Injury is unfortunately an inevitable side effect of running, and returning to running after an injury can be tough.
A 2015 study on injuries in runners found that women were at lower risk than men for sustaining running-related injuries, and that a history of previous injury was associated with an increased risk of running injuries.
The study also found that factors such as age, previous sports activity, running on a concrete surface and a weekly running distance of 20 miles or more were all associated with a greater risk of running-related injury.
When you first get injured, you may feel angry, frustrated and even upset. All those months of training, workouts and PBs suddenly come crashing down. So the question becomes: how do you start running again?
Here are some tips on returning to running after an injury, so you can start running again in a safe and successful way.
How to start running again: 5 tips for returning to running after an injury
Don’t lose hope
When you become injured and you take a break from running, you may worry that you’ll lose your fitness in a matter of weeks.
The truth is, if you’ve been running for a long time, it will be easier for you to get back into running. All those years of running has meant you’ve built a great base for endurance and stamina.
Your muscles, tendons and ligaments have been conditioned over the years which means your fitness will fall at a much more gradual rate.
When you do start running again, you’ll be starting at a higher fitness level, much greater than the level you started at when you first took up running. In other words, you won’t be starting from scratch.
You do however need to be careful when returning to running after an injury so that you don’t do too much at once. Depending on how long your break was, your muscles are bound to be
Check if you’re ready
Although you may feel mentally ready to return to running, it’s always wise to do a test run first to see how your body responds to movement. Running is considered a high impact sport, so it’s important to gently ease yourself back in when returning to running after an injury.
Depending on the type of injury, make sure there is no instability or pain in the affected area. For example, if you have an ankle injury and it gives away when you put pressure on it, it means you’re not ready to return to running just yet. This is especially important if you sustained ligament damage, a fracture or after surgery.
You may also want to consider brisk walking before returning to running. Exercises such as balancing on one leg, calf raises, squats are also good ways to test the area. If you feel confident enough, try some jumps or hops and see if these are pain free.
If your injury is particularly complex, then I recommend seeing a physiotherapist who can provide you with tips and advice and a return to exercise plan.
Return to running gradually
It’s important you return to running gradually after an injury and slowly build up your distance and speed. Don’t expect to go straight back into your pre-injury running routine.
You will likely need more rest days and time to recover after each run, so make sure you programme these into your weekly routine too.
First, find your baseline – this is the distance you can run at an easy, conversational pace without pain or discomfort during and after the run. In most cases, you will likely feel pain or discomfort during the run itself, but sometimes an injury can hurt after a run.
The easiest and safest way to find your baseline is on a treadmill. You have much more control over speed and distance and there is less impact.
When finding your baseline, always go for less if there is any doubt. Start with a brisk walk, then gradually increase the speed to a pace you can sustain whilst holding a conversation without getting out of breath. Stop if you feel pain or any discomfort at any point.
Note down the distance, time and pace. You don’t have to run until it hurts, the aim is to identify a distance and speed you can do without impacting your injury or making it worse.
Once you find your baseline, you can start to plan out your weekly runs. If you want to take a cautious approach, do 1-2 runs a week – one shorter run (50-60% of your baseline) and one run at your baseline level.
If you’re feeling more optimistic, try 2-3 runs per week with rest days in between all at your baseline level. You can then gradually increase these runs by 10% each week.
Monitor your progress
When returning to running after an injury, monitoring your progress is key. Don’t be surprised if you have to modify and adapt your running in order to help you achieve your goals.
You may need to break up your run with walking breaks or you may need to use a longer warm up before a run and really focus on dynamic stretching. Don’t be afraid to modify something if it isn’t working for you.
Now is the time to really listen to your body and how you feel during and after a run. I recommend noting down after each run how much pain you felt on a scale from 1 to 10.
Most people will experience setbacks when returning to running after an injury, so don’t be disheartened if a run doesn’t go completely to plan.
Related: How to practice mindful running
Increase speed and variety when you’re ready
As you progress, you will likely want to include different types of runs in your training to build your stamina and speed.
If you feel ready to do some speedwork, then try replacing one of your shorter runs with a speed session such as intervals or hill repeats. Be sure to keep the mileage the same during your other baseline level runs in the week so you don’t push your body too much.
If your symptoms get worse during or after a speedwork session, then you’ll know that it is too soon to experiment with this type of training.