When returning to training after injury, it might feel like you’re walking, er- running, on eggshells. You’re starting to feel good, but don’t want to increase the volume and intensity of your training too quickly, thereby impeding recovery. So, what is an enthusiastic runner to do? How do you know you’re ready to hit the track, nail that tempo run, or build long run distance?
1. You’ve been running pain-free for at least a month. This criteria is going to vary depending on the severity, duration, and type of injury. However, if you have been running 3-4 days per week and have no or minimal pain during and after a run, chances are you can have the green light. For muscle and tendon injuries, it is prudent to ease back into speedwork with caution, as the force and the speed in which it is generated is much higher with faster running, thereby increasing the strain and load on those structures. Also keep in mind that your running form will change at higher speeds, resulting in the potential accrual of stress to other areas of the body.
2. You have added in strides or pick-ups to your normal runs. Strides are a running drill defined as a 50-100m of “fast” running, with the intention of improving leg turnover and running economy at higher speeds. It is not an all out sprint, but should feel just on the edge of losing leg coordination. These are a running coach’s favorite drill to put on an athlete’s schedule, however they are the first thing to fall by the wayside as a runner is trying to get ready for work or is too eager to eat dinner. Experimenting with faster running in this way is a safe way to test the waters and prepare your body for a triumphant return to the track. Complete 4-6 strides after most of your runs, or begin to sprinkle in 30 second-1 minute pick ups as an alternative.
3. Running gait feels smooth. If you’ve been injured before, then you know what I’m talking about. It is quite common those first few runs to feel “clunky”, and wonder if you’ve forgotten how to run. Simply put, running doesn’t hurt, but also does not feel good. As you continue to get back into a running groove, this feeling will dissipate and you’ll feel like yourself again. Certainly if you are in the “clunky” phase, now is not the time to increase intensity in the form of speed or distance. The timeline will vary for everyone, but the return of smoother gait is a good tangible measure of adaptation and re-integration of activity.
4. You continue to do the PT exercises that made you feel better. I’m biased as a Physical Therapist, but this is VERY important. Don't stop doing exercises just because you feel better! While you may have gained a lot of strength and improved your movement patterns while rehabilitating an injury, old habits die hard. Without frequent practice, the patterns and weaknesses that caused the injury can return with a vengeance. Think of your exercise routine as your rite of passage to train. One of my favorite quotes regarding this idea is "Get fit to run, don't run to get fit!".
There are no drawbacks to being cautious in your return from injury. Take your time, and you will be rewarded in the long run (pun intended). I hope that these guidelines are helpful as you navigate your way back to PR shape, however remember that your body is wisest in knowing when it is ready.
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT