Five tips to help you return to running

It has been a long, cold winter. Walking on ice has proven difficult and running outdoors nearly impossible. For those without gym access, this winter has challenged our ability to maintain our fitness goals—except those goals directly related to shoveling snow. With events like the Broad Street Run quickly approaching, we may find that we are trying to catch up for lost time.

With warmer weather in sight, it is important that we gradually resume our training regimens to ensure that injury doesn’t take us out of the race. So, if you’re starting to get nervous about that event you agreed to run with your co-workers as your New Year’s resolution, here are five suggestions for returning to running after a prolonged break:

1)      Have a plan. Plan your runs and figure out in advance your weekly mileage/cross-training goals. This will help prevent a sudden training increase immediately before the event. Unlike studying for a test or putting together that last-minute presentation for work, it is not possible to cram mileage. If you plan on returning to running with a workout partner, make sure you both know each other’s goals, so that you can stick with your plan. Most importantly, set realistic goals to ensure that you are met with success.

2)      Follow the 10 percent rule. When returning to running, it is important to gradually increase your mileage. The 10 percent rule is an easy and effective guideline. Start by running a distance that is comfortable for you. Then increase that mileage by 10 percent each week. While strictly following this rule may not have you back in time for a May run if you’ve truly taken the winter off, the intention is an important one.

3)      Cross-train. Cross-training is a great way to prevent injury and has even been shown to improve running times[1]. Particularly for female runners, areas to target for strengthening include the hip abductors (outer hip muscles) and core[2] [3]. Other cardiovascular activity, like swimming or biking, can be helpful to improve your endurance while avoiding overuse injury during those first few weeks when your mileage is low.

4)      Be attentive to your running environment. Maybe you’ve been running on a treadmill over the winter and are now transitioning to outdoor running. Maybe you’ve been on an indoor track and are now running outdoors on a graded surface or hilly terrain. This transition may require you to take a small step back in your mileage to give your body time to acclimate to the new environment.

5)      “Book end” your runs. Book end your runs with a warm-up, cool down, and proper stretching. Warm-ups can include gentle active movement to lubricate your joints and increase blood flow to your muscles. Active stretching can also be a good option. (Active stretching involves using muscle contractions to gently stretch opposing muscles, held for less than five seconds and repeated several times.) A cool down is also a good idea to bridge from more intense running back to resting. This is the time to slow the run back down to a walk and then do static stretching. Make sure that you maintain good form when stretching and that static stretches are comfortable and held for at least 30 seconds.

Ultimately, when in doubt, listen to your body. While a slow and steady approach to resuming running can be challenging at times, it is no doubt the best way to win the race.

[1] Foster C, Hector LL, Welsh R, et al. “Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 1995, 70:367-372.

[2] Leetun DT, Ireland ML, Willson JD, et al. “Core stability measures as risk factors for lower extremity injury in athletes.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2004: 926-934.

[3] Niemuth PE, Johnson RJ, Myers MJ, et al. “Hip muscle weakness and overuse injuries in recreational runners.” Clin J Sport Med. 2005, 15(1): 14-21.

Jennifer Zellers, PT, DPT received her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Columbia University and is an Advanced Clinician I at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. 

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