Let’s face the facts, nobody asks to get injured, and they come at the worst times. They set you back from your goals, hopes, and dreams and affect your physical and mental health. So, the return to the running phase cannot be taken lightly.
While returning to running, it is difficult to listen to the advice of not rushing back into it. To return to running safely, make sure you listen to what your body tells you vs. what you wish it was telling you.
Even elite runners who put injury prevention exercises their top priority get injured. So, following an injury prevention plan should still be top of the list. But you need to also understand that no runner is invincible, and injuries can occur to anyone.
The good news is that most injuries are not permanent, and running is still an option at the end of the rehab road. After following the guided steps by your doctor or physical therapist (PT), you will get the okay to start running. It is crucial to follow a return to running plan to return to your baseline instead of jumping right into it.
7 Simple Steps To Help You Return To Running After An Injury
Returning to running after an injury is one of the quickest ways to re-injure yourself. So, you often worry about how to avoid injuring yourself again. For this reason, I have put together 7 simple steps to help you safely return to running after an injury.
1. Patience Is Key
This is the hardest step and, thus, the first step when returning to running after an injury. Patience is important due to the time frame it can take for muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones to heal. You cannot change that time frame, so respect it and understand it.
For reference on healing time:
- ligaments: 10-12 weeks (example: Sprained ankle)
- tendon: 4-6 weeks (example: Achilles tendinitis)
- muscle: 2-4 weeks (example: Pulled muscle)
- bone: 6-8 weeks (example: Broken bone)
You must have a full range of motion near the injury, no swelling or bruising, and very low to 0 levels of pain. There are circumstances where having low levels of pain and running is okay. But for most injuries due to overuse and inflammation, the pain should be nonexistent.
It may take a while to get these things done in therapy or on your own time. So, it’s best to check these boxes off before jumping into your running shoes.
2. Walk Before You Run
If you cannot walk without discomfort or walk with a poor gait, you should not be running. Walking is the low-impact version of running. So, if the body is telling you with these signs that it cannot handle that low impact, it certainly cannot take running.
You should always start with very slow walking, especially with a knee or ankle injury. Put on your best socks and walking shoes, take someone with you, and walk a very small distance. Then, come home and put ice on your injury and elevate it. This “small distance” depends on the extent of your injury.
For example, suppose you are recovering from a broken ankle. In that case, the small distance is 1-2 blocks vs. general knee pain, the distance is around 5-10 minutes.
After a couple of days of the shorter distance, increase the distance if there is no sign of pain or swelling. Continue this cycle until you feel comfortable walking for 20-30 minutes on your own. You should be able to do this without stopping or the body letting you know it’s enough.
3. Jump Before You Run
It is an excellent way to check your injury status even before starting your walk/run program. The idea behind the program is to test the body to see if it can withstand the impact of a unilateral activity. Unilateral activity means using only one limb to do that activity (for runners, it would be the leg).
Jumping from both legs to one leg can tell if the injury is healing to the point where running is an option. You can check your improvement by your form, quantity/endurance, and pain level.
A lot of force goes unilaterally through the ankle, knee, hip, and low back during running. So, jumping is a great way to test the body when returning from an injury. An easy way to test this at home is to try jumping rope.
4. Start Slow
When you FINALLY get the go to start running, it feels like a runner’s high without the run! Understanding that your baseline is way different from before injury is very crucial.
Starting slow is an understatement, and it might seem like you are relearning to run again. But it is not about relearning but tuning in to how your body feels while moving. Fortunately, it is not relearning how to run altogether. Your body does remember the muscle movement even if you took months off from running.
Finding your baseline of speed and endurance might seem frustrating. Still, the brain and body will work together in your favor with practice. So, allow your body to heal and progress without injuring it more. It enables the body to adapt to the new forces being put on it and strengthen it at the same time.
This takes time- usually weeks to months! Celebrate the little wins as they will turn into big ones sooner than later!
5. Graded Return
Graded return is a great way to return to running after an injury. This can be used with a walk/run program despite knowing that each body is different and injuries react differently to various impacts. Thus, it is advised to seek professional help and see a doctor or a PT before returning to running.
This idea is not to push the body to the breaking point but right before the breaking point. So if running half a mile is your breaking point, run to 0.4 miles. Then, ice the injury, rest it, take 1-2 days off and run again, progressing when appropriate.
After a week of this routine at running 0.4 miles, if your body/injury are feeling good, run 0.45 miles. Repeat this process for a week or two and then progress the distance again. This allows the body time to adapt to the distance and forces, giving it time to strengthen.
How Do You Know Your Breaking Point Distance?
The PT or doctor will advise you or your training program when returning to running. It is figured by considering how far your runs were before injury and how your body is moving/endurance, pain level, and injury severity in therapy.
Usually, your breaking point is determined by testing out a run that is a shorter distance and figuring out how the body responds.
So, you can calculate it at home by going for a brisk walk or running on a smooth surface or treadmill. Run for as long as you feel comfortable, stop if it becomes unpleasant, and record distance, time, and speed.
You don’t have to run till it hurts; your goal is to find a distance and pace that won’t aggravate your injury. Now take 10-20% from the distance you covered while walking or running to get to your breaking point.
Cross-training is a great way to add variety to your return to running routine. You can include cross-training exercises like cycling, strength training, swimming, and yoga. The more variety of activity, the less likely you are to get injured.
Besides, the different movements that the injured region is going through, the better. Depending on the injury and exercise, it will assist with mobility, range of motion, stability, and strength.
A lot of experts and physical therapists recommend cross-training when returning to running. It is a great way to build endurance without the full weight-bearing impact. You can add a day of cycling or swimming into your training program.
7. Be Extra Cautious
It is good to push yourself appropriately to allow your bodies to heal and get stronger. HOWEVER, suppose you are returning to running after an injury. In that case, I advise you to pretend like you are always on the verge of an injury.
Be very cautious when training, listen to your coach or medical professional and don’t push yourself physically just yet. Even if you are feeling good and running without pain. Knowing you could go further endurance-wise, I highly suggest sticking to your return to the running training program and being cautious.
Sometimes, it isn’t about how your body is feeling right then but not pushing it past the limits that it can handle. With the muscles, ligaments, and tendons healing together, you should remember that they are not at 100% just yet. The mind is ready for more running faster than the body is!
You need to also limit your other activities like cycling or swimming. Sometimes, running is not always the cause of pain. Squatting can increase knee pain, while cycling can worsen ITB injury.
So, you need to pace these other activities accordingly as well. Do what feels comfortable while also gradually increasing the intensity of your activity.
Wrapping It Up
To sum it up, the need to listen to your body after an injury is highly essential. Particularly if you’re returning to a strenuous activity like running. So you need to keep your ego aside and start running like a beginner.
If you return to running too soon might result in a brutal cycle of re-injury. After an injury, you need to follow an organized way to gradually increase your training. Along with this, you will also need to work on what caused the injury in the first place.
While running, if you feel pain, then you need to stop immediately and take some more recovery time. You need to remember that there will always be another day to run, but not if you continue to injure yourself.
So, cross-training, knowing your body limit, and taking small steps is an effective ways to start running after an injury. It will not only help you to return to peak performance but also prevent future injuries.
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Note: This information is not meant to replace medical advice. If you or someone you know is in pain, it’s always better to get professional assistance from an expert.