Heart Rate Training: Coming Back From Illness

If you've never been ill or injured, you're in a minority of one. For the rest of us, here's a valuable guide to using your heart rate monitor to get back to speed


Posted: 5 June 2000
by Joe Dunbar

Everyone's prone to damage and disease, and when it happens it's no surprise that you want to get back to full fitness fast. However, it's vital to be careful in your comeback strategy, to avoid relapse or re-injury. Even a healthy body will let you train harder than is beneficial, and when you're recovering from a break, it's even more important to stay within your limits. Here, an HRM comes into its own, and though there are differences between injury and illness, the same principles apply.

If you've been injured, you'll hopefully have managed to keep up some sort of training, whether in the pool, on a bike or using weights and circuit exercises. This will have helped your cardiovascular fitness while you weren't running, but it's unlikely that you'll have been able to maintain your usual level.

It's difficult to predict how much and how fast your fitness will decline, as it's different for everyone. Just as some people get fitter more quickly than others, you can lose your fitness at a different rate to your training partner. Two things govern the time it takes you to regain fitness: the length of time you were injured and the level of pre-injury conditioning you had. In other words, if you'd only been training for six weeks before you were injured, you'd lose your fitness a lot quicker than had you been running regularly for six years.

The first elements of fitness you'll have lost are the adaptations within your muscles, in particular the slow twitch fibres. It makes sense to keep the pace down on your first few runs back, to give them a chance to strengthen up. Your resting heart rate may have risen, and your pace for each of your training heart rate zones will almost certainly have dropped. You should pay attention to what your HRM tells you, rather than running at your normal pace, as it's your heart rate that will keep you training at the right intensity.

Alan Storey, who coaches many of the UK's top distance runners, is always at pains to point out to his athletes that they can't start running at normal speeds when coming back from injury. He recommends that they keep the intensity down, so heart-rate-controlled base running for the first few efforts should be the key. As you gain fitness, your pace will pick up within your heart rate zones. Exceeding your heart rate limits may make you feel that you're running harder and better, but this isn't always the most successful route back. After a week or so, try an assessment run to see exactly where you are in terms of your previous fitness.

Coming back from illness is a little more delicate. It's important that you wait for your resting heart rate to return to normal before starting again, which may well be a day or two after you feel better. If in doubt, it's often safer to take an extra rest day before starting again. Just as when you recover from injury, you'll find that after illness, your training heart rates for a given speed have become a bit higher – or, if you're training sensibly, that your speed for a given heart rate has become lower. Trying to run above your limits here is simply going to put the body under pressure again, so keep the pace down in the early stages. It is, after all, sensible to do some basework before you try to tackle more intense work-outs like intervals. If you try intervals too early, you'll find that you don't recover between reps, you'll have to cut the session short, and you won't enjoy the full benefits which you would have reaped by waiting a week or so.

The time to tackle intervals and start intensity training is when your resting heart rate is normal and your training heart rates are back in line with your old speeds.


Building On Quality Work

Use your HRM to gradually increase the amount of quality work you do. In the first week, limit yourself to 5-10 minutes of work at or above your threshold. You can then top up the amount in subsequent weeks, being careful to work at a much lower intensity on the days which follow, to help you recover. Use submaximal assessment to monitor your progress, rather than running too hard by training against the clock.


Four Reasons To Monitor Your Recovery

On your first few runs, it's important that you run under the control of your HRM. Although this may make you slower, it's beneficial for a number of reasons:

  1. It's necessary to build your training volume first, so you need to keep the intensity low.
  2. Running too fast causes microtrauma in the muscle and will result in longer recovery times.
  3. Running more slowly reduces impact and therefore puts less stress on your muscles, ligaments and tendons. They can get used to the impact at low speed before you pick up the pace.
  4. Your training runs will feel more comfortable and you're less likely to be sore the next day, so you can add to your training volume more quickly.


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