How to get back to running after a long break

Flicking off your running shoes after a break can be intimidating. If an injury, pregnancy, or a busy work schedule has hampered your passion for running, you may be wondering if you are now in a really bad shape. Will your body even remember how to run at a certain pace? Or will your legs feel weak and saggy? And how many times do you have to pave the sidewalk or jump on the treadmill before you can feel fun again?

The good news is that your muscles retain a memory of their former strength, making it easier for you to recover than if you were starting from scratch. If you’ve been sidelined for only two or three weeks, you may not even notice a significant change in your running performance, especially if you stay physically active while you’re off.

If more time has passed, you may not want to rush back several miles. Mix running and walking, take time to build strength in unused muscles, and use a few tricks to motivate and reward yourself.

It may take about two months for the new behavior to become automatic. Once that happens, it also becomes less taxing. But until then, you want to reduce the possibility of injury and frustration. Use these expert-backed tips to get through that annoying retraining period so you can hit the open road with passion.

You are more likely to stick to the running habit if you start with small goals. That could mean holding yourself back a little, both in terms of speed and distance. “Slow and steady win the race,” said Karina Wu, a physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City. Slow down until you can pass the speaking test, which means having a conversation while you’re running.

Try to do two to three short, easy runs each week. You can also follow a couch to 5km training plan designed for beginner runners and those returning after a long break. Alternatively, you can use a strategy that includes walking breaks in your walks.

Whichever plan you choose, make sure it includes elements of strength training, stretching, and rest. The goal, said Dr. Wu, is to stay still and remember that you are using this time to regenerate the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and connective tissues in your legs.

You might think you can muscle during the first few weeks or months of running, but research suggests that motivation alone isn’t always enough. Pairing small, immediate rewards with a task — like watching Netflix on the treadmill or treating yourself to an Epsom salt bath after a long run — can make it easier and more fun to keep doing these activities.

“People repeat behaviors they enjoy,” said Wendy Wood, a University of Southern California psychology researcher and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits. “If you hate running at first, you probably can’t do much to motivate yourself to repeat it.”

Short-term rewards can carry you through the days when your stimulus lags. They can also speed up the formation of a new running habit.

Research shows that you can also get psychological rewards from running with a group of friends, affirmations from a coach, or listening to your favorite music. Some studies have shown that people who listen to music are able to run faster, perform better, and feel less tired.

Strength training helps prepare your body for running again and can keep you injury-free for a long time. Many physical therapists and running experts recommend strength training a few weeks before returning to running to build muscle strength, increase flexibility, and improve overall biomechanics.

“I think a lot of people use running for fitness, but I really recommend getting fit to get back into running,” said Erin Davis, an expert in running biomechanics at the University of South Florida.

Dr. Davis said runners tend to be weak in their feet and ankles, as well as their hips and glutes. To strengthen these areas, try weightlifting, yoga, gymnastics, or plyometrics at least two days a week.

Dr. Davis and Dr. Wu recommended exercises that train multiple muscles at the same time, such as single and double calf raises, lateral walking (or lateral walking), planks, lunges, squats, and steps.

A well-designed warm-up can also help get your blood flowing and prepare your muscles for a run. Dr. Wu and Dr. Davis recommended dynamic stretches, in which you move your joints and muscles through full ranges of motion, to mimic the movement you are about to perform without locking them in place. For runners, it’s often the same exercises used in strength training, such as lunges and squats, as well as butt kicks and high knees.

Research has provided mixed and often contradictory results regarding the cooling benefits after exercise. But many athletes and physical therapists, including Dr. Wu, recommend static stretching, in which you hold a position for a while, after your run. She also recommended bringing your knee to your chest, pulling your ankle toward your glutes, and leaning against a wall to extend your calf or get into a deep lunge and move your hips in a circle. Try stretching and see if it makes you feel more flexible or helps you regain energy for your next run.

Just because your body remembers how to do a five-minute mile doesn’t mean your muscles and joints are ready for a run. As you rebuild endurance and strength while running, you also break down your body in many ways, such as opening microscopic tears in your muscles. Taking at least one day off a week will help you avoid injury and allow you to come back stronger, giving your body time to recover.

During each round, your body also depletes its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate saved in your muscles and liver. Rest and refueling helps replenish these reserves so that you can use them as energy when you run again.

Remind yourself that you are making progress through the whole process. Running is a refreshing way to exercise with the breeze blowing in your hair and the ground at your feet. So dust off those shoes and head out the door.

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