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Dear Coach: How Do I Safely Return to Running After Time Off?

Getting back to running can feel overwhelming, but with the right approach it doesn't need to be.

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Starting to run again after time away from it can feel daunting—and this can be one of the main reasons why athletes procrastinate getting back into a routine—but if structured correctly, running after time off doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. Whether you took time off running because of a planned break, an unexpected injury, or simply because life steered you in a different direction, here are some helpful tips and ways you can get back to running with the right mindset and structure for success.

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Take Care of Your Feet

One of the most important things to do in order to enjoy running and remain as injury-free as possible is to invest in a good pair of running shoes. Proper shoes are unparalleled in terms of the return on investment you will get from them as you increase mileage and overall amount of time spent on your feet.

The first thing you should do is get a proper gait analysis, which you can do at a local running specialty store. Please do not get caught up in the “hype” of the latest, greatest carbon shoe or ask for everyone’s favorite shoe brand on Instagram. Your feet (and your gait) are as unique as you are, so what can work well for one person might not work so well for the next.

After getting a gait analysis, try on several different pairs of running shoes in the store that will compliment your running gait (and run on them on the store’s treadmill if possible). Also, ask the store what their return policy is to allow you some time to really try the shoe and see if it works for you. Write the date of purchase in permanent marker somewhere on the mid-sole of your shoe, and after about four months, check the mileage you have put on them. Depending on your run gait, around the 300-400 mile mark is a good time to replace. 

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Structure Your Workouts When Running After Time Off

Jumping back into any type of physical routine with gusto and volume will likely lead to injury and oftentimes a desire to quit, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. The best way to make sure running continues to feel good and allows you to stick with it, is to be patient and consistent. Start slow and keep volume and intensity low. Building the foundation is necessary first. 

Here are two easy programs you can utilize to get back into running safely:

The “equal days to time” run:

Explained simply, you run “X” number of days, for “X” number of minutes. For example, you can start with 10 days of running for 10 minutes each day, then build to 15 days of running for 15 minutes, and so on. The key to this program is that you are running super easy; there is no speed involved and you are not concerned about pacing. You are wearing the watch on your wrist just for the purpose of making sure you adhere to the time you have set out for yourself. This type of program will build endurance quickly, and if truly run in a purely aerobic state, will increase your aerobic threshold to eventually allow you to run faster with the same low heart rate and output over time. In short, you are building aerobic fitness safely. 

The “run/walk” method

This method is another way to build endurance, but allows brisk walk breaks after “X” amount of time, repeated in a pattern over and over again for the allotted time given. You can adjust the ratio of this to accommodate for coming back from an injury (you walk more minutes than you run) or for the current endurance shape you are in (maybe running 4 minutes and walking 1 minute). The ratios on this scenario are endless, but the focus here is on quality aerobic running during the allotted time, and then maintaining a brisk walk for the allotted time before getting right back into your aerobic running pace. The brisk walks allow for a mental and physical “reset” to then get back into a short duration of running, which mentally can help get you over the hurdle of running for an allotted time.

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Listen To Your Body

As you get back into running, you will be a bit sore, but overwhelming aches and pains usually mean you have either run too fast or increased volume too quickly. Use heart rate to determine whether or not you are running in an aerobic state or if you’re not using a heart rate monitor then just make sure all activity is conversational: you should be able to easily talk or sing a song when running.  Stick to the program and be patient—you’ll be back to volume and speed sooner than you think!

Tristen Rogers is a USAT Level 2 Coach, Head Coach of the HAT Altitude Team, and owner of HAT House Endurance Camps