This isn’t my first return to running after a long layoff. Way back in 2003, I was a sophomore in college. I’d dealt with back pain while running for a few years, and after my sophomore cross country season decided to get it checked out while I was home over Thanksgiving break. I was diagnosed with 2 stress fractures (PARS defects) in my L5 vertebra. My natural posture put enough repeated pressure on that bone that it cracked over time. It probably didn’t help that I was an avid tumbler in my younger years, and began my college track career as a steeplechaser. (Unfortunately, this injury ended my steeple career after one season. It’s too bad, because it was really, really fun.)
It was a pretty miserable winter/spring, but I was thrilled to begin running again in April 2004 – after six months in an awesome molded back brace. I was able to gradually decrease time spent in the brace by 1/2 hour per day. I ran every other day, starting with a 5-minute run. If the run felt good, I could add 2 minutes to the following run. Finally, I spent HOURS in the athletic training room. Heat, stretching, strength exercises, ice. Every single day for the remainder of the semester.
Recovery wasn’t a total walk in the park, but this plan worked. (Despite my own young-and-stupid antics like completing my second run on the track, determined to run a mile in that 7-minute window.) I worked up to a 30-minute run and then began working on building up speed as well as endurance. My summer training schedule was modified from those of my teammates, but by August I was able to work out alongside the team – and enjoyed the best cross country season of my running career.
There are major differences between 2003 and 2012. In 2003, I was young and spry, in excellent shape prior to injury. During the layoff, I didn’t experience significant weight fluctuation or other body changes. Constantly surrounded by other runners, it was easy to stay motivated. Further, I was constantly held accountable by my peers.
Despite those differences, I’m confident that these general guidelines, modified from above, apply to anyone returning to exercise after a long break:
1. Take it slow. Start with something short and easy, that you can recover from quickly. If you go out too hard, too soon, you’ll end up taking a week off to recover and lose any progress you make.
2. Minutes, not miles. Don’t focus on how far you’re going, or how long it took you to do it. Instead, focus on how you feel.
***I confess: this is really difficult for me. I may or may not already be registered for a 5K in the near future. If you’re like me and it’s difficult-to-impossible NOT to measure progress, just be sure to keep your expectations in check.
3. Stretch!! Stretching is always important – even more as we age (sigh). My personal routine is to pour a big glass of ice water as soon as I get back into the house after a run, and stretch until I’ve finished drinking the glass. This simultaneously addresses hydration, another of those “always essential” running habits.
That’s it. Simple, right? It doesn’t have to be complicated. Life is complicated enough on its own.