Return to running protocol

How to start running from scratch

A return to running program is designed to safely build up your running volume when returning after injury or a prolonged rest period.

The aim of return to running guidelines are to build resilience to fatigue, refine running technique and improve fitness.

It is important that you don’t “outrun” your current level of strength, as this leads to a loss of optimal running technique. That creates overload and (potentially) injury.

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The rules

  • Warning signs – if you experience any of these, move back to the previous level until it settles
    • Sharp pain during or soon after a run
    • Rising level of pain during or after a run
    • One-sided pain, tightness or soreness during or after a run
    • Excessive or prolonged soreness lasting more than 30 minutes on the following morning after a run
  • Advance by no more than one step every two days, although most people will advance at a slower rate to allow their body to adapt
    • Anyone with a previous history of running will progress at a faster rate but still require time for physiological adaptation to occur. Don’t let your enthusiasm tell you differently!
    • Anyone without a running or athletic history will progress at a much more gradual rate. Don’t feel pressured to move up a step. Give your body time to respond to the training load
  • You can run up to 5 days per week in this protocol, with the other two days being non-running days (rather than complete rest days)
    • Non-running days mean you can still exercise (walk, cycle, etc) bbut avoid generating too much fatigue
  • Do not progress your return to running program for one week after any upgrade in a strength-building program (defined as strength work with heavier weights or exercises designed to induce fatigue)

The protocol

Phase 1 – focusing on movement

Note: this is the starting point for new runners or very deconditioned runners. If you’re an experienced runner AND you’ve been off running for less than 4 months, start with Phase 2.

  1. Brisk walk for 30+ minutes on flat terrain
  2. Brisk walk for 30+ minutes on hilly terrain
  3. Brisk walk for 30+ minutes on flat terrain with 6 x 30sec shuffles (easy jog) during the walk, separated by 2min of walking
  4. As per #3 with 8 x 30sec jogs
  5. As per #3 with 10 x 30sec jogs

Phase 2 – practicing the movement patterns without fatigue

NOTE: this phase can be the starting point for experienced runners recovering from absences of less than 4 months.

  1. Brisk walk for 40+ minutes with 6 x 45sec easy jogs, separated by 2min of walking
  2. As per #1 with 8 x 45sec easy jogs
  3. As per #1 with 8 x 60sec easy jogs
  4. As per #1 with 10 x 60sec easy jogs

Phase 3 – improving heart rate recovery and adding a little fatigue

  1. Run/walk (2:3) session for 40+ minutes – after 5-10min walking warm up, run 2min then walk for 3min, repeating 6 times, then walk remainder of session
  2. As per #1 with 2:2 ratio (2min run then 2min walk)
  3. As per #1 with 2:2 ratio for 8 repetitions
  4. As per #1 with 2:2 ratio for 10 repetitions

Phase 4 – building endurance

  1. Run/walk (5:2) – after a 5min progressively faster walk for warm up, run for 5min then have a walking recovery for 2min, repeating 4 times
  2. Add one extra repetition of 5:2 every 2-3 days (or greater, for less experienced runners)
  3. Once you’ve reached 6 repetitions of 5:2, you can progress to:
    1. 5:2 for 8 repetitions
    2. 7:3 for 6 repetitions
    3. One 20min continuous run


On reaching step 3 of phase 4, you have now achieved 20min of continuous running and/or 40min of interval-based running. From this point, you need to focus on your running goal. This may be to get faster, go longer or just enjoy running.

Whatever your goal, progress towards it by changing only one parameter at a time (faster or longer or more hills) and maintaining two non-running days per week until you’ve reached your desired base or weekly volume.

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