Rethinking Recovery: How to get back into running after an injury

It’s hard to slow down when we’re so used to speeding up. That’s what makes injury so frustrating and disheartening. Getting back on track is easier with a clear plan, enough patience and some of that signature runner’s perseverance.

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Halle Jarvi Medical Writer
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A Mental and Physical Exercise

For good and for bad, running is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical one. This dynamic is what makes getting back into running some time away a seemingly insurmountable challenge. It’s emotionally overwhelming to go from hitting your stride everyday to feeling defeated on the sidelines.

Once you start to feel like your body is ready to start running again, it’s hard to stop yourself from simply jumping in and getting going with the same expectations and goals from before an injury. More often than not, however, this only creates more feelings of disappointment. Recovery is the same type of mental and physical process as a normal running routine, yet it requires even closer attention to your individual goals and physical capabilities.

While it’s hard to find a technical approach that corresponds exactly to your injury and abilities, there are some concepts that can be helpful for anyone to keep in mind when getting back into running after an injury.

Since it’s undoubtedly a process that takes time, maintaining a long-term and big-picture outlook will keep you moving forward. Combined with a bit of mindfulness, you can instill a sense of patience and gratitude when going through recovery to help maintain the motivation and see achievements even more clearly. Recovery is a time to re-train not just your body but also your mind; it’s a fulfilling experience that can be even more rewarding than training at your best.

Patience & The Recovery Mindset

Sadness and frustration are the first hurdles to clear in the beginning. Understandably so — in the wake of losing the ability to do something you really enjoy, it can feel like you’ve lost a part of your identity. As runners, we usually go all-in and embrace the ‘runner lifestyle’ across many aspects of our everyday: from social circles and outings to wardrobe choices. Taking on the runner identity and lifestyle is not a bad thing — it’s actually a way to propel us to the next achievement. But in the face of injury, it prevents us from seeing running in the context of our bigger purpose in life. Instead, practice getting into a recovery mindset.

The recovery mindset is the core of your recovery. It means acknowledging your new physical needs and conditioning your mind to meet them head on. This all revolves around mindfulness as a way to build on the ritual and stress relief you’ve already developed around running. Nurturing more of a connection between your physical and mental feelings through your mindset will help keep you patient and motivated through recovery training.

Try some practices like guided meditation, yoga or simple breathing exercises early on to achieve the mental peace that running provided before injury. Whatever the case, being more cognizant of the challenges and progress to come will only equip you more fully to deal with the ups and downs of recovery training.

Mindfulness and Running
Mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga have been on the rise as complementary practices to regular physical exercise. Just like those times when you hit your stride and experience the high, mindfulness practices can also help dissolve the feeling of separation between mind and body. This is beneficial in many ways, including improving performance, decreasing depression and increasing energy levels.

Getting the Big Picture

When you first consider beginning to run again, the first step is to make sure that you have both a physical and emotional understanding of your injury. A little reflection before the process begins helps set expectations based on what you know about yourself. Try this simple exercise to help you reflect.

Ask yourself:

  1. Why do I run?
  2. What does it do for my mental health?
  3. What specific action caused my injury?
  4. How can I change my practice going forward to avoid re-injury?

Whether your injury was the result of an accident or misstep, or if you’re dealing with a chronic issue, you can gain insight into your personal running practice and style from considering your recovery in these terms.

After some consideration of the bigger picture, you can set a new goal. When setting your big-picture goal, remember to think in feelings rather than measurements. For performance-minded runners, this in itself is challenging. Instead of setting a big-picture goal based on time or distance, set one along the lines of ‘feeling more energized throughout the day’ or ‘practicing a consistent way to clear your mind'.

Coming back from injury is a continuous process that is integrated with your lifestyle, not just a list of achievements to check off. The big-picture goal is there to remind you of that, and your daily plan can help give you motivating victories.

Making a Plan

The most demanding part for driven runners is remembering to take things slow. Rather than trying to pick up where you left off, set new goals that will give you some early victories.

Begin by taking regular walks. Taking walks when you would normally run will not only help restore levels of aerobic fitness after a period of rest after an injury, but it will also lay the foundation for a renewed, consistent plan to keep yourself moving. After a period of walking without any pain, the next step is to progress into mixing short periods of jogging into those walks.

In the early stages of recovery, it’s important not to focus too much on achieving the aerobic exercise you would normally get from a run. The first days and weeks of recovery training are about regaining muscle strength before asking the body to perform in the ways it did before.

With the right expectations and mindset, you’ll progress into consistent runs with varied lengths that will resemble your regular routine a bit more. Regaining strength, though, takes time and commitment to both re-training on runs, but also to your personalized physical therapy routine.

Progressing your run

Consistency is key, so make sure you take the time to notice how each session feels and whether or not you can push it a bit more next time. Maybe that means more running than walking in tomorrow’s session, one more hill climb or just one more lap. It doesn’t have to be much — shaving off a few seconds on that final sprint is worth noticing and celebrating — because what matters the most is that all these forward steps add up to something great.

Maintaining Motivation

The mind-body connection that mindfulness nurtures is even more beneficial in times of low motivation. You will have days when feelings of defeat seem overpowering. Those are the days to remind yourself of the big-picture goal and how it feels to celebrate steps forward. Think back to where you started and be grateful for all the strides you’ve made so far. Those days might not be the ones when you smash a new PR, and they shouldn’t be. Instead, get moving by simply taking a walk or a low-intensity yoga class.

Setbacks and Boredom

Low points when you lack motivation or simply aren’t feeling your best aren’t failures — there is even some evidence of long-term benefits of slowing it down. Listen carefully to your body, trust your gut, and focus on staying active. Sustainable progress isn’t about being perfect every time, instead, it’s about being great at consistency and following through on your commitment to the big-picture goal.

The first signs and feelings of improvement are exciting, but they aren’t an indication that everything is suddenly back to normal. When you start to feel your body getting stronger, it’s hard to stick with taking things slow. However, too much too fast is one of the most common ways to get re-injured.

Instead of pushing even harder in response, take some time to acknowledge your newfound strength and celebrate how far you’ve come by sticking to your plan, your PT and taking care of your mind-body connection.

There will be times when the process just becomes dull. When boredom strikes, you can alter the usual routes to offer yourself some new physical and mental challenges. Mix in some hill climbs, strength training or interval drills when distance runs get a bit too repetitive.

Community and relationships also help when you’re bored with the routine. To mix it up, ask your partner or a friend if they are willing to take a run with you. Go into the city and run around other people; leave the city and train on the trails or on a back road. Whatever you come up with, creativity and understanding will get you far in the recovery process.

Keep Going

As with most things in life, everyone has to go at their own pace when beginning to train again after an injury. Running is a special type of exercise because it’s so personal. This means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Trust your intuition about your body. That said, the right mindset and a strengthened connection between mind and body will aid in any recovery process. This type of awareness will manifest in even more consistency throughout your training because you’ll be more in-tune with your body and better equipped to celebrate the victories along the way.

Remember, recovery training is not simply a challenge to get back to exactly where you were before an injury, it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your practice in a big-picture context; it’s about working through the psychological barriers just as much as the physical ones. Paying close attention to the mental and physical aspects of recovery will support many miles under your belt and leave you feeling both mentally and physically stronger.

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About the author

Halle Jarvi is an American health writer and editor based in Copenhagen. She is always practicing her own version of an active lifestyle and is passionate about empowering others to do the same. Her background encompasses health and lifestyle writing, editorial work as well as communication strategy and branding