How to make your running comeback after time off

In a perfect world, nothing would stand between you and your running. But life has a way of knocking you off track every now and then. A recent study found that more than one in 10 distance runners sustained an injury over a three-month period. Countless others fall away because of new babies, extra pounds or misplaced mojo. If your training has been on pause for more than a couple of weeks, you’ll need a measured and thoughtful approach to resuming running. All strong returns have a few common characteristics, including a slow ramp-up and a mindset that doesn’t involve pining for lost fastness, says coach Lisah Hamilton, host of The Conscious Runner podcast. You’ll probably feel rusty at first, but muscle memory means that sensation won’t linger, says running coach Ryan Warrenburg. Beyond that, approach each comeback on its own terms. Here’s how to build your running back up, whatever the cause of your break.

‘I got injured’

By far the most common reason for time off, injuries require caution upon return, especially if you’ve been away from running completely for more than two weeks. Once you’ve recovered or received medical clearance to run again, alternate running and walking for 20-30 minutes every other day, advises Warrenburg. Gradually increase your running time each week or two, with pain as your guide – back off if you feel worse during or after your workout. Keep your runs easy at first, saving speedwork until you reach your desired weekly mileage. This approach, says Warrenburg, prevents you from sidelining yourself again.

‘Life got crazy’

If you’re a new parent, for example, running might temporarily take a back seat. ‘The quicker you can make running part of what you do again, the better,’ says Warrenburg. Book training time into your schedule, preferably first thing in the morning, before conflicts arise. If your layoff involved giving birth, remember that your body has been through a huge transformation; but, says running coach Megan Lizotte, don’t fret that you’re too fragile to run unless your doctor advises against it. Do, however, build in time for hip and core-strengthening exercises (bridges, planks and donkey kicks) to reduce injury risk. And for all new parents – or others in a temporarily sleep-deprived state – give yourself some leeway; for instance, take an extra day or two of rest or easy running each week, and consider trading some miles for sleep if you feel completely wiped out.

‘I gained weight’

It's a vicious circle – time away from training can pack on pounds, which in turn weigh down your efforts to hit the road again. Carrying more body mass may slow your pace and make running harder on joints, ligaments and muscles. Acknowledge this, but don't dwell on it; instead, advises Lizotte, view those extra pounds as temporary and focus on losing them. As you ramp back up, eat a diet full of nutrient-trich foods such as fruit and veg, and do some running on soft surfaces (eg, grass) to reduce impact. Also, mix in other cross-training activities such as swimming and biking, and strength-train regularly: in a recent 12-week study, participants who combined cardio and weights shed more fat than those who stuck with one type of exercise alone.

‘I lost motivation’

Shaking things up can reconnect you with your love of running, says Lizotte. Pick a goal race in a fun destination, or shift your focus from (another) half marathon PB to a fast 5K or completing an ultra marathon. If you can, build a running fund into your budget; buying snazzy new tights or attending a running camp can reignite your fire. Alternatively, Warrenburg suggests, ‘If you’re tired of running for yourself, do it for somebody else.’ You could, for example, push another participant in a wheelchair, serve as a running guide or raise charity funds for the miles you run.

‘I just ran a race’

Downtime after a big event is actually a good thing, says Warrenburg. Hitting ‘register’ too soon on a follow-up race, either to capitalise on your gains or to redeem a bad performance, deprives your body and mind of recovery time. In other words, taking a few short breaks throughout the year can prevent longer, unexpected layoffs due to burnout or injury. Lizotte advises taking as many days off from racing as the number of miles you raced. Then, keep running easy until you feel the urge to train seriously again.


Ease back in

The time you’ve been sidelined dictates how much of your previous weekly mileage you can target at first.

8-15 days: 75-90%

2-3 weeks: 60-75%

3 weeks-1 month: 50-60%

More than 1 month: 40-50%

Note that coming back after an injury may require a more cautious approach.