How to return to workouts

This came to me as I read an early morning email from an athlete. This runner’s strength is also their biggest weakness- they are so darned stubborn. This athlete has been injured for a while. Some of it from pushing to hard, but some of it was due to improper diagnosis. Anyway, long story short, she’s running again and I want her to build her base of nice easy miles for a few weeks. To my lack of shock, I was informed that a half marathon threshold was performed yesterday!

This brings up a couple points relevant to coming back from injury. The first is knowing when to do that first workout back. With our athlete above, she had some things going for her. First, she had a few weeks of easy mileage with gradually more volume being added. She had handled this well, with no regression back towards the injury. The second thing is, she wanted to to do a workout. She was asking and pleading her case to me for over a week. I was able to hold her back only so far. The thing is, even the most ambitious athlete will shy away from a hard workout if they know in their heart that they just aren’t ready.

Returning to Workouts
Returning to Workouts

Guide to Returning to Workouts

 4-7 days missed

  1. 3 plus easy runs of continual improvement
  2. No limping
  3. No pain during or after run
  4. Feel better at the end of run
  5. No meds needed

2+ weeks off

  1. At least half as many easy runs as days you have missed.
    • Missed 3 weeks off? Run at least 10 days easy. I’d prefer at least 2 weeks.
  2. No limping
  3. Continual improvement
  4. No pain at all
  5. No meds needed

Ok, so you meet these criteria and are ready to run something harder. That’s great, but please don’t jump right back into what you were doing. Regardless of time off, the worst thing to do is over stress the body. We are already stressing the body by adding volume back daily. If you haven’t adjusted to this volume and throw in a really high intensity workout, then you are going to end up right where you just were- hurt and sedentary. The longer amount of time you have had off, the more we need to emphasize the foundation of training and making sure our aerobic base is rock solid before adding the intensity.

Remember this: even if you are training for a 5k, over 80% of your fitness needed is going be coming from your aerobic abilities, so gradually adding intensity is NOT taking away from overall fitness!


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With all of this said, here’s how I would progress:

  1. Marathon Tempo of 3-5 miles. If you’ve had several weeks off and another few weeks of easy running, I might even start out with something like 4×1 mile at MP.
    • 1-2 days of easy recovery running before going into next SOS day.
    • If it’s been a short amount of time, then you may only need one of these workouts to test the waters. If it’s been a while. Graduate from the marathon pace intervals to a marathon tempo run before moving up in intensity.
  2. Option here:
    • For short stints off, you can probably progress to another version of tempo or interval workouts. The level of intensity should either be half marathon pace or MP-10 seconds per mile.
    • For longer stints off, general endurance will be an issue. So, After doing a couple MP paced workouts, throw a long run in there. It doesn’t have to be what you would normally do for a long run. It just needs to be over that 90 minute range to get the desired benefits. So, I might  go two workouts, long run, one more workout at MP, and then move up the next workout to a half MP type workout. After this, another long run.
  3. After 2-3 weeks:
    • If you’ve taken a few days recovery between workouts, coupled with a long run, or two, you should be about 2-3 weeks of added intensity.
    • If everything is still pointing you in the direction of increased fitness, no regressions, and plain old feeling better, then you are probably ready to pick up where you need to be. If training for a marathon, this may mean stepping back down to the marathon pace work. For other distances, start adding what you need to add.
    • However, if you never completely leave the lower intensity work out, you will allow your body to adapt to higher workloads, increase your aerobic foundation, even when at another point in training, and reduce chance of becoming injured via too much high intensity.

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