Life can be unpredictable. As many runners know, setbacks are sometimes a reality during training. Whether due to injury, illness or changing life responsibilities, sometimes runners just need a break from training.
While breaks are often necessary and unavoidable, the return to running can cause a great deal of anxiety.
How much fitness have you lost? Where do you start? How long will it take you to get back to where you left off?
The answer to all these questions is—it depends!
Let’s take a look at some general guidelines when it comes to loss of fitness:
After a couple weeks off from training, you lose 5-7% of your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max)
After 2 months off, you could lose up to 20% VO2max
After 3 months off, it’s possible to lose up to 50% of your VO2max
In addition to the loss of aerobic fitness, there could be structural changes you need to consider as well. After long breaks, it could take weeks or even months for your muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments to grow strong enough to handle the impact of running again.
So, what’s a runner to do?
Here are some general guidelines that can help you safely return to running:
If you have taken off due to injury, start by taking a 45 minute brisk walk, 2-3 times per week, ensuring you are pain free. Once you feel good doing this, begin 2-3 sessions of walk/run intervals per week until you are training every other day (pain free!) Monitor your aerobic capacity using the talk test—your training sessions should allow you to have a conversation with ease. If you’re pushing too hard and can’t keep a conversation going, cut back the intensity.
If you’ve only had a couple of weeks off from running, you can usually jump back into training with ease. You can drop your mileage and pace a little to ensure you’re feeling good. Use the talk test to monitor how you feel—you should be able to run while keeping a conversation going with ease. If you find it hard to do this—slow down a bit and give your body time to adjust. Within a week or two you should be back to normal training.
If you’ve had a month off from training, ease back in slowly. Try starting with 25% of your pre-break mileage and slow the pace down by 1-2 minutes. Use the talk test to monitor progress. Incorporate walking when needed. Give yourself a few weeks to build up mileage slowly.
If you’ve had more than two months off from running, start slow and build up even slower! It’s likely you will need time to build both your aerobic capacity and structural strength. A good place to start is with 2-3 short sessions per week. Do a mix of walking/slow running. Monitor your progress using the talk test. If you experience pain, cutback even more. It may take a couple of months with this approach before you’re ready to build.
when building back your base mileage, keep the pace easy and use the talk test to monitor
incorporate strength training 2 times per week
focus on cross training if needed while easing back in to running
when in doubt, slow it down and reduce mileage
your aerobic capacity may improve before your ligaments/muscles/tendons are structurally ready—don’t build your mileage up too quickly!
The return to running can seem daunting, but if you take it slow and enjoy the journey, you may just find that the comeback is even bigger than your setback.