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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.
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.”