Getting Back into Running After an Injury

I’ve been running on and off for years, and a lot of that time “off” has been because of my knee. So today, let’s talk about getting back into running after an injury.

For years, I’ve had issues with my right knee. Muscle imbalances made my kneecap unstable. Throw in some probable overuse. And you’ve got a recipe for what we’ll call “runner’s knee.”

The specifics don’t matter all that much, and the same general advice would apply for most injuries. But anyway, here’s how I went about getting back into running after an injury.

First, Listen to Your Doctor

I feel like I should start off with the obligatory, “Listen to your doctor.” If you’ve injured yourself, and it’s somewhat serious, you ought to see a doctor about it.

If you do, you shouldn’t run until they give you the go ahead. And you should probably follow their advice about rehab exercises or limits on running.

If you’re not hurt bad enough to see a doc, then keep in mind this important tip: If it hurts, don’t run.

Soreness and discomfort are normal. Pain is not. “No pain, no gain” quickly leads to more injuries. Often times, running injuries are caused by the repeated stress of running – so if you don’t fully heal, you just start the process all over again with a frustrating feeling of deja vu.

In my case, my knee was bothering me so much – along with some lower back pain – that I went to the chiropractor. He diagnosed a few different issues, and started me on stim treatments and massage therapy. He gave me some rehab exercises to do and gave me the go ahead to walk as much as I wanted.

Slow and steady wins the race – like the tortoise and the hare.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race – And Stays Healthy

So I started slowly, and I started walking.

Throughout January, I made a commitment to walk for thirty minutes every day. I’d wake up early, put on some cold weather gear, and go for my walk. Rain, shine, snow, whatever.

One of the tough parts about getting back into running is re-creating your habit. When you’re used to doing something, it comes easy. When you break the habit, it doesn’t.

Here are some tips for making your running habit stick.

The extra frustrating part about getting back into running after an injury is that you can’t simply get back to running. If you ran five days a week before, and you immediately go back to running five days a week, you’ll probably just end up sidelined again. You gotta start slow.

I also treated these walks like “workouts.” So I was sure to do a dynamic warm-up (usually leg swings and lunges) beforehand and some stretching afterwards. Again, build the habit.

By starting with the daily walking, I was able to simultaneously start building my fitness and creating my habit.

First You Walk, Then You Run

By the end of February – two months of walking, stretching, and rehabbing – things were starting to feel good. I thought, let’s try going for a run.

So one early March morning, I set out for my morning walk. I loosened up. I tried an easy run… and I made it a mile.

Ooph. That was tiring. I just looked back at my Fitbit data, and I ran at a whopping pace of 11:38 per mile, and my heart rate jacked up to the 170’s.

But that’s ok. Every little bit of progress counts. After I caught my breath, I went on walking for the rest of my walk.

At this point, it’s pretty similar to getting back into running after years off. The only difference is being a little extra cautious about volume and intensity, lest you get re-injured.

Looking back, I probably could have tried a walk-run method. Instead of running a mile and walking the rest (2-3 miles), I could have walked a bit to get my breath back and then gone back to easy running. This probably would have sped things up a bit.

But oh well… slow and steady wins the race. And stays healthy.

I did this a few more times throughout March. I’d jog a mile, maybe a little further, and then walk the rest of my route.

By April, I was doing two miles. Then one day in mid-April I made it a full three miles – what I consider a real “run.”

A graph showing monthly mileage slowly increasing from around 40 in April to about 120 in October.
A screenshot from my Smashrun profile, showing my monthly mileage slowly increasing from around 40 in April to over 120 in October. A base wasn’t built in a day.

Building Up a Base After Getting Back Into Running

Shortly after that, I worked up to a routine of running 3 miles three times per week. I was deliberate about incorporating plenty of rest days and not running on consecutive days.

I wanted to give my body time to adapt before I put too much stress on it. But at this point, it was time to start slowly re-building my base.

After a month of easy 5k’s, I started lengthening my runs a little bit. My Sunday run got a little longer each week, and I tacked on an extra half mile to each weekday run. By the end of May, I did 3.5 miles, 3.5 miles, and 5 miles. I thought I was finally ready for a couple extra days of running.

In June I added a fourth run. At first, I kept it to a minimal one mile. Just to test things out. It slowly built up to around 3 miles like my other weekday runs. Then in July, I added a fifth.

Finally, I was “back.” By the end of July, I was running five days a week and putting in approximately 25 miles per week. I still had a little bit to go. I wanted to end up running about 30-35 miles per week, but I knew I’d get there over the next month or two.

Throughout this period, I was pretty cautious about adding volume. I didn’t strictly follow the 10% rule, but I wasn’t far off. Early on, I’d add a half mile or a mile to my total weekly volume. Later, it was one or two miles. But I took it slowly, knowing that in a few months I’d safely be at my target.

Taking a Down Week to Fully Recover

Something else I learned throughout this process was the importance of a down week. And I learned it by accident.

Towards the end of July, I had been slowly building up my volume. I’d gone from 10 miles per week in May to the mid-20’s in July.

Things were going well, although I was a bit run down and tired. No sign of injury, but definitely tired legs.

I did some work in the garden, and I had a run in with some poison ivy. I somehow managed to get it in my eye. Besides the hellish rashes all over my body, I woke up one morning to find my eye swollen shut.

Umm… that’s not good.

I had a quick tele-medicine appointment with a doctor (this was still peak lockdown in New Jersey). I got a prescription for a steroid to help alleviate the swelling, and it quickly got better. And I took a few days off from running.

That week, I only put in 14 miles – compared to 24 miles the week before and 23 the week after. I had unintentionally taken a down week, also sometimes called a recovery week, and cut my mileage significantly.

As a result, I came back that next weekend feeling great. I hadn’t realized how tired my legs were getting. Throughout the rest of the summer, I kept incorporating a down week every four weeks to give my body a chance to fully recover.

Occasional down weeks are a good idea in general, but I’d say they’re extra important for someone getting back into running after an injury.

Read more about using down weeks to safely increase your mileage here.

Finally Ready to Train Again

I took it slow, and maybe I took it too slow. But by August, I was back in shape and ready to train. I took a couple months to fully heal, followed by about four months of easy running to rebuild my base, and then I was in a good place to start doing some workouts.

Depending on the severity of your injury and whether or not you took a prolonged period off running, you might not need to take so long. But the general principals still apply.

Listen to your doctor, and listen to your body. Go slow at first, and avoid the urge to go back to your regular routine right away.

The last thing you want is to re-injure yourself and find yourself back on the couch. Trust me, I’ve been there.

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