How to Get Back to Running After a Break
You started on your running journey with a goal in mind — maybe to lose weight or train for a marathon. Now let us assume that you were motivated enough to keep at your goals, but a setback in your personal life forced you to stop running.
A break in running can happen due to various reasons. Maybe you suffered an injury while running, or got caught up with work commitments, or perhaps had an emotional setback. Whatever the reason might be, it can be overwhelming to get back to running after a break. However, with some planning and a little patience, resuming your training should not be a challenge.
If you have taken a break only for a brief period, such as a few days to a week, it is fairly easy to get back to your routine. However, if you have been on a long sabbatical, let’s say a couple of months, then it is important to ease back into running without risking an injury.
What happens to your body when you stop running?
Running is an aerobic activity, which means it works your heart and lungs. The more you train, the better your heart and lungs become at delivering oxygen throughout your body. With training, the heart is also able to pump more blood with every beat. So, when you take a break from running, your VO2max, which is your body’s maximal oxygen uptake, and the heart’s capacity to pump blood efficiently starts to decline.
In a study by Bosquet and Mujika, which involved the effect of detraining on endurance by mapping the heart’s pumping capacity, it was found that you can lose about 8% endurance after a short break of about 10 days, and a further drop to 20% in seven weeks. How fast you regain your endurance will depend on how long you have been training.
According to Lore of running author Dr Tim Noakes, those who had trained for just six months had lost elevated mitochondrial enzymes in four weeks. On the other hand, those who trained for a longer period ranging between six to 20 years had lost these enzymes in 12 weeks. He predicts a whopping 30% drop in endurance if the break is about three months. This indicates that the decline in endurance would be quicker after the first 10 days in beginners as compared to advanced athletes.
An advanced athlete will be able to bounce back faster than a beginner because of their experience in building up to high mileage levels. Besides, each runner is unique in constitution. Years of running helps build a large aerobic base and foundation. So, if you are an advanced runner, your capillary density in the muscles is high, and your muscle cells have more mitochondria (powerhouses). Moreover, your enzymatic level is higher, and your body has more red blood cells for oxygen delivery compared to a beginner.
How should you get back to training after a break?
There is no clear answer as to how long it will take you to get back to the original level. It all depends on factors like your age, unique status as an athlete before your break, and the length of your break. If your break was for three to four weeks, you could expect to regain fitness in about four to five weeks. However, if you have completely stopped training for three to four months, it could take you a lot longer to get back in shape.
Here are a few ideas to help you restart your running journey after a hiatus:
1. Begin retraining gradually
Essentially, this means that you should walk before you run. The muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which had grown strong through pounding tar, have grown weak during the layoff. Your musculoskeletal system would break down if you attempt to rush into training at pre-break training loads. Even if you have been cross-training by doing exercises like swimming or cycling, the forces that your lower extremities experience when running are substantially higher.
So, in the first one or two days, take it easy and go for a 45-minute walk, just to gauge how your body responds. Follow this up with a walk-run routine that aims at a total of about 15 minutes of run and 30 minutes of walk.
Also Watch: How To Build A Consistent Running Habit?
2. Cut back on the number of weekly runs
Your body will need more recovery time. So, reducing the number of weekly runs will allow you more time to get over muscle soreness. It is a good idea to decrease your weekly runs by one day. So, if you were running four days per week earlier, now run only for three days. Also, avoid running on two consecutive days. Instead, take an active rest day or perform cross-training exercises between runs.
3. Use time-based runs instead of distance
In this period, all your training will be at a slow, easy pace. So, it is necessary that you take the time on your feet as a measure of how much you should train. Going for a 30-40-minute run is better than having a goal like running 7km-9km.
4. Schedule your training with easy progressions
Dr Jack Daniels, PhD, in his book Daniels’ Running Formula, has very precise recommendations on adjustments to be made to your VO2max (or VDOT, a measure developed by him) as well as to weekly training load.
As a general guideline, you should take the number of weeks that you were on a break and divide it into four equal blocks. So, if you took a break of 8 weeks, then the four blocks would be 2 weeks each. Now let us assume you had a mileage of 40km per week before you took the break, then load your weeks as follows:
1st block: 25% ie 10km per week for first 2 weeks
2nd block: 50% ie 20km per week for next 2 weeks
3rd block: 75% ie 30km per week for 2 weeks
4th block: 100% ie 40km per week for last 2 weeks
5. Focus on strength training
The load imposed by resuming running is better tolerated if you take up strength training for the legs and the core. As you are attempting a lower mileage or fewer runs per week, there is space for incorporating a bodyweight or resistance training program on alternate days in the week. Give attention to larger muscles and compound movements that target the quads, hamstrings, and calves by performing workouts like squats, lunges, and deadlifts. Doing planks, leg raises, and supermans will aid you in building a solid core that can help with posture.
6. Incorporate running drills and speedwork gradually
Running drills are dynamic movements that help develop muscle memory for correct gait and posture. These include high knees, butt kicks, straight-legged shuffle, and ankle hops, to name a few. While muscle memory is not easily lost during a break, there is a likelihood that a weak core may result in a loss of proper running form. These drills also help build:
- Neuromuscular coordination
If the break has not been for too long, you can gain your fitness sooner by including speed workouts such as strides early on in your training.
7. Train with company
Getting back to training tends to be a slow process and requires immense hard work. No matter how self-motivated you are, it is better to join a few friends, who would encourage you to keep at it every day. It might also help if you can work out with someone whose pace matches yours. This will help you stay motivated and accountable. You could even mix things up by choosing groups in different locations or running on your own on a trail.
8. Opt for softer surfaces
Avoid training immediately on asphalt and/ or concrete surfaces. Find a synthetic track, as it will be kinder to the legs. It will also let you do your run in a confined space with loops so that you may stop when your body is unable to cope. In comparison, going out on a regular route would mean walking back in case your legs do not hold up for a run due to the long break. Another alternative is to start on a treadmill at the gym since this would help you regularize the speed to a comfortable level.
9. Join a yoga class
Flexibility, like strength training, is essential for correct running form and to prevent injuries. According to Ferber and Reed in Running Mechanics and Gait analysis, tight hamstrings can prevent you from getting appropriate stride length. Stretching is also part of a gradual cooldown and can help you recover well for the next day’s training. Focus on quads, hamstrings, calves, groin, and hip flexor. Yoga will enable you to get a definitive exposure to comprehensive stretch routines.
Be patient and do not attempt to get back to aggressive training and mileage rapidly. Avoid the temptation to match paces with your original running group and buddies. Stay safe and refrain from hitting the road too fast. It may be a better idea to do short loops closer to home. So, in case you feel exhausted, you can return soon. Lastly, do not register for road races until you have regained your fitness. Avoid pushing yourself beyond your limits and just go with the flow.
1. Daniels J. Daniels’ Running Formula. Champaign, IL : Human Kinetics, 2014.
2. Bosquet L, Mujika I. Detraining. In: Mujika I, ed. Endurance Training: Science and Practice. Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country [Spain], 2012: 100-106.
3. Lacour J, Denis C. Detraining Effects on Aerobic Capacity. In: Marconnet P, Poortmans J, eds. Physiological Chemistry of Training and Detraining: 2nd International Course on Physiology and Biochemistry of Exercise and Detraining, Nice, October 29-November 1, 1982. Basel: Karger, 1984: 230-7.
4. Mujika I, Padilla S. Detraining: loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. Part I: short term insufficient training stimulus. Sports Med. 2000; 30: 79-87.