Tell Me Tuesday: How to Stage a Comeback


I remember the workout Ivana Bisaro, my coach for the 2007 Nike Women’s Marathon, wrote for my first run back after I’d spent eight weeks on the bike, thanks to a lovely stress fracture in my heel. Because her bike workouts kicked my badass, I was as fit as I'd been in years. So I was expecting something along the lines of 60-minute run, probably with some pick-ups thrown in. After all, the marathon was six weeks away. Instead, the assignment was run 8 x 2 minutes, with a 2-minute walk in between.

8 measly minutes? I wanted to run, not warm-up. So I mentally planned a route that took about an hour in my head. I’ll just tell her when I get back, I thought. I set out, and guess what felt really challenging? Yep. Eight whole minutes. Hello, humble pie. I'll take a bite now, thank you very much.

I look back at that situation now, and think: weren’t you lucky? You had a coach and were fit. These days, thanks to anemia, the slaughterhouse that was Houston and a kill-the-fibroid procedure about two weeks ago, I’m almost four months from doing anything with any intensity or regularity. The good news, though, is that I've come back from significant injury twice, and some other minor ones countless times. So I am as familiar with the drill as I am with how to change a diaper.

Whether you're rebounding from an injury, a significant illness, a pregnancy or anything that knocks you out for more than, say, two months, you need two things: patience and a smart perspective. Here's how I pretend to have both.

Realize you can’t pick up where you left off.  Your fitness level and muscular capacity aren’t like the solitaire game you abandoned on your iPhone five weeks ago and will now resume playing. Yes, that's common sense 101, but I still often don’t believe it myself. Sadly, there is no savings account in fitness, so it's best to just admit that up front. You will not be able to do what you did, pre-break.

But also realize you'll be back in the game faster than you thought. Muscle memory and previously honed mental toughness are wonderful traits of the human body, and they'll both come in handy as you stage your comeback.

Do less than what you think you can. For the first two weeks of coming back, you have to be mentally tough and not go balls to the wall. Three to four times a week, I trace a 3-ish mile route around my neighborhood—it can either be 2.5 or 3.5 miles, depending on how I’m feeling—and don’t run consecutively. I usually start with a 3-5 minute run, followed by a 1-2 minute walk. How do I judge my intervals? Glad you asked. I stop running while I’m still feeling good. The goal is to finish the session wanting more, not feeling totally wiped, cursing my lost fitness, or having my previously healed injury start to holler.

Leave the Garmin at home. For at least the first week—and I’d gently suggest two weeks—don’t worry about your pace. Run for time and to find your groove again and nothing more. You're running again! Sweet! Just revel in that.

Then get on a very doable training plan. An easy-for-you plan will reign you in so you don't do too much, too soon. I am going to start with a very conservative beginner 10K training plan that incorporates runs and walks. The first workout is 5 minutes of running, 1 minute of walking x 6. After two weeks of my 3-milers, that should suit me well--and build mileage slowly and perfectly.

Set some long-term goals. I won't lie: I need a super duper goal, one that mentally slingshots me past these last couple months and back to feeling like myself. So I'm putting this out there: the Harvest Moon triathlon, a half-Ironman on September 9th. It's over six months away right now, which means, if I'm--say it with me--patient and smart, I'll have plenty of time to get there.

But have an escape plan. If worse comes to worse, I can drop down to the aquabike and lose the run. If you’re gunning for a marathon, sign up for a race that has a half. Got 13.1 on your plate? A 10K might come in handy if things don't go as well as you'd like them to.

Hit the weights. If you’ve been sidelined, like I have, and feel weak or sluggish, I highly recommend trading at least one cardio session a week for some intense strength training to get some snap and confidence back in your muscles. Yes, it’s a little disappointing to realize the geriatric men are using more weight than I do, but I believe to get from point A to point B is through modified pull-ups where I’m lifting 50 pounds of my own weight. I’ll happily gasp and heave and then trade sets with Mr. AARP.

Listen to your mind, not your body. I am craving a good workout like a crack addict craves her fix. But three easy 30-minute spins on my bike on Friday, Saturday and Sunday left me ready for bed at 7:30 on Sunday night. On Monday morning, staring down day four of the long weekend (and a week of Amelia, who had strep, being home), I needed that boost to start my day right. I thought about going for a run/walk. No, I won't do that. Then, I thought about lifting weights, and I planned it all out, and then I thought better. I took Monday off instead.

What guidelines have you used when you returned to running after giving birth, getting over a hip injury, dealing with another significant issue?

54 responses to “Tell Me Tuesday: How to Stage a Comeback

  1. “I’m almost there.” This is my mantra repeated several times a day as I transition from Mom-duties to work duties back to Mom duties, squeezing workouts in between.

  2. Being injured for the first time right now, this is exactly what I needed to read. I need to remind myself that I won’t PR in my first race back next month, and I won’t be where I was before I got injured. Thank you for the reality check, and the tips for returning. I needed this!

  3. I am fiercely competitive–with others but mainly with myself. After one knee injury and three kids AND a jacked up pelvis (thank you child #2….) I’ve had to come back multiple times. It is never easy and I get so discouraged every time. I have to leave my watch at home even or I’ll push myself to hard. But….I try and remember that there are so many people who wish they could even try to run, but because of illness, disease or disability, they can’t. I may be slow but I am blessed, lucky even, to be able to get on the pavement at all. When I am huffing and puffing at mile #3, I try to just be thankful and run (as best as I can…) for those that can’t. Sounds corny, but it works for me. Good luck!!

    1. reagan– i’m also dealing with a messed up pelvis after the birth of my 2nd child 3.5 months ago… How long did it take for you to return to normal? Any advice? thanks!

  4. This couldn’t have come at a better time, I’m sidelined by running on a minor ankle strain which has now got serious, and waving goodbye to my late April hm. I keep also thinking about what you say about running for the rest of your life and tryin to keep it in perspective. Thanks dimity !

  5. After having a baby was my longest set back. I had gained 60lbs during the 9 months and took to yoga and walking at about month 3 of gestation! My body was tired and sore from the weight. I tried to take it all in stride, focus on the positive – I had a healthy baby and just needed time to refocus. I didn’t really get committed until she was 12 months and then I set the marathon goal! That got and kept me motivated…not it is truly a lifestyle and not just something I do occasionally. I had a few injuries throughout last year and I just kept doing what I could. Avoided impact workouts and focused on strength with running wasn’t an option. The pool really helped as well!

  6. WOW! Your timing is fabulous! Just found out yesterday that I have a stress reaction/fracture of my cuboid (who does that??) Which actually caused me to miss my “comeback” race 2 weeks ago…soo down in the dumps! I was so excited to get back to training after surgery for a tendon tear in August and actually felt great until 4 days before my race! Started slow, as I figured I should at 2-3 miles 3 days a week for the first 2 weeks, then started my 15K training plan. I actually made it up and over my mileage for the race when BAM! Another injury…sooo…another 2 race entries wasted (my next planned/registered race is mid-April…)I always feel that if I dont register far in advance, it would be too easy to back out…guess I will be paying the higher fees for a while, feeling a bit burned right now. 6 weeks in the boot (AGAIN), then back to the drawing board. Greatful for my trainer who although disappointed along with me, will work my core, hips and arms until I can get back on the road again! Just today I was commenting on my lack of patience…its a curse! Ugh!

  7. I!am going to bookmark this- I’m back on the injured list again with PF and seriously hummed. I’m trying to do a spin class once or twice a week along with a little elliptical in the meantime. Not sure how long I will be sidelined this time. Glad you are able to get back at it!

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