Welcome to October. Summer’s over, vacation’s done, and the kids are back at school. During hectic summer days, life might have intervened and kept you off the roads and trails for a while, but now it’s time to get back to a regular running routine. But depending on how long you’ve taken off, you may not be able to jump right back. Before you push your body to pre-vacation levels, here’s what to do to safely (and enjoyably!) rebuild your fitness.
How to Start Running Again
1. Be Honest With Yourself
“When you’re coming back from time off, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself,” says Ann Ringlein, store manager of the Lincoln Running Company and coach for over 500 runners a year in classes ranging from beginners to marathon-level athletes. “Your training should reflect where you are, not where you want to be or where you were when you took a break,” says Ringlein.
The simplest assessment: perceived effort. How hard does it feel? The key is to run at the same effort, not the same pace, you ran previously. Let speed rebuild with your fitness. But judging effort can be tricky, particularly when you’ve been out of touch with your body and everything feels off. Tracking your heart rate can help keep your workouts in line.
“Heart rate monitors are a great thing to have when you make a come back,” says Ringlein. “They can put real numbers to how you’re feeling, and help ensure that you’re not pushing too hard.” Try keeping your effort in the cardio zone on your Fitbit device for the majority of your runs, for example, to help prevent overstressing your body.
Ringlein also warns about jumping back in with the same training partners who have kept running. If you do decide to rejoin, be honest. “You have to say, ‘I’m just starting up again, I want to run with you guys but I won’t be as fast,’” Ringlein says. “Somebody in the group will be your buddy and support you.”
2. Establish A Routine
The most important element in rebuilding is to restore a regular running routine. Consistency beats speed and distance. “You don’t need to run as far as you think you should, or as fast as you think you should—but you should probably run more often,” says Ringlein. “Being more consistent, while shortening it up and slowing it down, is the best way to get back into running.”
Trying to go too hard and failing often leads to falling away again. “If you go out and try to run 3 miles as hard as you can, you’re going to be disappointed and not want to go back out,” says Ringlein. A gradual, consistent approach to training also gives your body time to re-adapt to the stress of your workouts and avoid injury.
“That initial ramp up in speed of going from zero to 60 is what sidelines a lot of people,” says Luke Humphrey, owner of Hansons coaching services and author of the newly released Hansons First Marathon: Step Up to 26.2 the Hansons Way. Research shows that fast changes in your average training load (volume and intensity of work) increase your risk of injury. The longer you took off from running, the lower that average load becomes, and the more you need to back off and gradually restore it.
3. Keep Motivation Levels High
When every run feels harder than it used to, it’s easy to lose motivation. “You can get discouraged, thinking, ‘I feel like this, why should I even try,’” says Ringlein. Remind yourself that with consistent training it won’t be long before you’re back where you left off.
“Usually, after 2 to 3 weeks of consistent training, you’ll feel pretty darn good,” says Ringlein, who has observed hundreds of runners start back up. “At the end of that 3 weeks, you can increase the miles. Then you’re ready; your body is adjusted. It takes about three weeks to get comfortable and your fitness back.”
How Taking Time Off Affects Your Fitness
How much fitness can you expect to have lost from time off? That depends on how long and how active you’ve been. Here are some general guidelines:
If You’ve Taken 1–2 Weeks Off:
A couple of weeks off won’t do much to affect your fitness. “You’ve lost some speed, but you haven’t lost much,” says Ringlein. Coaches agree that taking a short time off can even benefit many runners. “It might be a good break mentally and physically,” says Humphrey. “Lots of people we coach want to go, go, go all the time—they’re always in this really high state of training and never take a break or take time off.”
Recognize that even after a short break it may take a few days to feel as smooth as you did before you left. “You’re not going to jump right back in and have it feel the same,” says Ringlein. Humphrey also cautions that if you’re following a progressive training plan you’ll need to begin where you left off and adjust the dates—don’t try to “catch up” to the more advanced workouts on the calendar.
If You’ve Taken 2–4 Weeks Off:
“With anything over 2 weeks, you should be concerned with how you come back and the amount of time you dedicate to ramping up again,” says Humphrey. You’ll need to take it easy for a while and reduce your speed and volume, but you can rebuild quickly. He has found runners who take more than 2 weeks completely off typically need to back up on their training plans by a similar amount of time and rebuild to their previous level.
Ringlein agrees on the time scale. “You may have to lower the distance you’re running, but if you’re consistent, you should be able to get right back to where you were in 2 to 3 weeks,” she says. She also points out that the changes after this amount of time can be as much mental as they are physical, especially for less-experienced runners. It’s likely that your stride isn’t as smooth and your habits have waned after time away. Be patient with your body, Ringlein says, but realize you’re probably more fit than you feel. “You don’t want to go crazy and think you haven’t lost a thing, but you can roll with the process,” she says.
If You’ve Taken More Than 1 Month Off:
When you take more than a month off, you not only lose cardiovascular fitness but your body starts to change—whether or not you see a difference on the scale. “Even if we don’t gain weight, our bone density and muscle mass are affected in a negative way,” says Budd Coates, long-time Director of Health and Fitness for Rodale and author of Running on Air.
“If you’ve been off all summer, you’ve got to be really careful,” Ringlein adds. Rather than starting up again mindlessly, she recommends laying out a plan to carefully rebuild and restore consistency. “Writing your training schedule down reveals the progression in load, and logging your workouts helps keep you accountable as you relearn the habit.”
If you’ve been sedentary for months, you should see yourself as a beginner again, albeit an advanced beginner. “Maybe start with 20 minutes, 4 times per week,” suggests Ringlein. “Start out walk/running. Run for a couple minutes, then walk until you feel like you’re recovered.”
Even starting over, Ringlein finds that most runners begin to feel stronger in about three weeks. Even if you’re slower than you were before the layoff, don’t fret. In a few weeks, you’ll be able to look back and celebrate your progress.