Back in the Saddle: How to Survive a Return to Running After a Break

I suffered a serious injury falling off a horse in practice once, but started riding again to overcome my fears.

When you fall off a horse in riding, the best thing you can do is get back on and ride again. It helps you overcome your fear of falling again.

Is the same true for running? Returning to running after a layoff, especially one related to injury, can be tricky. Two things typically happen. You’re either mentally raring to go, but your body takes longer to respond. Or, you’re physically ready to resume running, but mentally are scared or unsure.

That sage advice “Listen to Your Body” confuses matters even more; running is work and can make you uncomfortable, especially when you’re out of shape and getting back into it. How do you know if that discomfort is good for you, rebuilding your fitness, or if that discomfort is causing or prolonging your injury?

And after that injury is healed and you’re cleared to run, you may be scared. How do you know you won’t become injured again? Even though your body isn’t showing any signs of injury, what if you cause the exact same thing to happen again? Or maybe you’ve settled into a new, runningless routine and are hesitant to risk the disappointment again?

My advice: take a deep breath and climb back on that horse.

Immediately after being sidelined by an injury, we often feel angry that we have to stop running. We have to cancel races, miss out on group runs with friends, or feel frustrated about changing our routines. When given the go ahead to start running again, our bodies probably won’t readjust as quickly as we want them to. While our memories are of our pre-injury fitness levels, our post-injury fitness level won’t match up. We typically start to lose fitness after only two weeks off, so depending on how long we are recovering we might return feeling sluggish and out of shape.

Additionally, it can sometimes be difficult, or even impossible, to pinpoint the specific cause of an injury. Knee hurts? Is it due to overuse (and what exactly does that mean, anyway, to a regular runner)? Biomechanical issues? Wrong shoes? Running surface: too much downhill or slanted road? The list of possible reasons goes on and sometimes we never really know the answer. This is where we really have to listen to our bodies, not push too hard to avoid reinjuring ourselves and remember fitness will come back relatively quickly.

I know this all too well. After over a month of complete restriction from any physical activity due to a potential pregnancy complication, I was recently cleared by my doctor to begin light exercise. Contrary to how I thought I would feel, I didn’t immediately go home and lace up my running shoes. I was scared. First, I sought a second opinion for reassurance that I wasn’t going to place baby and myself at higher risk. I also tried to define what “light exercise,” or my starting point, was. Instead of thinking about mileage or pace, I started by going for a short, light jog. This should be true for anyone restarting their running routine; you can’t immediately jump back into what you were doing when you left off, but you need to start at a conservative pace and mileage and build back from there.

I was also settled into my sedentary routine. I just moved back to central North Carolina, where it’s a good 10 degrees warmer than where I came from, and with the hot, humid, weather finally here, running didn’t seem that appealing. Physically, I was also a few pounds heavier, which probably happens to most people laid off from running, not just those pregnant. Once you get out of a routine, it’s hard to start again.

A few months ago this was me and mentally I'm still the same, but physically, after getting pregnant and a few week lay-off, not so much.
A few months ago this was me and mentally I’m still the same, but physically, after getting pregnant and a month-long layoff, not so much.

I’ll admit, my first run felt horrible. So did the second, and third. Even my snail’s pace seemed laborious, and I just felt all around awful. Not to mention the constant questioning in my mind: do I feel awful because it’s muggy and buggy out, it’s uphill any direction from my house, and I’m out of shape? Or do I feel awful because I’m pushing it too hard and shouldn’t be out here? That’s the mental mind game of returning to running, even after you’re cleared to do so. In equestrian, you get back on, and prove that you can control your ride. In running, it’s not as cut and dry.

By the end of a few weeks of working my way back into running, it still didn’t feel great, but what changed is that I was looking forward to it. The run itself was still somewhat unpleasant, but I felt much better after I finished. And the days I didn’t run? I missed it. I continued to run short and easy, not thinking at all about mileage, but just being thankful for the ability to exercise again. In some ways, this was also like getting back on a horse. With each run my fears lessened and I began to regain confidence in what listening to my body meant.

Have you experienced hesitation when restarting your running routine after a layoff? Did you climb right back on the horse to overcome your fears?

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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  1. Coming back from injury quickly turns from excitement to UGHHHHH! Ha! I am at this point right now- After 5 weeks off, I had my first run yesterday and it was sloooowwwww and my HR was HIGH. Amazing how quickly I went from the best running fitness of my life to what feels like ZERO fitness. Still, a slow run is better than no run! Excited to get back on the horse again tomorrow morning 🙂

  2. Refreshing to hear this. I’m two days away from attempting my first run in three months. Eek. And I’m 33 weeks pregnant. Double eek. This injury was not ideal but I never quit doing what I could in the meantime! I’m hoping for the best worst feeling on Friday!

  3. I’m in the middle of a running restriction due to pregnancy. This is exactly what I get a bit worried about. However, right now I look with jealousy at all runners. I’ll try to remember that in four months and channel the jealousy. Thank you for sharing your story!