Recovery

How to Ease Back Into Training After an Injury

Wean off your recovery routine and get back to running with this expert advice.

Getting to the point where you’re pain-free after battling an injury is such an incredible feeling. But it can also be a scary one. You’re probably eager to get back to running, but maybe a little fearful of re-injuring yourself. We spoke with several professional coaches about how to properly ease back into your routine after an injury.

First and foremost, you should follow the guidance of any medical professional you’re working with on when it’s OK to return to running. If you’ve been handling the injury on your own, coach Heather McKirdy of McKirdy Trained recommends that you’re at least 72-hours pain free before thinking about running.

Test the waters, then focus on consistency.

Once you’ve been pain-free for 72 hours, McKirdy recommends you test out your body with a set of drills (A-skips, B-skips, C-skips, cariocas, high knees, butt kicks, etc.) and check in with your pain level. If any pain arises, give it a few more days of rest. 

View this post on Instagram

📌 TRAINING TOPIC TUESDAY 📌 Q: A-skips. Break them down for me! In my opinion, A-skips are the easiest of the skips to execute, but that doesn’t mean they are a gimme. Lazy skipping doesn’t accomplish anything! Keep these tips in mind: 👉🏼 Posture, posture, posture! Back straight, standing tall, with a slight forward lean. Don’t let your shoulders hunch. 👉🏼 Drive with your arms! Practicing good arm swing here will translate over to better arm swing during faster running. And the better your arms are moving, the faster you can run. 👉🏼 You should be striking the ground with your midfoot or forefoot – if you’re not, you’re probably “sitting back” too much. Focus on that forward lean! 👉🏼 Quick feet! You don’t want a lot of ground contact time. Think of your feet as “popping off the ground” – the movement should feel quick and light. 👉🏼 Try to pull your foot down to the ground quickly. One of the things this drill can help with is improve the force you’re exerting on the ground – but that only happens if you’re practicing hitting the ground with intention. You don’t want to skip lazily. Focus on the purpose of the movement. 👉🏼 Don’t slam your foot into the ground either, though – you’re not trying to shatter your tibia. Remember, quick and light feet but moving with a purpose. I think “staccato” in my head when I do these, but maybe that only helps because I’m a secret music nerd at heart. A-skips are great for practicing good running form and quick feet. And as embarrassing as it may seem, shooting a quick video of you doing them can work wonders – sometimes our proprioception doesn’t match reality, and seeing what we actually look like can help with some of those posture corrections. #mckirdytrained #trainingtopictuesday #drills

A post shared by Heather McKirdy (@itsheathersturn) on

View this post on Instagram

📌 TRAINING TOPIC TUESDAY 📌 Q: Alright, I’ve mastered the A-skip. Now tell me about those B-skips! The B-skip starts out just like the A, except instead of bringing your leg straight back down to the ground, you’re extending the lower leg, and then accelerating your leg down via an eccentric hamstring contraction. These have been described to me as “clawing” the ground with your leg and that visual helps me a lot with execution. Keep these tips in mind: 👉🏼 Posture, posture, posture! Back straight, standing tall, with a slight forward lean. This is just as important for B-skips as it is for A-skip! . 👉🏼 You don’t want to feel like you’re kicking your leg out – the forceful movement should come from pulling your leg back down to the ground. Raise your knee, gently extend the leg, then think about clawing the ground with your foot. . 👉🏼 You want to hear your foot scuffing the ground rather than popping off the ground the way you would during an A-skip. . 👉🏼 Quick arms! Once you get the movement down, pay attention to how your arms are moving. You want them to be snappy (this is something I’m still working on, as my arms get a little lazy during B-skips). . This drill is really helpful for activating the posterior chain – getting those glutes and hamstrings to wake up and fire appropriately. Don’t be afraid to slow it down at first to get the movement pattern right – this one won’t feel quite as natural as the A-skip does. Once your brain learns the movement pattern, you’ll be able to speed it up with proper form and you’ll look like a pro in no time. #mckirdytrained #trainingtopictuesday #drills

A post shared by Heather McKirdy (@itsheathersturn) on

View this post on Instagram

📌 TRAINING TOPIC TUESDAY 📌 Q: Why can’t we cancel C-skips? Because this drill works on motion in another plane, helping to open up your hips. As much as running is mostly movement in a linear plane, we do shift weight from side to side and our bodies need to be prepared to handle that fluidly. This drill is also more complex than the others we’ve seen up to this point, and the rhythmic nature of it helps to better activate the neuromuscular system. Keep these tips in mind: 👉🏼 Start slow. Get the motion down before trying to speed up the drill. . 👉🏼 Think “forward, side, forward” in your head. The biggest mistake people tend to make is going forward, side <<switch legs>> forward, side instead of forward, side, forward <<switch legs>> forward, side, forward. . 👉🏼 When you’re first starting out, don’t worry about trying to cover ground. It’s ok if the movement is essentially happening in place. Once you get more comfortable, you’ll be able to move forward better, though it’s unlikely you’ll cover as much ground as you would with an A-skip or B-skip. . 👉🏼 Once you get the motion down, you want to perform this drill quickly. The faster you can get your feet off the ground, the better the neuromuscular activation, and the more this translates to better ground contact time while running. As with any skill, these take practice! Probably more so than the other skips. Think of it like a dance – eventually the movement should flow and you’ll be doing it without actively thinking about it. But you have to learn the steps first. Be patient, slow it down, and commit to doing it once or twice a week. You’ll improve in no time! #mckirdytrained #trainingtopictuesday #drills

A post shared by Heather McKirdy (@itsheathersturn) on

If no pains come up during the drills, you can give running a try and start working toward your pre-injury schedule. “The general philosophy should be to build back up to the normal days per week of running before trying to significantly extend the duration of the runs,” says McKirdy. So if your normal routine was to run five times a week, your first milestone to reach is five days of 30 minute runs, for example. 

“The consistent load over the span of the week will actually help to incrementally strengthen soft tissue (like muscles, tendons, and ligaments), with a lower risk of re-injury,” says McKirdy. 

You should aim to run on the softest surface available to you to start, with trails being softest and concrete sidewalks being the hardest. Treadmills, tracks, and roads fall in between.

As for pace, start by leaving the smart watch at home. Running without it will help you avoid the inevitable ego-check when you realize that you’re running slower than you used to. McKirdy recommends that you start running by feel. “In the return to running phase, it’s so important to keep your runs easy, and there are a lot of external factors that can impact what that actual pace is.” And if your injury kept you out for eight weeks or more, a walk/run routine is probably going to be best. 

Be prepared for the build back to feel slow. McKirdy says that until you are back to your full training load, every week should end feeling like you could have done more, but didn’t because you chose not to. That patience is what will keep you from re-injury. 

You don’t have to go it alone.

Some runners need help to slow down. 

New York–based running coach and founder of The Laughing Runner coaching practice, Natalie Dorset recommends that injured runners find an expert, like a coach, to lean on. “A coach is like an on ramp,” she says. “They will help ease you back to training by keeping workouts less intense, less frequent, and shorter to help the body have time to adapt to the training load. Your coach will also check in to make sure you are keeping up with any exercises/stretching that are needed to keep the injury at bay.”

If you’re in the beginning stages of dealing with an injury, a coach can help you figure out what kind of specific professional you might need to see, such as a physical therapist, chiropractor, orthopedist, or nutritionist. If they see a pattern of re-injury, they may recommend you get blood work done to check vitamin D levels. 

Chances are high that your coach has worked with an athlete before that’s had your injury, or they’ve had it themselves. 

Don’t skimp on rest and recovery (for your body and your mind).

Remember to stretch, foam roll, and ice to help your muscles recover as they get back into the running routine. 

And don’t forget to take care of your mental health while recovering from an injury. “You’ll make more progress with a positive mindset,” says Dorset. Many runners are prone to feeling like they are behind and harbor a desperation to ‘catch up,’ making it more likely that they’ll get re-injured. “It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. 

It’s important to go easy on your ego. “It seems like there is a culture of shame that surrounds injuries to a certain extent,” says McKirdy who is currently recovering from a bilateral fasciotomy after being diagnosed with Chronic Exertional Compartment Syndrome. After 12 weeks of no running, she recalls her first walk/runs back were the most joyous moments of her running career. “While being injured is absolutely the worst, it can also bring a beautiful dose of perspective,” she says. 

Be patient with the training process. Fitness is a result of quality and consistency over time. 

“I’m not aware of a single professional runner who hasn’t dealt with an injury at some point in their career,” says McKirdy. “So if you find yourself injured, trust that you’re in good company.”