the same aerobic development as say the stationary bike or elliptical, but it gets the muscles, joints, and soft tissues prepped for the impact.
Thus, the fastest way to run longer without stopping is to:
- Walk for 30 minutes comfortably.
- Once you have done that, introduce short running intervals. For example, run for 2 minutes, walk for 2 minutes 5 times.
- Do those intervals two times on nonconsecutive days before progressing.
- If you feel good, add the 6th interval or run for a bit longer, and walk for a shorter amount of time.
- Once you are up to 30 minutes of continuous running, you can segue to only running.
- On the days you do not run, strengthen your aerobic system with cross-training such as the bike or elliptical.
A running coach or knowledge physical therapist can guide you in your specific return to running. (Check out my run coaching services).
9 Tips to Start Running After a Break
As mentioned, I’ve become an expert in how to get back into running because I have lived it many times (unfortunately) and have coached my athletes through it.
These are my tips to how to return to running.
This is the bedrock of all running, especially when coming back after having a baby or running injury, or anything else. Take your time. Let your body adapt. Don’t rush progress. If you run, it will come. I promise. Being patient is perhaps the hardest part about being injured.
But letting go of where you were and where you want to go can help you focus on where you are currently. Several times throughout my recovery I would get stuck on a number of miles I should be running or pace and it only led to a step back. Be in the moment. It’s a good life lesson for everything.
Increase running volume slowly.
Your body needs to be your guide when returning to running. Thus, do not get numbers stuck in your head of how far you should run each week.
- Do a run/walk, and hold it for two sessions before increasing.
- Do not run on consecutive days.
- Do not increase volume by more than 10 percent week over week or 30 percent every three weeks.
Truly listen to your body to know its limits.
- Does your injury flare up after 4-mile runs? Cap it at 3 miles for a week before progressing.
- Do you need an extra day off during the week to aid in recovery? Take it.
- Take walk breaks as needed to give the body a break.
Cutting corners to get to the start faster will only put you back on the sidelines.
Use an Alter-G treadmill and run/walk intervals.
I was able to use an Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill in my current return to run program, gradually decreasing the off-loaded weight. Once I was able to handle two sessions of continuous running at full body weight, I segued to run/walk intervals on the road.
Many physical therapist offices will let you pay to use their anti-gravity treadmills even if you aren’t a patient. You can find an Alter-G near you here.
Let pain be your guide.
If you’re returning to running after injury, you need to be very aware of how your injury is feeling during and after a run for up to 48 hours.
- If your pain intensifies as you run, stop. You’ve surpassed your current running threshold. Stay within your boundaries for a few days before trying to run longer again.
- If your pain flares past a level 3 in the 48 hours after your run, again back off as needed.
- Take extra rest days if you feel like need them!
Increase frequency over duration.
You will spur more physiological changes the more sessions you run. So once you’re able to run consistently, add another day running before elongating your runs past 40-30 minutes.
- Aim to run 3 to 5 runs for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Then, add a 6th day of running before elongating one of those runs past 40 minutes.
Add a variable at a time.
Start on flat surfaces like a track. Keep the runs super slow. Don’t add speed, distance, or different terrain until you’ve mastered where you’re at for 2-4 consecutive runs without pain.
This is kind of like when you start your baby on solids: start with avocado. Stick with it for a few days to make sure your babe is doing okay before introducing bananas…You remember the drill. That same philosophy is good for your return to running. Just like feeding your baby, keep it simple.
Once you are consistently running pain-free, you can add speed first in the form of gentle hill strides and then flat strides. Do this before attempting any speed workouts or tempos
Related: What is a Tempo Run?
Alternate run and rest days.
As mentioned, do not run consecutive days until you are comfortably running for 30 minutes every other day for several weeks.
In my current return to run plan, it took me three months to work up to adding a fifth day of running.
Alternating the days you run with the days you cross-training is crucial for allowing your body (and injury) to adjust to the impact of running!
Don’t freak out.
When you get back into running, it can produce a lot of anxiety. First, you feel completely out of shape, so it is hard. Second, you worry any pain you feel in your injury is a big step back. Third, as your body adjusts to the new stress, you feel new aches and pains and worry that it’s a new injury.
This is all normal and it’s important to listen to your body but also remember that a little bit of pain is your body readjusting and strengthening. As long as it is not past a level 3 and last for more than two days, you’re good to keep progressing.
What do you do if your injury flares up? If your pain goes past a level 3 or lasts for more than two days, back off, treat it, and/or call your physical therapist.
Expect to not have a straight line, forward progression with your return to run program. You will need to take a step back or extra rest days along the way. You may even have a new injury try to crop up (I did). Just keep being diligent and patient.
Keep seeing your physical therapist.
Along the way, keep seeing your physical therapist to keep an eye on your injury if that’s why you took a break, or to ward off new ones.
In my current return to run program, I ran too fast out of the gate and had microtearing in my hamstring. If I hadn’t seen my physical therapist, it could have turned into another major injury. But we caught it early and kept it at bay.
Also, keep up all your prehab and rehab exercises!! This is not the time to slack!
If you’d like help getting back into running, check out my Coaching Services page!