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Article: How to return to running after injury, sickness or missing training

Following a training schedule rarely goes 100 percent according to plan. 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 bothminor and major injuries.

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.

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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