We all know that for many of us not running (even when injured) is just not something we “do”. Not saying it is right, but we all know that is the reality! But sometimes we DO stop running… We might burn out and effectively be mentally “injured” or we develop a an injury that is so severe that it would be ridiculous and bio-mechanically impossible to run. It can happen, and it might have happened to you?
But as sure as night follows day, eventually you will be ready (mentally and physically) to start running again. The question then is HOW do you do that? In this blog I want to suggest some simple ideas that might help you safely return to your former glory…
Let’s be realistic
What happens in your body when you stop running? There’s a decrease in blood volume and mitochondria (the power plants in our cells), plus your lactate threshold falls. In general, the longer you have been training, the more retained fitness you will have and so the less this decline will be.
In general terms, someone who has been running consistently for 15 years, then stops for a year, will have an easier time returning to running than someone who has been running for a year, then is off for a year.
The longer you’ve been running, the stringer your foundation aerobic capacity is. You’ll have more mitochondria to produce energy, your neural pathways will be better established and “engrained”, and your metabolism will be more responsive to the demands of exercise than someone who just started training.
So whilst your fitness will decline, it won’t decline as low, or as quickly, as if you had just started running. A good analogy can be drawn to weight loss. You can expect to lose a lot of weight in a few days, it will take months of consistent effort. But once it is lost, one day of over eating will not cause you to regain all that weight again. It’s the same in running; you didn’t get fit and fast in a week or a month… It took months and years of consistent training to achieve true fitness. So a month or six “off” running won’t completely unravel everything.
But you certainly will have lost SOME fitness, so it is important that has you start your return you are not driven by memories of former greatness and over do it – causing another lay off.
You will have lost conditioning in your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues. It’s difficult to state how much conditioning you lose, or how quickly you lost it. But you certainly will, and it’s there that you run the risk of a further injury. The solution is obvious; you need to start with several cycles of Base Conditioning – slow consistent miles.
Are you fit enough to start Base Training?
Before you even think about running, you need to be honest with yourself and out your ego (assuming you have one) aside. Can you walk for at least 45 minutes without any pain what so ever if returning from an injury? Have you been given the green light from your Physio or Doctor? Walking starts to recondition muscles, tendons & ligaments, preparing them for the more stressful and intense demands of running.
Too many times as runners we do too much too soon. Even if you’ve been cycling, swimming, or doing other cross-training to maintain some of your aerobic fitness, remember that depending on the injury and the length of the layoff, it can take weeks or even months for your muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments to get strong enough to cope with running again (impact & stress). Your running specific muscles will need to be reconditioned and your ligaments need strengthen again to the specific movement patterns of running.
At first, stick with short, easy runs, with walk intervals. Start with two or three short sessions per week. Try five minutes of running to start with and then build over a few weeks to 20 minutes. This being the cumulative time of running, but remember to intersperse this with walks. If you want to follow a plan, there is a lot to be said for doing so, dig out a couch to 5k plan – the internet is full of them and they will work perfectly in this setting.
Also remember the 10 percent rule. If you’ve been off for three months or more, don’t increase your weekly mileage or pace by more than 10 percent each week. Increase it less if you need to – it is far better to be conservative and rebuild properly than rush and pick up a long term issue.
Use the gym
Resistance training can help you up your running volume faster. But it does require some planning and thought in order to focus your efforts on the right type of exercise at the right intensity.
It is easy to waste a lot of time building the “wrong” sort of strength in the gym, or at least building muscle mass that has no significance to your running and therefore is not a “transferable” strength.
The key to strength training paying off as part of your “restart” programme is all about transferable strength and condition. You will be trying to get muscle condition in important large muscle groups like the glutes or abs, but you have to bridge this newfound strength to your running. To do this you need to analyse the kind of compound movements that are involved in a running gait and then start to use bridging drills as part of your gym workout. Running is more than strength (in fact arguably strength is not a key component of running!) however timing, balance, muscular endurance and correct biomechanics all are. You certainly do not want to build muscle mass (that really is the last thing you want!), but you do need toned muscles that are capable of either repetitive movement or holding a solid position. Think about running form and you will appreciate that some muscle groups need to hold your posture whilst others constantly move.
Perhaps less obvious is the idea of using resistance training to help speed up your cardiovascular fitness, but it can greatly help. Integrating cross-training to your gym routine means you can improve cardio fitness without actually running. Do note though that cross-training is NOT the same as simply using a Cross Trainer machine. In fact it has nothing to do with the latter piece of gym furniture.
You can also think a little more imaginatively than simply moving lumps of metal around in the weights room. Yoga, Pilates and creative bodyweight circuits can all add greatly to your ability to get run “ready”. And of Cours once you are back out, up and running, these practices don’t need to stop.
Non-prescription painkillers might make you feel better in the short term, but they can mask pain that tells you that you should stop. Frankly if you need to be taking pain killers to run then you are certainly not in the best shape to be running. Prolonged use of painkillers can actually do more harm than you appreciate, causing gastric problems, and some suggest that they can materially reduce overall performance and limit your ability to increase VO2 Max. Ultimately painkillers are not a sensible way of supporting your return to running.
In the ideal world none of us would over train, take risks or have an unfortunate accident. But in the real world, at some time, most of us will experience burn out, pull a muscle or have an accident. That’s just life! The other reality is that trying to push through a burn out or injury simply delays our full recovery and causes far more harm than if we had stopped running sooner. So my advice is accept that you won’t be running, give your body and mind the time it really needs and formulate a realistic (and progressive) plan to get yourself back to “proper” performance once you have healed.
So I’ll see you out on a run soon then? 😉