Getting Back to Running After a Long Break

Smart tips for returning to running after an extended layoff

Even though many consider running to be a lifelong sport, the reality is that sustaining the passion and consistency a long period of time can be a difficult challenge for most of us. Life gets in the way. Injuries, family, work and busy daily schedules can disrupt your running and disrupt your fitness. And, for any number of reasons, you can also just get burned out.

So, if it’s been a year or more since you’ve laced up your training shoes, then consider the following three suggestions to get your back on track:

1. Gradually ease back into it.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of ramping up the mileage too quickly if you feel that you aren’t as fit as you used to be,” says Runners Connect coach Hayley Munn. “It’s easy to strive for times and paces that you used to achieve.”

Specifically, easing into it means that you will need to hold yourself back on your runs, both in terms of distance and pace. When you first start running again, you will most likely be flooded with fond or even glorified memories from previous long runs, tempo workouts or races. Though your mind may be in one place, your body is in another. It will need to adjust to the physical shock of running. “Athletes coming back need to take it slower than they feel like they should,” says Coach Greg McMillan of McMillan Running.

Start out with short and slow runs and work your way up from there. That might mean just 2-5 miles at a pace that feels like a recovery jog. Just go with it. The key is to be consistent. You’ll definitely be sore for the first two weeks or so, but if you keep running short and slow several times per week for a few weeks, you’ll start to feel an improved aerobic fitness kick in. Once that happens, you can gradually add mileage and pick up the pace. But there is no hurry for either one. Approach your return to running over a two-month span rather than something that will bring immediate results, and consider your new commitment to running a long-term investment in your health.

READ MORE: 8 Ways to Take Better Care of Your Body

2. Go easy on yourself and don’t make comparisons to the runner you once were.

McMillan suggests that runners look forward and not back, no matter if you were previously a fast runner or just a committed jogger. “They have to kind of forget about the runner they were for 6 to 8 weeks and instead take the time to build back slower,” he says. “They can’t be as aggressive as they were when they were fit.”

Munn has personal experience with a long break. Returning from ankle surgery was tough for her. “I couldn’t run at the paces I used to and it was depressing to think about workouts I used to run,” she recalls. “I found it helpful to wipe the slate clean with my PRs. I had my pre-surgery PRs and my post-surgery PRs.” Munn didn’t compare herself to what she used to be able to do. “Rather than thinking: ‘Wow, 8 miles and it felt so hard at that pace,’ I’d think, ‘Wow, four weeks ago I was on crutches and now I can run 8 miles!’,” she says.

3. Run with others.

Even when you’re pretty fit, it’s hard to run on your own several days a week. But when you’re coming back after a long layoff running with friends, colleagues and consistent training partners will help you stay motivated and accountable. Mix up your running locations and the time of day you’re running. Meet for a run and go for coffee. Run a scenic trail on the weekend. Get a co-worker to run with you at lunch once a week. Go to a running store run once a week. (Those are always full of both very fast and very slow runners who are interested in meeting new people.) Run with your dog. Just don’t put the pressure all on yourself. Running with others a few times a week will keep it light and fun and help you stay consistent.

READ MORE: 6 Ways To Keep Improving as a Runner

4. Use a fresh approach to your training.

Whatever you used to do needs to be thrown out the window in order to allow for a period of proper rebuilding. McMillan suggests runners approach the comeback in two key phases: 2 to 3 weeks and then 4 to 8 weeks. For the first phase, he prescribes runs of 15-20 minutes for 3 to 4 days a week. He then slowly increases run time in weeks 3 to 8. But one thing that is important for both phases is consistency. “I want runners to think about establishing a running streak,” he says. “It’s not a daily running streak, but instead a streak of how many weeks in a row can you be consistent in your running week by week.” McMillan asks for this kind of streak for a minimum of six weeks. “If they can maintain this streak, they will start to feel good again and make running part of their lifestyle,” he says. If done properly, this streak will also get runners past that heightened injury-risk zone of the first six weeks when things can go wrong.

Pace for this build-up should be easy. McMillan suggests the “talk test” where you run at a slow-enough pace that you can maintain a conversation with a fellow runner. McMillan contends that going slow and steady with a gradual build-up allows the muscular-skeletal system to catch up with the mind. “The interesting thing is that our minds adapt to the stimulus of running much faster than our bodies,” he says. “You have to give your body the time it needs to build strength and endurance.”

READ MORE: 10 Ways Running Will Change Your Life

5. Improve your eating habits.

Another aspect of training that returning runners should be mindful of is diet. That’s not to suggest you don’t eat well already, but you can use the inspiration and motivation you get from your new commitment to running to improve your eating habits in small or big ways. The beginning of returning to running is the perfect time to cut weight if you added extra pounds during your break. McMillan points out that you don’t need to be carbo-loading during the 6- to 8-week phase and should instead be using your runs to burn the fat that you may have put on when you weren’t running. “It’s the perfect time to clean up your diet, reduce your caloric intake, and try to lose weight,” he says.

Returning runners should dedicate the time that they may have once spent on long runs or in intense track workouts to non-running core workouts and cross-training (cycling, yoga, swimming, etc.). Not only will they help with overall strength, stability and mobility as their running fitness progresses, the additional workouts can help runners avoid injury during this critical phase of their comeback.

READ MORE: Eat Better, Run Better

Duncan Larkin
Duncan Larkin is a freelance writer and 2:32 marathoner. His latest book, "The 30-Minute Runner," will be published in January.