How To Get Back Into Running After A Long Hiatus

You blinked, and suddenly you realise you haven’t run in weeks, maybe months. It’s not that you’ve been lounging around on the couch. Maybe you’ve been lifting, yoga-ing, walking. And while you’re active, yes, that feeling of being out of ‘running shape’ makes you dread lacing up to toe the start line of that fun-run 5K or even just the edge of your driveway. 

If you’ve encountered the mental roadblock associated with returning to running after a break, you’re far from alone. The reality is that “it’s hard to fake running fitness, both from both a physical standpoint as well as a psychological one,” says Annick Lamar, a certified running coach with New York Road Runners. How long it takes your body to get back into it is super individual, but in a sense, the mental process also requires training.

“Running can actually become a part of how we define ourselves and make us feel strong, purposeful and brave,” Lamar points out, adding, “When we take a break from it, those feelings may go MIA.” 

Real talk: after stopping, it’s tough to get back to running regularly. If you’ve already crushed a couple of jogs this week, however, it’ll take your mind less effort to get out the door again. “It’s much easier to keep running than to start running, which means you’ll face psychological and physiological hurdles when you’re trying to reestablish the habit,” says Dr Ayelet Fishbach, an expert on motivation and decision-making and the author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation

You may even experience what experts call an ‘action crisis’, which is when you’re torn between continuing to pursue a goal and throwing in the proverbial towel. Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland looked at how action crises impacted ballerinas and university students in two separate studies and concluded that the psychological state not only causes stress but also messes with overall wellbeing. And that’s exactly what can happen when you’re debating whether to chase those post-run endorphins or shelve your sneaks the first time you get a side stitch. But, don’t sweat it: research-proven ways to avoid this boulder are straight ahead. Prepare to reignite the spark…

How To Get Back Into Running After A Long Hiatus

Memory magic

Muscles remember movement patterns and pick them back up, so returning to running is easier than starting from scratch: “When you repeatedly perform a movement, you reinforce the motor pathway,” says running expert Dr Irene S. Davis. “The more reinforced it is, the easier it is to recall.” Like riding a bike.

Body comeback tips

Physical de-training (meaning, muscular and cardio-respiratory endurance begin to diminish) can start within 20 days of stopping an activity, says Lamar. As for how long it’ll take to get to your former speed and pace again, that’s based on original skill level and length of pause. Some pro advice:

Start small

It’s easy to launch into big goals right away, but instead think ‘micro’ challenges. “That could be two to four runs of 15 to 20 mins a week,” says Lamar. Reminding yourself of the tortoise, not the hare, will definitely help as well. 

Walk and run

Begin with a program that incorporates both, then slowly replace walking with running, tips Dr Irene S. Davis, a professor in the School of Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation at the University of South Florida. 

Follow the 10 per cent rule

Each week, add about 10 per cent more distance or time. So if you did three 3km runs last week (9km total), you could go for 10km or so this week. “It’s OK to round up or down,” Lamar notes. “The key is slow [distance] increase to allow your body to adapt.”

Embrace Cross-training

Regaining fitness means consistency – and cross-training and strength training are helpful tools for keeping active while you build up run training, explains Lamar. “Engage in a program that strengthens the core, hips, calves and feet,” adds Davis.

How To Get Back Into Running After A Long Hiatus

On the rebound

There’s no time like the present to get back out there. Leverage all of the advice here or pick a few strategies at a time. Often, one method will work for a while, then you’ll need to switch it up months later, Fishbach says. And that’s OK.

1. Get a bit nostalgic

One check in the positives column when it comes to returning versus starting: you have a (maybe literal) track record you can think back on to remind yourself of what you’ve done in the past – and can most certainly do again. People benefitted, in terms of increased commitment and motivation, from simply writing down how much they’d run before, in studies conducted by Fishbach. If memories of your last run are hazy at best, contemplate other baby steps you’ve taken toward your goal of running again. Maybe you bought new shoes or scheduled your workouts into your calendar, or you’ve been keeping up that cardio base via your other workouts. 

2. Tap into your deeper ‘why’

“It’s not about how much motivation you have – it’s about the quality of that motivation,” says Dr Carla Meijen, a sport and exercise psychologist and the editor of Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions. A lot of people run for external reasons, such as to lose weight or achieve an aesthetic goal. Those may get you out of bed in the morning, but they likely won’t keep you going day after day. Ideally, you’d generate longer-lasting internal motivation (think: to live a healthy lifestyle or for the pure stress relief of it) as well. Spend time reflecting on why you want to get back to running, Meijen recommends. Consider why you started in the first place, what you enjoyed about the sport when you were doing it and what led you to take a break. 

3. Make a solid ‘if then’ plan

Having a fix in advance of dealing with a specific setback or barrier is key, advises Meijen. For example, if you get majorly fatigued and cranky, then you’ll remind yourself how accomplished you’re going to feel when you push past the tough part. Or if you get a cramp, then you’ll ease up and focus on cadence. 

4. Advise a fellow struggler

“When you are struggling with something, giving advice to another person facing that hurdle helps you realise you know how to motivate more than you thought,” Fishbach says. The best part is that you don’t have to actually give anyone the advice – writing down what you’d theoretically say to someone else will also do the trick. 

5. Reflect after each run

There are three stages of performance, says Meijen – planning, performance and reflection. Often runners perform, then they want to get right back into planning the next run. But you’d be wise to reflect on each workout – how it went and how you can improve. Maybe you were in your head, focusing on how you felt slow compared with when you last ran. On the flip side, maybe you noticed your third run of the week felt easier than the first. Doing this helps to boost your confidence in addition to practical aspects.

Hold off on races 

When focused on performance, “you may get excited by adding [distance] or end up worried about skipping a run if your body is achy,” Lamar says. “The goal is to avoid injury; races can make you neglect that.” Instead, work on finding the joy in running.

Adopt a keep-moving mindset

1. You gain four incredible psychological perks by practising an endurance sport consistently, according to Meijen 

2. Learning how to pace yourself

3. Knowing it will be uncomfortable and choosing to do the task anyway

4. Using all that thinking time to your advantage

5. Not letting boredom get to you. These mind skills can carry over into other aspects of your life, like pushing through a difficult work task. 

6. Physically, of course, a running base is useful for overall wellbeing and cardiovascular health. But it’s also the first step in achieving any performance goals, says Lamar: “The bigger your foundation, the more training you can lay on top of it in terms of speed and interval work.” Plus, the running community is pretty great, as is being able to hold a (breathy) convo with a running buddy or lining up for a fun run with your family and a relaxed and happy attitude. Some things you appreciate more the second (or 22nd) time around.

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