Three Secrets to Recovering from Injury or Illness
Recovering from Injury or Illness is a slow, frustrating process. The best way is to avoid injury or illness in the first place, but that, of course, is a counsel of perfection. As runners, we are always testing our limits, guaranteeing that at some time we will become injured or get sick.
From September 2 until October 10, 2011, Bastrop, Texas suffered from catastrophic wildfires. I live about 100 miles from Bastrop, but the smoke reached me and soon I found that I was suffering from upper respiratory problems and had to stop running. One thing led to another, and I ended up with pneumonia, finally being cleared for running again in January, 2012.
When recovering from injury or illness, the temptation is to start back doing too much too soon. Fortunately (or unfortunately) after pneumonia I found my lungs in such terrible shape that even walking was strenuous. After such a long layoff I would get out of breath tying up my shoes.
So what is the best way to get back to running after a layoff?
During my years of running, I have been injured or forced to lay off for other reasons enough times that getting back to running has become a common experience. There are three secrets to recovering from an injury or illness that I have learned – ignore these at your peril. Remember that reinjury takes about three times as long in recovery as the original injury (which helps to explain why I was out for such a long time last year.)
First build strength. After a layoff, you will have lost muscle tone, not just in your legs, but in your upper body and core muscles. Before you can start any serious running you need to recover some of that strength.
Be careful, though, not to overwork the strength training – 3 times a week is sufficient. You need a program that will work all the major muscle groups but leave plenty of time for recovery between each workout – it’s during the recovery that your strength builds. Be extra careful not to overstress any muscles that are recovering from injury.
If you have been able to continue strength training during your layoff, or even cross-train, you will have reduced the atrophy that would otherwise have occurred. Even so, your return to injury-free running will be more rapid if you focus some of your energy on building strength. In my case, I found that I was able to resume my 7 minute workout before I could even start walking again.
Now, more than ever, it is important to stretch: returning to running when recovering from an injury or illness requires even more attention to stretching than normal. Stretch carefully and fully after every run. If you fail to do this, the question is not whether you will injure yourself, but when.
There is still some controversy about whether stretching before a run is a good idea. Personally, I find it helps me, especially after a layoff, when muscles and joints are unnaturally stiff. If you have been used to stretching before your runs you should continue to do so: changing your regimen at this time is not a good idea.
You can use my eBook Five Essential Stretches for Runners as a guide. There are many other sources if you want to stretch more than just the minimum. Just remember to stretch easy and don’t strain at it: stretching should be pleasurable, not painful.
When recovering from an injury or illness, don’t rush your return to running. The temptation is there, but the more conservatively you approach your rehabilitation the better chance you have of getting back to full fitness rapidly. Err on the side of caution, however frustrating that may seem.
The secret here is to go by how your body feels, not by what your watch says. I find that I look at my times and think about how dismal my progress is: will I ever get back to running again? Then I look back at where I was a month ago, when I couldn’t even walk, and recognize that I am making progress, even if it does seem slow.
My program for recovering from illness started with walking for 30 minutes 3-5 times per week. Then I inserted 1 minute jogging breaks between 5 minute walks after a ten minute walking warmup. When I was ready, I increased the jogging intervals by 1 minute. I always take a five minute minimum cooldown walk at the end before stretching.
So far, I’ve reached 3 minutes in my jogging intervals, and feel like I’ve hit a plateau. Plateaus are normal in recovery: they are frustrating at the time, but indicate that your body is actually adjusting to the new regimen and building strength to improve.
Once I get to 5 minutes jogging intervals, I’ll start reducing the walking breaks one minute at a time until I can jog for the full 20 minutes after my 10 minute warmup. My next step will be to jog for 30 minutes. At that point I’ll repeat the whole process, substituting running for jogging and jogging for walking, until I can run for 30 minutes.
That should put me in shape for my first 5K. Then 10K, then my half marathon in November in San Antonio.
Wish me luck!
You can see more about my strength training program at 7 Minute Workout.