Life happens, and sometimes you need to press pause on your favorite sport. But you can return stronger than ever. Here are some tips for how to start running again after a mental or physical break, inspired in part by my own recent recovery.
Overcoming mental and physical challenges
For those who were trained up for a race that was eventually canceled due to COVID-19 lockdowns, some might have initially felt determination to find a Plan B race and carry that fitness over ... only to eventually lead to burnout when all potential alternatives were exhausted. For others, it may have simply been a welcomed break to get back to running just for the joy of it, without the added pressures of race goals. At the same time, that may have also led a lot of runners to feel a bit lost without structured training and a goal to shoot toward when figuring out how to start running again — especially if virtual racing wasn't their thing.
I fell somewhere in the middle myself. I was actually training to hopefully qualify for the Boston Marathon at the 2020 Houston Marathon, but I got injured about a month out from the race and ended up sitting it out. The race itself did go off without a hitch, as this was a few months before the pandemic took hold of the U.S. But it meant several weeks off of running for me, and just as I was contemplating the idea of a comeback race and how to start running again, everything started getting shut down.
You would think that would have led to even more disappointment for me, but it actually turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise, for lack of a better term. The last nearly two years allowed me to build back up slowly without piling on too much too soon and self-sabotaging my recovery in the process. Now, with the help of a new coach, I'm finally back at the same fitness level as I was before that late 2019 foot injury, and I'm feeling confident about pursuing that Boston qualifier goal again.
But while I'm experienced and seasoned enough as a marathoner now to know how to recover and bounce back wisely after a long layoff from running, there are certainly plenty of lessons I've learned the hard way along the way.
Take into account how much time you took off
If you only took a few weeks off due to vacation, race recovery, or even to prevent minor pain from becoming a full-on injury, you may not need to do too much to adjust your running plans in your comeback. Taking the first few weeks or so completely easy with low mileage and no speed workouts might be just what you need to ease back in to avoid pressure and burnout.
If you've taken a longer break, though, you may need to start slower.
Build your base back up slowly
As I slowly built back up during the pandemic, I knew that I was eventually going to want to hire a coach to pursue my big Boston qualifier goal once it looked like races were happening again. At the same time, I knew I was far away from the goal at the time and needed to take my time to rebuild my mileage and endurance to avoid injury and overtraining. So, I took many months to build back up to my off-season baseline of 30 miles per week. For a long time, my easy and long-run paces were much slower than what I was used to seeing pre-injury. It was admittedly discouraging to start, but I knew that it was normal and that I had to learn to be OK with it.
Set small goals to start
This is key for avoiding putting too much pressure on yourself by pursuing the next big goal. For me post-injury, this meant building back up to running five days a week and to a double-digit long run of at least 10 miles, and it took me a couple of months to get there. I started with no longer than 3 miles at a time in the beginning, but if you've had several months off, it could mean more like run-walk intervals of just a few minutes at a time. If you're coming back from a serious injury, definitely consult a healthcare professional to figure out the best course of action for your individual situation. Don't beat yourself up for giving yourself adequate time to rebuild.
Focus on other aspects of your lifestyle that could help your running
It's not just important to maintain consistency and get your mileage in when you're training. Other factors like sleep and nutrition are just as crucial for staying healthy and injury-free. Take steps to improve your sleep quality by limiting screen time at night and going to bed at the same time every night.
Focus on getting in enough whole foods like fruits and vegetables, but allow yourself to indulge in your favorite foods from time to time, too. If nutrition is an area you've struggled to get a handle on, consider consulting a regular dietitian to zero in on any deficiencies or holes in your diet. Similarly, if you dealt with an injury caused by certain muscle weaknesses and imbalances, consider adopting a strength training routine if you haven't already. Be sure to enlist the help of a coach or personal trainer to avoid getting hurt in the process.
Avoid signing up for your next race too soon
This was one of the biggest mistakes I made when I was still a relatively inexperienced long-distance runner: doing too many races at a given time in pursuit of the next PR. In reality, I was sabotaging myself by not giving my body enough time to recover, and it really sucked the joy out of training and racing for me for a long time. If you're doing a lot of races and constantly falling flat and not performing well, take a step back and consider just running without any structured training for a while to get back to the enjoyment the activity brings you.
Take what you see on social media with a grain of salt
Experts would largely agree that today's day and age of social media has absolutely contributed to runners struggling to get back in the right mental state after a long break from running. It's so easy to fall into a comparison trap and feel like you need to rush to do more based on what you see everyone else doing. (And I've certainly been guilty of falling into this trap myself.)
If this sounds like you, take a step back and ask yourself: Do Instagram and Strava add more stress to your life than enjoyment? Consider limiting the time you spend on these apps, as well as how much you divulge about your own training. Unfollow certain accounts if you find that they make you feel bad about yourself and don't add value to your daily life.
Reconvene with your training partners or running clubs
If you took the majority of the pandemic to run solo or with the occasional training partner or two, you're certainly not alone. Many clubs have resumed now that it's been shown that outdoor activities are safe and exposure risk is minimal. Reuniting with your old training group might be just what you need to reignite that running spark and look forward to long weekend runs and race goals again.
Sign up for your next race when you truly feel ready
If you've gotten to the point where you've built up a healthy base and are feeling truly excited to race again, well, why not? Find something small and local to start. This can help you avoid too much pressure right off the bat. It can be anything from a 5K or 10K to a half-marathon. Don't put pressure on yourself to PR in your first race back; instead, set more attainable goals that can still bring satisfaction, like running a solid negative-split pacing strategy.
Consider hiring a coach when you're ready to train hard again
One of the biggest things I struggled with during my comeback was wondering if I'd ever get back to the same fitness level I was at before, since I could barely hold my old marathon goal pace for more than a mile or two without feeling gassed. Once I did get to a solid place endurance-wise and signed up for my next marathon, I knew it was time to hire my coach to help me get back to that next level. While I did have the basics down pat — like running slow and easy enough when necessary — it was key to remember that there's a reason you cover certain distances and hard workouts at very specific points in a training cycle.
Maintain a positive mindset
Even if it feels like you're so far away from your former, faster self, remind yourself that it is possible to get back there; you just have to give it time. And while the pandemic showed us that racing can be taken away, running itself will always be there, and hard times usually won't last forever. You probably wouldn't be so hard on one of your training partners struggling with a comeback, so extend yourself the same level of kindness.
The bottom line
Just about every runner will deal with a long layoff at some point, whether it's due to injury, burnout, or personal circumstances in their individual lives. The key to a solid comeback is giving yourself patience and grace, staying positive, and avoiding self-sabotage by trying to rush back into things too quickly. By adopting these tips, you can get back to running happily much sooner than you may have expected.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
I'm a Houston, Texas, native who's run 11 marathons and 30-something half marathons, with 3:30 and 1:39 personal bests. I'm also a freelance health and fitness journalist, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and a lover of country music, baking, and world travel.