One of the hardest things about coming back from an injury is knowing how to balance a smart rehab program with your desire to get back to full strength as soon as possible.
Trust me, I get it. It sucks to be at the top of our game and to feel like you’ve been set back years by just a few weeks off. Having been through this process more than I would like to admit, I’ve grown wiser with age and experience. I’ve learned that no matter how much it sucks, you have to take it easy. And not your old definition of “easy.” Take that definition of easy and make it three times easier.
It’s hard — not so much physically, but mentally. You will look at your watch and feel like you can go faster. Don’t. You will finish your run feeling like you could go further. Don’t. You will doubt yourself and you will feel like you aren’t progressing at all, but I promise you, you are.
As I go through this process again, I wanted to offer some of the best tips I learned.
Have a Plan
You have a plan when training for a race, do the same thing for your recovery.
Work with your doctor or physical therapist to come up with a plan to get you back to 100 percent. Having that plan will help you feel better about your progress and it will help you from pushing too far too soon. If the plan says run 20 minutes, you run 20 minutes, even if you feel good and secretly want to double it.
When I returned to running after my tibial stress fracture, I used this program from Brigham & Young Women’s Hospital. This time around, I’ve developed a different program, since my physical therapist didn’t think a run-walk program was the best for a calf strain since it is better to keep the muscle warm.
Use a Heart Rate Monitor
When you are first getting back to running after injury, you can’t trust your perception of effort.
You may feel like you are breathing easy, but your heart rate will be through the roof. You might look at your watch and be tempted to pick it up because the time on the screen is far slower than what you are used to. But what your body needs when you are first building back your mileage is nothing but time in the aerobic zone.
The best way to counteract your faulty perception is to have solid data. A heart rate monitor will tell you how much you are really exerting yourself. Though it can vary from person to person, generally, you want to keep your heart rate around 76 percent or less of your maximum heart rate (about 150 beats per minute for me).
It may seem counter intuitive, but if you want to run fast again, you really have to start by running slower. For more on why aerobic training is important, I suggest you read some stuff by Phil Maffetone.
Ignore the Numbers
Your paces are going to be brutal when you first come back and you have to accept it, but ignore it. Don’t internalize it. Don’t speed up and end up running outside the aerobic zone. Those numbers don’t define who you are as a runner.
I find this to be one of the hardest parts of returning from injury. It’s really rough to struggle to keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone at a pace a minute per mile slower than your previous recovery pace.
To make this easier, I depend on the previous tip. I keep my watch flipped to a screen that just shows my heart rate / heart-rate zone. Yes, I still see the pace at the end of the run, but when I don’t see it while I’m out there, it becomes easier to make staying below a set heart rate the only goal.
At the end of the day, you will be rewarded for your patience.
For those new to this blog, I started it in March 2015 after nearly three straight months off of running. That was my longest involuntary break from running as an adult.
Prior to my injury, I had just run a PR of 3:21 in Berlin, and as I was sidelined I worried that I would never be able to run that fast again. But I didn’t sit idly by.
While I was injured, I read different training books (Pfitzinger, Jack Daniels). I learned, and I developed a plan. By November of that year, I ran a 3:06 in Philadelphia, blowing away my wildest dreams.
When I was in the thick of recovery, my only hope was to get my paces back to where they were. But at some point, as I stuck to the plan and stayed serious about running aerobically, I became fitter than ever. As I struggle to look at my paces this time around, I have to look back at that and believe.
I know being injured sucks, and I know you might feel inclined to speed through your recovery, but fight to stay smart. We’ll get there in time.
Stay healthy, my friends.