Time off running can feel like a catastrophe.
Everything is lost. Back to zero. It’s enough to make a nihilist out of any runner.
But the body works in mysterious ways. Fitness always returns so much more quickly than it took to build it in the first place. Every milestone can be a chance for celebration. And you may find that those milestones rapidly lead you far past where you were pre-injury.
All that is easy to say, but gosh this stuff can be hard when you’re living it. Getting back to running after injury is all about giving yourself the love and space to grow without having to feel like you need to prove something each day.
Start slow and let the body adapt, rather than forcing it to adapt.
As you build back, the goal is not to get faster, it’s to prepare the musculoskeletal system for the impact of running. That means that it doesn’t matter how fast you go. You aren’t training to race or run fast (yet), the return to running is about training slowly now to train healthily later.
If you’ve only been out a week, you can pick up where you left off, making sure to avoid intensity for the first few days. If you’ve been out one to four weeks, do a week or two of easy running to start, reducing volume by half and then building up from there.
For injuries of four weeks or more, I like athletes to start with a run-walk program that takes some of the pressure off, alternating one to two minutes easy running with one minute walking for 20 minutes total. Some discomfort is normal (that could be nerve pain associated with the time off), but, if it doesn’t improve, stop immediately and give it more time. Start at every other day, building up to 30 to 60 minutes of straight running over the course of a few weeks, then progress to five or six days a week before increasing volume substantially.
Smile as much as you can along the way.
It’s all kind of comical when you really think about it. Here we are, these apes with self consciousness and space shuttles who run long distances for no good reason that is readily apparent to any Jane Goodall watching from the outside. We go through ups and downs, joys and depressions, life and death. The temptation is to take it all very seriously, as if we’re the star of our own morality drama. But this doesn’t have to be a drama.
It can be a comedy. You can find lightness in the heavy moments, levity in the struggle. Running injuries are one of the best opportunities to practice your comedic chops. That run-walk where you feel like an overheating hippo? Pretty darn funny. That shin pain just as you are getting faster than ever? If that’s not a chance to laugh at the absurdity of it all, I don’t know what is.
You can feel sad. You can feel scared. I would argue that sadness and fear is just a sign that you are thinking deeply enough to truly understand what injuries mean. Your body is fragile; your time is limited. Death is coming for us all, and it’s the only thing more unbeatable than Kilian Jornet.
Facing that existential abyss, laughter is the antidote. Embrace the tears and fears, but know that you’re doing what you can with what you have to do something special, and find joy in that striving to do things just because. To move! To go for it! To care about something enough for it to injure you!
Injuries suck. But you are awesome.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.