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How Masters Runners can Return to Running After Taking a Break

A comeback is difficult, but doable.

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Eventually, if we run long enough, we all step away from the sport for some amount of time. Maybe it’s a prolonged injury. Maybe it’s a demanding career. Maybe it’s children. Maybe it’s burnout. And often, we want to return to running.

Wakenda Tyler, 46, who competes at the national level for Central Park Track Club, has taken breaks for every reason in the book. Tyler started running competitively in high school and took her first break as a sophomore in college to focus on academics. While she ran casually in the years that followed, she didn’t return to competitive running until age 38, when she had finally settled into her first full-time position as an orthopedic surgical oncologist.

Her next break came at age 42. Two days before the Boston Marathon, which she had intended to run, she discovered she was pregnant. She stopped competitive running until after her son was born. In spring of 2019, at age 45, Tyler began yet another journey back to fitness and competition—just in time for COVID-19 to shut everything down the next year.

Whether you’ve taken an intentional break or an unexpected one, patience, Tyler says, is key. “It’s a slow climb back,” she says. “But take it one day at a time, put one foot in front of the other, and eventually, the feeling of your athleticism will come back.” Patience is step one, but there are several other ways you can make the journey easier, more successful, and, honestly, more fun.

Focus on Effort, not Age

Yes, age comes with certain realities, but if you use it as an excuse, you’ll defeat yourself before you get started. “It’s very easy to say ‘I’m not what I used to be’ and put up a limiting mindset,” says Mary Johnson, running coach and founder of Lift Run Perform. When coming back, she recommends leaving your watch at home and focusing on running by effort: “If you go by effort, you’re never going to judge yourself, because it’s what you had on the day.”

Run with Your Peers

Another way to overcome the “I’m too old” mentality: Surround yourself with other masters runners. An in-person team is ideal, but following successful masters runners online can also help.

“Whenever I start to get that moment of ‘Oh I’m slowing down because I’m old,’ then I’m like ‘Uh uh, look at her,’” says Tyler of her masters-age teammates. “It just makes you go, ‘OK, I’ve got to get back to those speed workouts and be more diligent.’”

Adjust Recovery

After any break, it’s tempting to jump back in and “do what you used to do.” However, masters runners should be mindful of needing extra recovery.

“In my late 30s, I started noticing if I ran seven days a week, I was going to get injured. And I wasn’t actually performing as well; I was really too fatigued,” Tyler says. For her, the fix was taking one extra recovery day between workouts and one to two rest or cross-training days per week. Another solution that Johnson suggests is slowing down even more on recovery runs.

RELATED: Sleep Is an Indispensable Part of Recovery, Especially in Older Athletes

Incorporate Strength Training

Every runner should be doing strength training, but for runners who have taken a break—and female masters runners in particular—strength training is essential. Leg and core strength can be lost quickly when you take time off, and they are as crucial for preventing injury as they are for fast running. Plus, lifting weights helps to protect against muscle and bone loss that can afflict women as we age.

RELATED: Run College: 6 Weeks to a Faster You Strength Training

Don’t Forget Nutrition

Proper fueling is easy to neglect, especially when a job or children are clamoring for your time and attention. But as you ramp up running again, you’re going to have new nutrition needs. Johnson emphasizes the importance of eating enough and eating quality foods. “It’s easy to fall out of practice if you haven’t done it in a while,” she says—which is true of most aspects of running training. So, try to have patience, and you might just come back stronger than you thought possible.

RELATED: Are You Eating Enough? Here Are 5 Signs You Might Not Be