How to transition from injured to racing again

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

Harrisburg Marathon 2012. En route to a PR until I injured a few miles later. After this race I was forced to stop running for 8 weeks.

I was recently requested to write a blog about coming back to training for a goal race after some time off due to injury. I am happy to oblige Miss. Gallagher (girl, you are going to come back stronger than ever!), and think this topic is one that’s all too familiar for runners but also something we often struggle with.

Taking time off from running is rarely a choice runners want to make, but often forced to make at some point in their running careers. A troublesome IT band, tendonitis, stress fractures, torn ligaments – these are the unhappy and always frustrating part of this sport we love. Sadly, there is no magic pill or shoe or weird food we can eat to fix the problem. At the end of the day, the doctor may tell you what none of us want to hear: “REST.” The worst is when we are told “Rest for ________ months.” That’s like a knife to the gut. Being forced to rest many a runner insane. Personally, I become a monster to deal with. I am unhappy, restless, convince myself everyday that I am going to lose all fitness, and will never be as fast or strong as I once was, that my life is over, so on and so forth. The pity party can last for a few days or a few months, depending on the person and how many races or beautiful running days pass them by.

Then, like a child on Christmas morning, you will finally be given the green light – you are clear to run again! YESSSSSS!!!!!!! This is perhaps the best mood you’ll be in since your injury, and rightly so! You can finally take the first steps towards being a runner again. Best. Day. Ever. That is until you are told you need to build your mileage slowly and safely. No jumping into a fast 10K run around Central Park. Nope. Instead you may be told you can start with 10-15 mile WEEKS. Physically, 10-15 mile weeks may shockingly feel tough. Mentally, you’ll be happy to be out running, but feel ridiculous running so little if you were perviously a mileage junky. The struggle most of us have is being patient and smart after we are given the green light. Mentally, we see ourselves at our peak performance and don’t understand or easily accept that no, you are not there right now – though with time and smart training you can be again.

Last year, I was in this very boat and it sucked. I went from 60-80 mile weeks down to 10-15 mile weeks after an 8-week hiatus. Coming back was awful. Mentally, I was frustrated on almost every post-hiatus run. I would go on team runs, and struggle and turn blue at a pace that months earlier was my conversational pace, while everyone else flew by with ease. They were incredibly encouraging, but in my own head I was really hard on myself. Still, those 10-mile weeks turned into 50-mile weeks over time. I reminded myself over and over that I was not going to be injured that year, and that was the ultimate goal. After all, running poorly was far better than not being allowed to run at all. So yes, if you are coming back from an injury, I can totally relate. I can sympathize, and I can be the voice of reason for how and while coming back slowly is the only shot you’ll have of a healthy season.

The important thing is to not compare yourself and your current fitness to the people around you. Hopefully they are not also coming back from injury, so why compare yourself to a healthy runner? In fact, why compare yourself at all? Instead, look back over your past training history, because the evidence for what went wrong and lead you to being injured may be there. Mistakes are welcomed lessons to runners as long as we learn from them. Figure out what perhaps you did wrong. The hard part is being objective. What may be right for your training buddy could be wrong for you. Did you take rest days? Were they really rest days, or were you “not running” but still training in some way? Did you get much sleep? Did you never stretch? Did you wear awful shoes when not running? Did you take on too much mileage or intensity too soon? Did you race every weekend? Do you have physical limitations you pushed too hard? I promise you that your training past has some clues for what went wrong.

Its easy to be mentally restless when coming back to training, especially if you have a goal race looming in the future. I get it, you want to play catchup. Don’t. Instead, come up with a sensible plan. Lay it out in front of you, so you can visualize your time and how to wisely use it. This will reduce any anxiety over a race goal and give you time to focus on base mileage and building back to where you need to be before pushing pace and distance.

Last year, I was given the green light for my first 10-15 mile week on January 8th. I had the Boston Marathon on my calendar for April 15th. Three months to train for a marathon isn’t a lot of time if you are starting with great base mileage. I was starting at zero. Literally. I made it to the Boston Marathon, but I was forced to make adjustments. My race goal had to be to finish, and to run it easy. I was not allowed to run hard. My doctor also didn’t let me run anything fast until mid-March. I ran one 20-miler in my training, while I usually run 3-5 long runs of 20+ miles leading up to a marathon. It was a hard pill to swallow, especially because my original plan was to race Boston and go for a big PR. However, I felt incredibly lucky on April 15th to feel strong and to cover 26.2 miles a few short months after being side-lined. It may happen to you, that your goals get crushed. It’s hard, but remind yourself that once you get healthy and back to racing, there are always future marathons or races. Maybe this won’t be “your year,” but there is always next year – as long as you take care of yourself. As for me, my big PR happened six months after Boston, at the Philly Marathon. Again, you can always adjust and when the timing is right it will happen for you. Be kind to yourself.

When coming back to racing, use support from runners around you. The odds are that many of them have experience with injuries. Lean on them for support. Just be careful to not let them tempt you with running too far or fast too soon. Join them for mileage, but hop in or out of the run as you need to. This will make you part of your running community without doing too much. Communicate with your running pals about your limited mileage or speed. They will be supportive. Again, they have probably been there before.

Lastly, remind yourself that these struggles will make you are stronger and smarter runner in the big picture. Force yourself to learn from your mistakes and your running career can last decades. And if you think the speedy lady in the park who can clock 80+ mile weeks year after year won’t get injured at some point, guess again. Odds are she will. Its part of our sport. At some point we are all that runner starting at zero. The trick is the lessen the odds of being that runner time and time again.

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