Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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How to Return to Running After Injury, Sickness or Missing Training

Following a training schedule rarely goes 100 percent according to plan, especially if it is a marathon training schedule.

You’ll miss days thanks to your boss unloading a huge project on you days before the deadline, your kids bringing home every strain of the cold and flu virus, hours lost sitting on a plane while traveling, and of course both minor and major injuries.

Sometimes, you just need to learn to be okay with missed workouts.

Given all the potential issues that could derail your running for a few days or more, how do you adjust your schedule when you miss training?

While giving specific training advice in an article written for a diverse audience is inherently difficult, I do think there are general principles and few steadfast rules that can help guide you back on track.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the definite things to avoid when returning to running and provide a good outline for you to follow to help you get back on track.

How to Return to Running After Injury, Sickness or Missing Training

What not to do when you miss training

While sometimes there is nothing you can do about having to miss a few days of training, there are principles you can follow, both during your actual missed training time and the build-up after, to return to training as quickly as possible.

Don’t try to make up for lost training

The number one rule you should follow when adjusting your training for missed days is: do not try to make up missed workouts or mileage.

That means no squeezing workouts closer together and no adding miles to your warm-up, cool down, or easy days.

This is the quickest and surest route to injury and overtraining.

In a well-designed training schedule, each workout has a calculated amount of necessary recovery time.

Meaning, whoever designed the schedule has anticipated, either by experience or via physiological principles, exactly how long it will take you to recover from that session.

If you squeeze workouts together, you reduce this recovery time and begin your next workout while your muscles are still repairing from the previous workout. This creates a viscous cycle and usually leads to overtraining.

Likewise, adding on mileage for the sake of hitting weekly mileage totals defeats the purpose of that run.

For example, a warm-up is designed to get your muscles prepared for the hard workout ahead, not to build aerobic endurance. Adding on mileage is simply junk miles that do nothing to advance your fitness.

On the same note, recovery runs are designed to aid in recuperation by speeding blood, oxygen, and nutrients to broken down muscle fibers.

Running longer doesn’t aid in this process and more likely inhibits proper recovery.

Don’t worry about losing fitness

Most runners understand the above principles, so why do we freak out when we miss a few days of training? Unfortunately, runners have an irrational fear that missing a few runs will ruin all the hard work they’ve put in over the previous months.

Luckily, I’ve got great news for you.

While obviously you’re not going to be gaining any fitness during your time off, you won’t lose that much either.

Most studies show that you’ll experience a negligible reduction in fitness after taking as many as seven days off.

Even if you need to stop running for ten to fourteen days, the amount of fitness you lose is insignificant – as little as 3-4%. Here’s some of the data.

So, don’t fret if you’re forced to take time off for sickness, injuries or travel.

You’re not becoming as detrained as you might fear, and with a few quick and easy workouts, you’ll be right back where you left off.

Don’t let missing training get you down

Some runners find it difficult to rebound after missing a few days.

They get off their routine, lose momentum and struggle to get started again.

However, as you now know, it takes more than a few days away from running to lose significant fitness, so you shouldn’t let a few missed days ruin the rest of your schedule.

First, use the time off to work on aspects of training outside running. If you’re injured, work on your core, hamstrings, hips, lower legs (only if those exercises don’t bother your injury).

Instead of “losing” time to an injury, you can be hardening your body for better, healthier training in the future.

Keep eating healthy. Whether you’re sick or just missing time do to work, family or travel commitments, you can use foods to your advantage.

Some foods can aid in the healing process of injuries and while getting sick and avoiding bad calories can make it easier to return to training. When you’re not running, be extra diligent about the foods you eat.

How to get back on track

Exactly how you get back into training is an individual question.

Your training history, goals and exact reason for missing runs will all play a significant factor in how you jump back into training. This is where a coach can really come in handy.

However, for those that don’t have a support resource they can lean on, here are some good guidelines:

If missed training time is one to five days

If you miss less than five days of training, it’s safe to assume you didn’t lose any fitness and your legs will respond to jumping back into training very quickly.

You don’t want your first run back to be a hard workout, so schedule two or three easy days of running. I suggest 80-90 percent of your normal easy run distance. Include some strides or explosive hill sprints stimulate the central nervous system and get the legs ready for harder running.

After two or three easy runs, you should be good to jump back into harder workouts without needing to adjust your training paces.

  • If you’re returning to running after an injury, you might want to scale back your first workout or add a few extra easy days of running to ensure that you’re 100 percent healthy. It’s better to take a few extra easy days or run a moderate workout to start than it is to rush back.
  • If you’re returning to running after being sick, it often takes an additional four or five days after feeling normal while walking around to be in prime running shape. Cold and flu symptoms often linger when you push the body beyond basic, everyday functions. Your first hard workout will feel more difficult than normal and even easy days may not feel great. It’s not a reflection of fitness, but rather your body trying to operate while still less than 100 percent. Consider scaling back your first workout accordingly.

If missed training time is six to ten days

If you miss between six and ten days of training, you’ll likely lose a little running specific coordination and a very slight amount of fitness. This isn’t anything to fret over, but it does mean you’ll want to schedule your first workout back to be pretty easy.

  • Keep your first three days of running easy. Start with 60-70 percent of easy mileage and increase 10-15 percent each day. Again, add some strides or hill sprints. This should get you feeling almost back to normal.
  • Rather than running your previously scheduled workout, consider running a fartlek instead. I like 6 x 3 minutes at 5k effort with a 2-3 min walk rest. That will get your legs moving quick and three minutes is long enough to get you huffing and puffing without being killer.

After this introductory workout, you should be all set to jump back into your regular training mileage and intensities.

If missed training time is ten to fifteen days

At this point, you’ve missed a decent amount of training and it’s going to take you a couple of weeks to feel back to normal and be ready to train at your previous intensity and volumes.

  • Start with three easy days of running at 60-70 percent of your normal mileage, increasing 10-15 percent each day. Include strides and hill sprints. Your first workout after this three days should be similar to the fartlek mentioned previously.
  • After this introductory fartlek, run easy (or rest if you normally have rest days scheduled) for two days at your normal easy run mileage. Then, try this workout: 12 x 400 meters at 5k-8k pace with a quick (steady pace) 45 second or 100 meter jog recovery. This workout has you running quick, which helps turn the legs over, but the short, moving rest will also make it a challenging endurance session. Plus, it’s only 3 miles in volume, so you won’t over extend yourself.

After these two introductory workouts, you should be all set to jump back into your regular training mileage and intensities.

Should you make-up missed workouts or jump back on schedule

The final question relates to how you get back on schedule. Should you go back and re-do the workouts you missed or continue on your schedule, skipping the workouts you weren’t able to run? Again, this is a variable and individual situation, but here’s what I suggest:

If you’re in the final eight to ten weeks before your goal race, go back and perform the workouts you missed.

Typically, this last portion of the training is what coaches call the “race specific phase”, where each workout becomes more and more specific to the demands of your goal race. Generally, each workout builds on itself.

Meaning, one week you might have 12 x 400 at 5k pace and the next you’ll have 8 x 600 at 5k pace, followed by 6 x 800 the third week.

The schedule assumes you’ve done 12 x 400 and are ready to take the next step and increase the distance. If you just jump into 6 x 800, it’s likely your body isn’t ready.

Not only does this increase your chance of injury, but it’s probable you won’t be able to hit the workout and thus won’t get optimal training benefits.

If you’re more than 8 weeks away from your race date, you can jump back into your schedule and skip the workouts you missed.

At this point, you’re in what most coaches call the “general phase”.

Typically, you’ve already adjusted to the workout and volume distance and you’re putting in the general prep work to maximize your overall fitness or to work on particular weaknesses, such as speed or endurance.

As such, you should be able to jump back into training without making up for missed workouts since your paces and volumes will roughly be the same of the course of a few weeks.

Missing training is never optimal and it’s always difficult to find the perfect way to get back on track.

However, use these guiding principles the next time you have to take a few days off and you’ll be able to slide back into training without missing a beat.

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15 Responses on “How to Return to Running After Injury, Sickness or Missing Training

  1. having read this article my question is how long does it take to recover after an operation? Does the length of time under anesthetic affect how long it will take to recover?

  2. Great couple articles on the injury subject.

    Curious to know what the recommendation would be for someone who misses a few runs, including the “long run” in the first week of taper. I have been managing some Achilles tendonosis/bursitis for the last few weeks, but was able to complete three 20 milers/good LT/little speed in my build up. Unfortunately, my first week of taper ended up being crummy as I ended up getting a 10 miler in mid-week and then trying for an 8 miler after a days rest and having a bad flare up which was making me think I wouldn’t be running at all. Luckily, I have babied it and was able to run 4.5 yesterday and will hopefully finish the week with a 6 miler and a 10 miler before marathon week starts (where i plan to do next to nothing.. 4 and 2 possibly).

    In your mind, is it advisable to do something different to give more rest or just go by feel at this point? Also, was curious to know if I should adjust my goal time of 3:15, which seemed doable before i had the flare up and missed runs.

    Thanks!

    • Just to update. I had some discomfort at the beginning of some of my runs so I bagged them. I ended up running just the 10 miler on Saturday. I am thinking of just running one 2 miler this week. Still curious about the pacing for the marathon as I am unsure of how i should go about it….

      • Just to update for others to have an example to go on. After having very little running during taper as mentioned above, I ended up having a pretty cold(30 degrees), blustery(17mph winds) marathon and finished up in 3:20. Not too shabby considering original goal, weather, and achilles issues preventing running during taper. The biggest thing I noticed was staying power being less as it was pretty difficult the last few miles(moreso than normal) and my legs got stiff/achy/tight pretty early on in the run(mile 8 i could feel it a bit which is way early versus feeling fabulous there).

        • Hi Steve,

          I see you had bursitis/tendonitis back in October. I hope you are well now. Congrats on your terrific marathon time! I have had to take off 6 weeks from running. I am getting better but not 100% yet. However, my physical therapist thinks I can start running again. I have a few questions: 1) did you wear a brace or orthotics when your resumed running? 2) do you think it’s possible I could run a 1/2 marthon in 4.5 weeks from now if I run a lot slower than I usally do?
          Any tips or advice is much appreciated!

          Thanks.

  3. Missed training time recommendations only go up to 10-15 days. What if missed training time is more than this? I had a severe hip flexor tear and missed 6 weeks of running. Just cleared to start back this week. How should I proceed? Thanks.

  4. Thanks for a couple great articles on the question of when to take time off and what it does to the body. I’m going to ask a somewhat involved question, any guidance would be much appreciated…

    I’m training for my first marathon but ended up deciding to run a race ~2 months after my initial goal race (decided to run my first in my hometown with my brother!). i’m doing the jack daniels 2Q plan (ran my first half in December and am ~6 weeks into the 2Q plan so I have some good fitness coming in – my long runs are in the 10-12 mile range with assorted tempo and marathon mileage mixed in). i also have some soreness in my achilles, just recently started. my plan was to take an “easy week” this week and maybe add a few additional easy weeks to extend the training program, with the last 3ish weeks before marathon week repeated to fill the time. so in other words i’ll add those 2 extra months through a combination of easy weeks that are NOT in the original training plan and then repeating the last bit of training. a) does that sounds reasonable, in particular adjusting a handful of weeks down? effectively what I’m planning to do is take the workout i have scheduled, halve Q1 and Q2, and then repeat the workout at its original distances the next week. b) any other tips for the achilles stuff? i’m worried about doing lasting damage/ not making it to the finish. would i be better off taking a couple weeks fully off and only biking/ swimming, and then just jumping back in, or do you think my little easy week thing will work?

    thanks!!

  5. Hi i am doing an 8 week couch to 5k training plan this would be the 5th week of training. We train Monday s and Thursday s i have missed Monday due to being ill and it is not looking hopeful for Thursday Should i try and get the two nights in myself before next Monday ?

    • Hi Breda, thanks for reaching out. You would be best off to just move on. It is not going to help you by cramming a workout in. You were smart and listened to your body, which will pay off. Take another read through this post, it should ease your mind a little!

  6. Hey. I’m a elite level soccer player who is currently coming back from an ACL tear (recovering from surgery). It is a 6 month minimum recovery timeline from surgery to return to practicing. I am currently 4 months into my rehab and things have been going really well. I was recently cleared to begin to run again (first time in 4 months) and I feel as though I have lost all cardio endurance. My first run was quite discouraging (I tried to run at the same pace) as it was a huge struggle and I had to cut my run short. I am hoping to return back to play stronger physically then before but I’m unsure how I should gradually build up my endurance. Please if you have any tips I’d appreciate it a ton!

    • Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reaching out. You are going to have lost a lot of running fitness in that time, and the next few months are likely to be very difficult for you as your body begins to remember what it was doing before. It is absolutely possible to come back stronger than before, especially if you have been given lots of PT exercises to strengthen the areas that you were weak in before. You will just have to return very gradually, and be proud of the little achievements along the way. It would probably be best to return using the walk run method, check out this post: http://runnersconnect.net/coach-corner/dont-shun-runwalk-method-experienced-beginners-alike-can-ultilize-runwalk-smarter-training/ Most PT will have some kind of return to running program, and you may want to follow that, so they can monitor you as you return. Hang in there, you can get back to your original fitness, it is just going to take time, but you will appreciate it so much more after all you have been through. Hope this helps!

  7. Hi, I’ve only just discovered your site, so thank you for such an informative article. I’m planning on running my first marathon in less than 6 weeks, but last week after an 18mile run, I developed a pain in my shin and calf. I ran a couple of times after this, foolishly ignoring the niggling pain in my shin. I was advised to take a week off which I have done ( on day 4 of doing nothing). The pain is there if I walk- im very stressed about this as I’m so close to the big day! Please advise! Many thanks, Pip

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