Get back on it

How do you resume training after a layoff? Here’s how to come back sensibly, no matter what the setback


by Matthew Solan

Training for a marathon (or half marathon) seldom goes exactly according to plan. Setbacks occur – work or family obligations take precedence; illness or injury derails workouts. Generally speaking, if you miss a week of training, you can jump back into your plan as long as you were consistent and diligent with your workouts for at least four to six weeks before the break. But if your downtime stretched from 10 days to two weeks (or more), you have to re-evaluate your comeback strategy.

The first move? Don’t panic. ‘Take a deep breath,’ says running coach Matt Forsman. ‘Whatever you do, don’t try to cram in the runs you’ve missed. This may increase your risk of injury and may harm your efforts.’ Instead, consider what caused your layoff, how close you are to race day and when you’re able to resume training. Those answers will help determine the best plan to get you back on track.

Life interrupted training and you resume running…

6 weeks before race day. The goal is to restore momentum and endurance without pushing it. For the first two   weeks back, reduce each weekday run by a mile and slow your pace by 15-30 seconds per mile, says Forsman. Stick to your scheduled long run; if the distance seems daunting, break it into two runs spaced at least four hours apart. After that, resume training at the point you’d be at if you hadn’t got sidetracked.

4 weeks before. Your primary goal is to get in that last long run. For the first week back, follow the mileage and pacing strategy above. Run your final long run three weeks before the race, but at 10-20 seconds per mile slower than normal, then start your taper. The slower pace helps compensate for the fitness you may have lost during the break, Forsman says. 

2 weeks before. At this point, the chances are you missed your last  long run. Let it go, otherwise you risk going into your big day not fully recovered, says Forsman. Resume your plan at the point where you’d be if you’d not taken a break, and follow through with your scheduled taper. If you’re dead set on squeezing in one last super-long effort, break it into two: 10 miles in the morning, 10 in the evening, with self-massage (or ice bath if you can stand it), refuelling and rest in between. Complete both of these runs 15-30 seconds per mile slower than usual. 

Illness derailed your schedule and you resume running…

6 weeks before race day. Proceed with caution. ‘Longer and higher-tempo runs suppress immunity and can cause a relapse,’ says David Nieman, head of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University, US. For your first week back, run half the distance of your scheduled weekday runs and reduce your long run by one to two miles. That second week back, increase your weekday runs to 75 per cent of what’s on tap for that week, add a few strides after a couple of runs, and do your long run as scheduled, says Jay Johnson, a coach and director of Boulder Running Camps in Colorado. Skip speedwork during those first two weeks, then resume training as normal.

4 weeks before. For your first week back, do your workouts as described above. Complete a final long run of no more than 17-18 miles three weeks away, says Johnson. Proceed with your three-week taper, but be realistic. If you missed crucial long runs, ‘you’ll have to face the fact that you probably can’t run the marathon you want’, says Johnson.

2 weeks before. ‘Marathons [and halves] are stressful, and with only two weeks left, you are at a much higher risk of relapse,’ says Nieman. That said, you can run, but your goal now is simply to finish. For the two weeks leading up to your event, run easy and reduce the longest run of  your taper to 70 per cent of the distance.

Injury disrupted your routine and you resume running…

6 weeks before race day. The type and severity of your injury ultimately dictate your comeback. But if you can’t hop, you can’t run. ‘You should be able to hop in all planes and balance on each leg barefoot, in shoes and on uneven surfaces,’ says running coach Bruce Wilk, author of the Running Injury Recovery Program (£12.87, Ortho Concepts). Make your first two runs short and easy – no more than three to six miles. If all feels well, resume your program.

4 weeks before. That first week back, run two easy workouts of three to six miles and a long run the length of your last long run prior to injury. ‘It’s better to have a successful 15-miler than risk a 21-miler where you could put yourself out of the game,’ says Wilk. Then begin your taper.

2 weeks before. Toeing the starting line so soon after an injury is dangerous. With two weeks left, you have time for just a few easy runs and one moderate long run of 10-13 miles for marathoners and six to eight miles for half marathoners. But be cautious. ‘The goal is to test how your body reacts,’ says Wilk. If you don’t feel 100 per cent, skip the race.


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