For most of us, running is therapy. It keeps us sane, allows us to deal with stress, and just generally makes us feel good. When an injury temporarily takes that away, it’s hard to accept. Whether you like it or not, if you don’t take time off to heal properly, you might not be able to run again at all (in my mind, this is a fate worse than death).
Once you’ve gotten past the stage of denial and into acceptance – visiting a doctor, getting a diagnosis and a plan of action – reality sets in. You’re not going to be running for awhile. And that sucks.
Injuries happen to most, if not all, runners. Whether it’s a touch of plantar fasciitis that will heal up with a little rest, or a stress fracture that takes you completely off your feet for several weeks, everyone has the same problem: how to get through the recovery period without losing your shit.
Fortunately, I’ve got your back. Here’s my advice on how to navigate your way back to running:
- Follow your doctor’s and physical therapist’s orders – to the letter. If they give you homework, do it. If they tell you to ice it three times a day, do it. If they tell you to stand on your head for 3 minutes every morning…you guessed it, do it. These folks are the experts, and if you don’t understand why a particular exercise is necessary for your recovery, instead of skipping it entirely because you think it’s stupid, ASK WHY IT IS IMPORTANT! In fact, ask a lot of questions about everything, so you understand exactly what each thing is doing to help you get better, and how it is setting you up for preventing recurrence in the future. The more you know, the easier the process will be.
- You’re going to want to start running again as soon as your pain goes away. This is a bad idea. Recognize that healing takes time, and even if you’re not hurting during routine activities, know that easy running might be enough of a stressor to set you right back to the beginning. If your doc says no running, listen. If your doc says no walking on the treadmill please listen. If you don’t, what would have been a two months of down time might turn into four. Or six. See rule #1 – your doc is the expert. Heed her advice.
- Your Inner Mean Girl will probably start up with her usual shenanigans. Expect it, recognize it for what it is, and remind yourself that taking this time off is not lazy, weak or unproductive. Listening to your body is one of the most important skills a runner can have. Injuries happen, and beating yourself up about it is not helpful. In fact, it can lead to either trying to come back too soon, or giving up entirely. Your Inner Mean Girl will try to talk you into one (or maybe both) of these choices. Tell her to shut it – you’ll run again when your body is ready, and not a moment before.
- And speaking of your Inner Mean Girl – she might get on your case about gaining weight while you’re not running. Unless you adjust your eating accordingly, this is a possibility. However, it is not the end of the world, and it will be pretty easy to lose those extra pounds when you start running again. Remember that your body is working really hard to heal itself, so don’t starve it or your recovery might take even longer. Now is the time to choose really high-quality nutritious food to make sure you have the best chance of getting back on your feet feeling great. The weight will sort itself out. I promise.
- You may miss a race…or two…or three. See if the race director will allow you to defer your entry to next year or transfer your bib to someone else. The race website should clearly state the policy as well as instructions for how to do it. Don’t just assume it’s OK – your name is tied to that bib number and the race officials need to know who’s running for safety and security reasons. Also, if you don’t let them know someone else is running in your place, their results will be listed under YOUR name. Is that really what you want?
- Speaking of missing races, just because you can’t participate as a runner doesn’t mean you can’t participate at all. A race environment is one of the most fun things ever, and this is a great opportunity to experience it from the other side. If you’re able to walk and move around, why not volunteer to run a water station, hand out medals at the end, or stuff race packets? If your activity level is limited, or if you’re on crutches, bring a lawn chair, find a spot along the route, and cheer your ass off for everyone. This is your chance to give back to all the spectators that have encouraged you in past races, and to make an EPIC race sign:
- Keep the habit of using that running time for yourself! Just because you can’t run doesn’t mean you have to give up the hour or so you’ve carved out of your busy schedule. This is the perfect time to do your physical therapy homework, so you don’t get out of the habit of moving your body in that timeslot. If you’re approved for cross-training, do that too. However, if you’ve been told to stay off your feet entirely, instead of letting something else creep into your daily routine, take that time to do something that relaxes you or helps you blow off steam. Go to a coffee shop and read, pick something off your Pinterest board and actually try it, or just go to a park and meditate. Stay in the habit of doing something entirely for YOU during that time, so when you’re cleared for activity you don’t have to figure out all over again how to fit it back into your schedule.
- When you’re cleared to start again, make sure to go slowly – both in pace and in progression. Test the waters with a short, easy run, 15 minutes or less. See how you feel the next day. If everything seems OK, go out for 20 minutes the next time. If you have any pain, check in with your doctor for instructions. Re-injuring yourself after all your hard work sucks, so preserve your effort by taking it easy until you know how your body will react.
Remember – recovery will probably take longer than you think. If all goes according to schedule, fabulous! But this is rare. If it takes longer than expected, this doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, or that you’ll never get back to running. A few months of down time is a small price to pay for a lifetime of healthy running. Be patient, do it right, and you’ll be running for many years to come!