The Comeback Series, Part II: Easing Back In

Salty

Salty

Salty has written 331 posts on Salty Running.

Mommy, lawyer, runner, writer. Competitive runner working on coming back after baby #3. Legal career on hiatus while staying home with the kids (ages 5, 4 and 1.5). Salty Running boss.

Whatever, LL.

Whatever, LL.

We’re back with Part II of our Comeback Series. Today we’re discussing the very unsexy topic of patience.

The other day on my Facebook feed, I saw this status update from Mark Hadley‘s EliteMarathoning.com:

Each [comeback] is like a race. Start off too fast by doing too much and you are likely to bonk.

This is some kickass comeback advice. When we we’re stuck in a lay-off, we miss what we were doing when we left off. We miss the runners we were before whatever it was forced us to take a break. When we finally are able to get back in the saddle, we’re itching to get back to where we left off, to who we were when we left off. But now we and our running are different. I know. I’ve been there.

While I was pregnant with my second child, Pepper and another good friend would meet for their training runs and run by my house. I remember watching them run by on a snowy morning, realizing they were becoming noticeably faster. When I left off we were all close to the same speed, and as I watched them run out of my sight I cried. Like a baby.

After the post-partum recovery period, I was itching to join them, so I made ambitious short-term goals and went for them. At first it was great! I was doing workouts faster than ever just 8 months after I had the baby. I ran a significant 10 mile PR 9 months after the baby. YES! But by 12 months, my progress had stalled. I was half-injured…okay, injured. Burned out. Struggling. I could keep up with those two friends for workouts, but it was killing me and my running to do it. Nonetheless, I didn’t care and I pushed on. 18 months after baby with one disappointing race after another, I was out with a full-blown unrunnable injury. That is what happens when you go out too hard on the comeback.

Similarly, in races, particularly long races, one key to success is to practice patience. Hold back in those early miles so you’ll save something in your legs for the later miles when it really counts. In the context of a comeback, that means go slower and do less than you’d like in those first few weeks or months (even a year or more if you need it!) while you build back fitness and strength. Save the hard efforts and the ball-busting workouts for later when they will actually contribute to PRs.

Runners like me who don't ease into their comebacks become really bad cyclists.

Runners who don’t ease into their comebacks become really bad cyclists.

While having ambitious goals and having lots of enthusiasm are great for forming a successful comeback (as we will discuss in future installments of our Comeback Series!), patience might be even more important.

Patience requires an open mind.

There is no formula or timetable for getting back into shape. How long it takes will be different for each person and for each circumstance. For instance, it might take me longer to get back in shape than someone ten years younger than me and it might take me longer to get back into shape than it did after my first baby when I was 4 years younger.

To stay open-minded this time, I find it helpful to temper short-term goals. Instead of “getting back to where I left off as soon as possible,” my goals are more open-ended. When people ask me what I’m training for, believe me, I long to say “x time in y race!” Instead, I tell people, “to just get back into shape.” Other good open-minded goals could be to “get back to running x days a week” or “to work my way up to xx miles a week again” or “to get to where I feel strong enough to do 3 quality sessions a week.”

Patience requires acceptance of the truth.

This isn’t to say I don’t have goals or that I don’t have expectations of excellence for myself. What I’m saying is that I accept the truth. I accept the truth about the state of my current fitness. I accept the truth that it will take time, probably a lot more time than I’d like, to get back to where I left off, let alone make the improvements I want to make. It’s counter-intuitive, but I know that to reach my longer-term goals, like qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, the truth is that I need to let up on the gas pedal and ease back into training. I accept that in the big picture of this comeback. I’m just getting warmed up!

Patience requires committing to running for the long haul.

When embarking on a comeback, more than ever, it’s time to remind ourselves that we’re in it for the long haul. Just like in a race, we need to warm-up to the hard stuff. After not running for a long time, sometimes that warm-up needs to be extra long. That’s ok! And then, as in a race, we don’t want to go blazing off the starting line only to burnout before the finish. When I feel impatient and wishing I could run a workout I used to be able to run, I tell myself I am better off to take it easy now and save that kind of effort and intensity. I’d rather do it later when it will help me reach my goal, rather than doing it now because I like writing about it in my training log, particularly when it could even hurt my goal.

Patience requires faith in the process and your body.

When we get back to training after a layoff, we might feel way out of shape. There will be good days and bad days and sometimes those bad days leave us feeling hopeless. But that’s all normal. It’s normal to feel way out of shape for a while and then all of a sudden have a workout that offers a glimmer of hope and then out of seemingly nowhere a huge bump in fitness. The process can be slow, but if you have faith in it and behave, you will get back into shape. Trust that process and your body to reawaken the speedy runner within. “It’s just a matter of time.” I say this to myself often.

Have you ever come back from an injury or other lay-off? Were you successful or unsuccessful at easing back in? If you managed to do it right, what helped you remain patient through those early weeks/months?

3 Responses to “The Comeback Series, Part II: Easing Back In”

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  1. Mint says:

    Ah, patience. So difficult to find, but so necessary for success. Great post.

    I wish it came to me more naturally, but I am working on it – especially now as I am sidelined with a (non-running) injury. It is hard for me to pass on my track workout tonight, but I know I need to or I’ll make things worse. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Rebecca says:

    I think running teaches many valuable life lessons – patience and enjoyment of the process at the forefront, at least for me. After about 20 years of hobby-jogging, I’ve spent the last two years trying to become a competitive-in-age-group-type runner. This process has been absolutely riddled with injuries and disappointments, so I have had to be very patient and focused on my long-term goals instead of getting bogged down in all the adversity of the short-term. Not easy! But good to read a post like this as it serves as a reminder that we all go through this, so thanks!

  3. Allie says:

    Ha! I JUST wrote an email to a friend on this topic! I am in the process of easing back, very slowly, after the dumbest (non-running) injury of my running career took me out for a month (and counting…1 run does not a comeback make) at the peak of my fitness. In my younger years I was TERRIBLE at honoring my injuries and then even worse at easing back into running when they finally healed. As a result I spent the bulk of my early 20’s injured. But I finally learned that if I was a patient patient (sorry, couldn’t help that) and respected my body’s need to heal, I would actually come back much faster than if I took the more “typical” route of trying to take shortcuts in my recovery process. As a result I have learned to become very, very patient. I am now incredibly conservative (for example, I just asked my doctor what the most aggressive way to treat my current injury was. He said “take 7 days totally off”. So I took 9.) And while I am rehabbing injuries I amuse myself by strengthening my core, glute medius, etc. doing this ancillary training helps keep me occupied and also helps ensure that my return to running will be more successful.

    Because I rehab injuries conservatively I have been able to jump back into running more quickly than seems reasonable after some of my injuries. I once ran a marathon 4 weeks after getting off crutches for a femoral neck fracture. And 7.5 weeks after breaking my foot I ran the NYC marathon. While those do not count as easing back in, the work I put into the time when I was injured made it so they were successful.

    This injury is different though and requires a different approach. But I am maintaining my patience by remembering that rest is often the key to improvement (so if I rest well I may come back faster) and by maintaining a long-term view. One or two months of running missed in my year is not going to kill my entire “career” as a recreational runner. At least that is what I tell myself :) Last but not least, I also let myself have a nice little pity party every day, a time when I can just admit to myself that, despite my optimistic, patient outlook, it does suck that I am injured. Once I acknowledge that and have my internal temper tantrum I find that I am able to dust myself off and stick to the plan much better. It may seem silly, but that little moment in the day has been very helpful to me!

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