Returning to running after a long break

Returning to running after a long break can be a daunting task!

You can feel rusty, clunky, stiff and sore – it doesn’t feel like running used to feel…

So what’s the best way of returning to running after a long break? What exactly constitutes a long break?

Does the approach differ if your break has been 20 days or 20 years? Can you successfully return to running after 50 years of age?

The answer to that last one – successfully returning to running after 50 – is a huge YES! The benefits of running become so much more important as we age.

For the rest of it, here’s the details.

How long is considered a “long break” when returning to running?

Let’s start with the different versions and interpretations of a “long break”.

It’s a critical point, as the length of the break will determine what you need to work on for your triumphant return.

It’s also worth noting that more experienced runners will retain their training benefits for longer than new runners.

Shorter breaks less than 2 weeks

For breaks of less than 2 weeks, you’ll lose fitness but you don’t lose strength or technique.

So the only tweak needed for returning to running is to back off on your pace and go by perceived effort for a few weeks (eg. Adjust your tempo runs to a 70% effort, rather than 6 minute/mile.)

Longer breaks up to 6 weeks

For breaks of 2-6 weeks, your fitness and strength will decline so it’s important that you commence some strength training before returning to running volumes of a normal week.

Given the loss of strength AND fitness, it’s a good idea to break up your runs into shorter efforts with more recovery time so that your fatigue doesn’t compromise your technique and cause an injury.

Very long breaks of months or years

Then there are “loooong” breaks – anything over 6 weeks without a decent running session is considered a long break.

For some runners, their “long” break is actually 20 years!

In the end, the way we approach a 3 month break is the same as we approach a 30 year break.

This is because each of the critical aspects of running performance are compromised – that’s why it’s so hard to get back into running after a very long break.

You’ll lose plenty of fitness, you’ll have less strength and your running technique gets “rusty”, becoming less efficient and requiring more energy.

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This combination presents a big risk of overload and injury.

To combat this risk, we take a three pronged approach to returning to running – build strength early, focus on regaining technique efficiency and take more mid-session recovery time to offset muscle fatigue.

(I’ll discuss strength training in the section below, or you can read it in detail here.)

Technique efficiency comes from practicing some running drills (such as A skips) and slower running sessions with the goal of maintaining a low heart rate.

Lastly, we add in additional recovery time to each running session.

This may mean dividing a 30 minute run into 3 x 10 minutes with 3-5 minutes rest between intervals, or it might include some walk breaks on a fixed timing during longer runs.

How do you get back to running after a long break due to injury?

In addition to the advice above, which accounts for the length of time away from running, there are additional considerations with a return after injury.

We need to add in two strategies that are seemingly opposite to each other – build resilience in the injured area and train the uninjured areas that need to compensate for the injury.

For any injury, we’d like to build its tolerance of load before returning to running.

If you’ve torn your calf muscle, it’d be great to get it back to full strength before returning to running.

But in reality, waiting for it to fully recover would come at the cost of an earlier return to running.

Essentially the rest of your body (and your mind) wouldn’t go so well while we wait for the calf to improve.

This brings in our second focus – training the “helpers” of the injured area.

If your Right calf muscle isn’t going to be at full capacity, it’s reasonable to expect that your Left calf muscle will work harder and your Right leg will rely more on hamstrings to create leg drive.

So we train both of those areas in preparation for the extra workload that they’ll face on returning to running.

(To read more about strength training for leg injuries, check out this post.)

Once you’ve got those training strategies in place, you need to return to running with the sessions that provide the lowest risk for the injured area.

That might mean compromising on pace, vertical or distance for your first few sessions and then gradually transitioning back to normal over a few weeks.

How long does it take to get running fit again?

This is a bit of a “piece of string” question, with a very grey “it depends” answer.

Long story short, as we age, we regain fitness slower. But we gain it faster than others if we’ve had an active upbringing (when the structure of your body is growing in response to your level of activity.)

Is there a test run that can tell you if you’re ready?

A test run poses a few issues – it has to be challenging enough to gather information on how the runner will respond to harder efforts, but not so challenging that it risks injury.

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That’s where we can get creative and use heart rate data.

The sessions goes like this: after a 5min walking warm up, run at a comfortable pace for two minutes, then two minutes walking, and repeat for 10 cycles (ie. 10 x 2min running). Try to maintain the same running and walking paces throughout the session.

After the session, look at your pace and heart rate graphs.

If they both show a nice rolling wave pattern with peaks that don’t trend gradually upwards or downwards, you’re ready to train at that intensity or slightly harder.

If the heart rate peaks gradually climb, or the pace gradually declines, that indicates that any sessions at that intensity will reach a breaking point when fatigue compromises your technique and risks injury.

All going well, it’s worth repeating the same session a few weeks after returning to running.

You’ll run at a faster pace and you can gauge whether you’re ready to train at that pace or if you need to be a little more patient.

Can strength training help when returning to running?

It’s worth starting a running-focused strength program at least two weeks before returning to running whenever possible.

Training strength every alternate day works best as the day between strength sessions is sufficient to allow muscle recovery and strength building.

But here’s the trick – drop down to 2 strength sessions per week when you restart your running.

With the addition of running to the existing strength training, the recovery time after strength needs to increase to avoid muscle fatigue limiting your running capacity.

When you’re designing your program for a successful return to running, you’ll need to cover strength building, stability and plyometric movements to gain all the aspects of running performance.

Strength building can be achieved with double leg exercises, such as a half depth squat or deadlift.

Stability can be achieved with most single leg exercises, such as a step down or single leg box squat.

Plyometrics add the bounce to the program, literally, with lunge jumps or skipping/jump rope.

It’s important to note that no single exercise can cover everything.

In fact, the more an exercises tries to cover different aspects, the less it will achieve.

A classic squat is great at building strength but if you modify it to also challenge stability, such as standing on a Bosu ball, it significantly reduces its ability to build strength.

So a decent program will probably have at least four exercises – for example, barbell deadlifts + Bulgarian split squats + step downs + lunge jumps will provide the muscles with everything they need for a triumphant return to running.