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?