How to Start Running Again After Time Off

How to Start Running Again After Time off

At some point, almost every runner takes a break from running. The break may be deliberate and short, such as a recovery week after a goal race. Sometimes, the break is long and unintentional, such as with an injury. No matter how long the break, almost every runner reaches a point where they are mentally and physically ready to resume training. The article guides you through how to start running again based on how long you took off from running. 

The rate of injury is highest when volume increases – including when you are starting to run again. A little extra caution and patience during the rebuilding phase can help reduce injury risk. The rate of return will vary based on how long you were not running. The shorter the time off, the more quickly you can start running again. 

How to Start Running Again After A Few Weeks Off

A break lasting up to 2-5 weeks can happen for multiple reasons. You may have taken a forced break due to a minor injury, illness, or a stressful time at work. You may take a two-week season break after your marathon. Or, you may have opted for a brief hiatus from running to deal with mental burnout. Short training breaks will likely happen often throughout your athletic career. 

Some detraining occurs in 4-6 weeks off (more on how quickly fitness is lost here). However, the rate of detraining in four weeks or less is not significant. The return to running is a quicker, smoother process than following longer breaks. However, you cannot jump in exactly where you were. The injury risk is higher. Even if you could do it and not get injured, a gradual reintroduction will feel better. 

Ease Back In With Reduced Volume

When you start running again after a few weeks off, give yourself approximately the same amount of time to build back to your previous baseline. For example, if you took three weeks off, plan on three weeks to return to your pre-break mileage. 

Begin at 50% of your previous baseline for the first half of your rebuilding phase. For the second half, run 75% of your previous baseline. This gradual reintroduction ensures that your musculoskeletal and neural systems are re-adapted to the training load. This approach has a lower injury risk than just jumping straight back into your normal training. 

Keep Your Runs Easy for a Few Weeks

During the rebuilding phase, all runs should be easy. The Daniels Formula recommends reintroducing faster running once you are back at your normal mileage. If you want to be conservative, have a full week of easy running at 100% of your normal mileage before adding in speedwork. 

Once you are ready to add back in faster running, start small. Don’t jump into a big track workout right away. Hill repeats and fartlek runs are ideal workouts for this phase of training. 

How to Start Running Again After Months Off

Many runners inevitably take a couple of months or more off of running. Serious injuries (with a six-week or longer layoff) and pregnancy/childbirth both require prolonged breaks from running. Some adaptations to the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems have diminished. The return to running is a bit slower to allow the body to gradually readapt while minimizing injury risk. (Here’s more specifically on how to return to running after having a baby and return to running after injury.)

Know Runs May Feel Awkward at First

You will feel like a baby deer learning to walk for the first time. After 8 or more weeks off, you have lost several cardiovascular, muscular, and neural adaptations. You aren’t back at square zero; however, you likely experienced a 6-20% drop in VO2max (depending on numerous factors). On top of that, the neuromuscular connections that previously made running feel so smooth and efficient have faded. (This especially applies if you run on trails or run in a hilly area, which have higher neuromuscular demands.)

All those diminished adaptations will be regained. However, until they are, runs will not feel like they used to. They will feel harder aerobically. Your stride will feel awkward. Your muscles will get sore more easily. This is nothing to be alarmed about – it is part of the process of starting to run again. Know that it is normal for runs to feel harder than they did – and know that this phase is not permanent. 

Neural adaptations occur relatively quickly. Within a few weeks, you will likely feel smoother in your stride. Aerobic adaptations occur over the course of weeks. After a couple of months of consistent training, you will notice that you feel back to normal more and more. While it takes time to rebuild to where you were, it will take less time than it did the first time. 

Reset your Garmin, Strava, and Ego

The ego trap is a difficult obstacle for many runners when starting to run again. You may feel discouraged when your current fitness does not match where you used to be. To minimize this discouragement, think of yourself as starting on a clean slate. Reset your Garmin (or tracker) so that each new distance and each new race is a PR. Celebrate your post-injury or post-baby wins as their own category, not in comparison with pre-injury or pre-baby. 

Use the Run-Walk Method Initially

The run-walk method uses short walk breaks throughout the run. These walk breaks reduce musculoskeletal impact, which diminishes the risk of injury. (Injury risks are highest when increasing training volume.) Run-walk intervals also keep your heart rate under control as you rebuild cardiorespiratory fitness. 

You do not need to spend a long time doing run-walk intervals. A couple of weeks of run-walk intervals are all most runners need before they can safely resume continuous running. If you enjoy run-walk intervals, you can use them for longer. 

How to Start Running Again After Years Off

Runners may take a hiatus for years for multiple reasons. It’s not uncommon for high school and collegiate runners to stop running for years after graduation. Chronic illness, having multiple babies in a short timeframe, or trying a different sport are all common reasons for a multi-year break. There’s nothing wrong with leaving the sport and then coming back later; you just want to ensure how you start running again is appropriate for your ability level. 

Start As If You Were a Beginner

After a year or more of not running, you lose many of the adaptations. If you stopped exercising in general, you may have lost muscle mass and aerobic capacity with age. In this scenario, you will start running again as if you were a beginner. If you maintained an exercise routine that did not include running, you so have a base of aerobic fitness to use when you resume running. You will still need to start gradually, but you may find that running builds more easily and quickly since you already have an aerobic base. 

Additionally, you will want to only run on non-consecutive days initially. For the first 12+ weeks, stick to three runs per week with at least one rest day in between each. You can supplement with cross-training. However, avoid doing so much cross-training that you are sore on runs; make running the priority.

Let the Musculoskeletal System Adapt

Whether you are coming from the couch or the Peloton, your musculoskeletal system needs to adapt to the high-impact loading of running. The highest risk of injury occurs when introducing a new stimulus and/or increasing training volume – such as starting to run again. Injury risk is higher because muscles, tendons, and bones are not adapted yet to the repetitive high-impact of running. They will adapt within six to eight weeks, but they need an appropriate load to adapt. Too much volume too soon, and injury is likely. 

For athletes coming from other sports, their aerobic fitness will out-pace their musculoskeletal readiness. They need to be mindful not to do too much too soon, even though runs will feel very good. These athletes may benefit from including plenty of cross-training to maintain aerobic fitness while they let their bodies adapt to the impact of running. 

Run-walk intervals are one method for controlling musculoskeletal loading. As the body adapts, the duration of run intervals can increase and the frequency of walk intervals can decrease. You want to allow several weeks to work up to continuous running. 

Use a Couch to 5K Program

Many free and paid programs are designed to gradually work from short run intervals to continuous running. These programs are incredibly helpful when you start running again after years off. You can know with confidence that you are not progressing too quickly. Most use run-walk intervals as suggested above and guide through when to progress them. 

The goal at the end of each plan (running 3.1 miles, typically) provides motivation for many runners as they establish the habit. By the end of the program, you will be adapted to continuous running again. You will be ready to build more mileage, train for a race, or even introduce some beginner speed workouts

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