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!

  8. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but definitedly what I needed. I am now 4 months, 12 days out from the stress fracture in my tibia that stopped me dead in my tracks after the PDX marathon. Pair that with some NW winter weather, and my couch and a cupcake sound way better than just about anything. I’m signed up to do the Rock’n’Roll half in Portland on May 20 and have run exactly, almost, not quite 5 miles. What a jump start to my training. It HURT!

    I know I just have to get back out there, slowly, and I’ll feel 1000x better. And it’s OK if I don’t run, or even walk, in May, as long as I’m doing something. Anything.

  9. So happy to have y’all talking about this! I’m 3 months pregnant with baby #3 (a complete and utter shock!) and running has been put on pause. I love reading the inspirational stories of mamas getting back into running after babies. You ladies are fantastic and I can’t wait to get the new book!

  10. Great post! When I have to re-start, I go for an easy 2 miler. I only look at my Garmin to check distance, not pace. If I feel good, I go a little longer next time until I get to my base of 5 miles during the week…also I go from easy to my more normal pace. It’s hard but I try to be patient with myself….it’s hard not to feel discouraged sometimes when you have to basically start from step 1 again after an injury, sickness. But we all know we’ll get back to where we were eventually ! This sport has taught me so much about patience….something I am still working on for sure!

  11. Thanks so much for this! I am 14 weeks post partum with my 2nd child and have been dealing with pelvis pain that my OB brushed off. Turns out that it is PSD- pubis symphisis dysfunction. i have a 19mm space between the bones of my pelvis. I have an appt for Friday with an orthopedic doctor and am worried that my May race may not happen….I have dealt with it by strength training and a tiny bit of time on the elliptical.
    Has anyone else dealt with this? I can’t find much online about how to correct this condition.

  12. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post. Injuries that take us away from the sport we love are physically and psychologically hard for those of us who use our running as therapy (and weight control: don’t get me started.) After my first (and last) marathon I was sidlined with PF for 4.5 months and it was almost my undoing – the injury occured one month before my beloved father passed away, and grieving his loss without being able to process my grief on my runs (what I had done in his waning months) was breathtakingly hard. I was taken aback at how desperately I needed my runs to get to my happy place, and struggled mightily as I grieved the loss of my beloved dad on top of my beloved sport. Just this week I’ve been able to be back outside and the joy and power and euphoria I now feel from running has multiplied exponentially – the one sweet silver lining that comes from being injured! After my first “post injury” run I was downright giddy, and now appreciate this gift more than I ever did before I was injured. THANK you for speaking to this topic – it’s a very emotionally charged one for women – letting go of our pride, allowing ourselves the “clean slate,” being OK with slower, shorter, less, etc. Your post, as others have said, was EXACTLY what I needed to read at EXACTLY the right time – God bless you. 😀

    1. Kris–so sorry to hear about your father and your PF. And SO glad you were able to get back out there this week and appreciate all you have in your body and life. Giddy is right. Sending good blessings right back at you. 🙂

  13. Definitely needed this post/reality smack and am saving it for later for when I “forget”, as I am wont to do (see also: how I got to this point in the first place!).

  14. Thank you for the great post! Welcome back and enjoy. My favorite line – I am craving a good workout like a crack addict craves her fix. ( That made my night )

  15. This is perfect! 4 days after I run my first marathon in May, I am scheduled to have surgery. 8-10 recovery time frame.

    Wishing you a smooth recovery!

  16. As someone coming back (or working to) from an 8-year injury, I have to say this is the very best post on ‘comebacks’ I have ever read. The part I NEED to heed is “do less than what you think you can”. I remember all the other points, but this one still trips me up. I’m learning…I’m learning…

    Thanks so very much for this 🙂 And I hope your road to recovery is a smooth and enjoyable one!

  17. After having a labral hip tear repaired last spring, I have finally started exercising again. It has taken a long time to heal. Longer than I thought. It is definitely discouraging having to start from square one, but I remember how much I enjoy running and I just take it one very slow run/walk at a time. Thanks for the post!

  18. Dimity, and you didn’t save this for the book?! This is such good stuff! Love it. Unfortunately, I admit that I have been too prideful in the past (and even currently) if I’m being totally honest to reign it in and do the smart thing like you outline above. Great reminders and i admire you for your smart and slow comeback! You’ll be killing it like never before in no time! Keep it up!

  19. I couldn’t agree more with your tip to do less than you think you can! It’s crucial during recovery to not over-do it, and by easing back into exercise (and stamina, and strength, …), it will boost your confidence so that you CAN successfully rebound from your injury, and not undermine it and allow self-doubt to creep in.

  20. Man this article came at a good time. I am SO in the dumps right now about an injury that hit me this past week. I am training for Boston and I so afraid I won’t get to go, its my first. I can’t get into a doc for another 2 weeks, a long time for a runner. To keep focused and somewhat in shape I am pool running for long runs and doing short/slow runs on the treadmill. I hope to get a good recovery after Boston! Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Pool runs are great, Stephanie: just aim for the same intensity you have on the road (not hard, I know). I hope you make it to the Boston starting line happy and healthy.

  21. and yet another psychic friends network moment…

    I think it’s time to go to the gym and hit the weights just to try to regain some of the lost confidence, er, muscle mass.

    1. I had my third last June. My first run post baby was harder than my first run ever. Coming back was so much harder than I expected it to be, at least at the very begining. I started a bit harder than I should have, but my body forced me to stop because of knee pain (a first for me – cried for 3 days straight). Training was slow and steady afterward, with a lot of cross training thrown in.

      I had signed up for the Divas Half Marathon in Puerto Rico while I was still pregnant just to set it as a goal and force myself not to slack. So come November and I was less than 5 months post c-section, a bit undertrained, and facing the hardest half marathon I had ever run. I am used to hot weather, living in Puerto Rico, but it was scorching hot! I was exhausted. My husband was volunteering at mile 12 and I swear I was tempted to sit down, grab a beer and call it a day. My ego dragged me to the finish line. I never thought running my personal WORST could make me feel so accomplished. First thing I did? Update my facebook status and upload a pic: the medal, the tiara, the smile, a glass of some sparkling beverage- making it look like I did the easiest thing in the world. I had, after all, earned the bragging rights. No one had to know that I could barely walk. (Of course I omitted my time. )

      Fast forward two months: I finished my first full marathon at Disney (after 11 consecutive days of park hopping with three kids) and PR’ed at Miami Half Marathon.

      Bottom line:
      It can be done! (As long as you have a reliable babysitter)

  22. After the birth of my son in 2008, I decided to listen to my body instead of the experts, and I’m glad I did. Two weeks after he was born, I felt good and knew that running would help with the sleepless nights and exhaustion. I went out for a short run- maybe two miles, and certainly not fast- and immediately felt more human, more whole. By six weeks post-partum I was running a 5k. Even though it was several minutes slower than my PR at the time, it felt amazing to be in a community of runners again.
    I only ran two or three times a week, and every day I did yoga, core work, or strength training to remind my body what I wanted it to do. I think the combination really worked for me, but my body was also ready at that point. Every woman is different.
    I’m thirty weeks pregnant now, and I hope to keep running for at least another month. I have absolutely no immediate running plans for after baby’s birth, because I cannot foresee how I will feel. I do, however, have several races already planned- a mile race in July (not for speed, of course!), a half-marathon in October, and a marathon in March. If I don’t have those goal races out there, I have trouble making a plan and sticking to it.

  23. Perfect timing for this post! I am on week 2 of yet another comeback from my hip/SI injury that has bugged me since last fall. But this time, this comeback feels different, like I might actually get it right.
    I’ve had to let go of what my body was capable of doing 6 months ago and start fresh. In some ways, with all the time off I took, I feel like it’s a blank slate. (I’m trying to be positive here!) My runs started as mostly walks and now I can run the 2 mile route with only one walk break. And no pain! Yay! I’m trying to be as proud of that as I would be of a 10 mile run and proud that I’m practicing some self restraint….but it’s humbling….

    What’s going to get me through this comeback is to have something else to focus my mind and body on – so I signed up for a sprint triathlon, which is huge for me since I don’t know how to swim. But first lesson is tonight! Here I come!

  24. Coming back from injury this fall, I started training for a 10k once I got back to running 3 miles without walk breaks. I didn’t register until 2 days before and ended up doing the 5k option instead. I felt like a big wimp but knew my fitness was not there yet. I ended up with a 3rd place age group finish (really small trail race!). It boosted my confidence to know that I was on my way back!

    1. Sweet! Seriously, Holly, stories like that make me smile. It’s not always about going long or super hard (although 5K’s can be super hard). Nicely done.

  25. Thanks for this post, Dimity. It’s so easy to be hard on ourselves because we aren’t where we “should” be. This is a great reminder to take it slow. My motto is “slow and steady wins the race.” After my second child, I had a tougher time getting back into the swing of things. Finally, I told my husband that I was going to go for a run. I set out from my house and ran for 14 minutes. I actually came back excited that I ran for 14 minutes, without feeling like throwing up. From there, I set small goals…20 min, 30 min, etc. I also do best when I sign up for races. I ran a few 5ks recently and just signed up for my fourth half marathon. Having a goal is what keeps me going. And, as a very wise man once said to me at my first half marathon, “Never ever say that you are “just” running a half marathon. You are running! Not everyone can or wants to do that. Be proud of whatever distance you run and whatever speed you run it!” Oh that cute little man from Quebec has stuck with me since 2006!

    1. Love that cute little man from Quebec, Ann! And you’ll love the half-marathon chapter in Train Like a Mother, where I say the exactly same thing. There is no “just” in that statement, TYVM!

  26. I learned to check my ego at the door. I’m not big into cross training and I HATE fitness classes, so when I was rehabbing plantar fasciitis, I did something I’ve never done before – I quit running entirely and signed up for a fitness bootcamp class. It was 10 weeks of sheer torture, but I lost the self-pity weight I’d gained, did some serious toning up and when my 10 weeks was over, I was ready to hit the road and never be cooped up in a room with 20 other people ever again!! My first miles back on the road gave me a sense of freedom and appreciation for running that I’d never had before.

  27. After realizing my hip wasn’t going to just start feeling better if I kept doing what I’d been doing, I kissed my Charlottesville-half entry fees goodbye and starting mixing things up a bit. More strength training, more yoga, a fun kettle bell class, and walking with friends. It has turned out to be a fun winter, fitness-wise.

  28. Go Dimity!
    When I’m coming back from an injury/illness I place no expectations on time or distance. Just doing something feels good enough. It’s hard not to be frustrated at almost starting at the beginning, but it’s better than sitting on the couch.

  29. Great post Dimity! It’s one I need to save, because I’ve been a shining example of what not to do. I usually jump back in where I left off and ignore the warning signs that I’m doing too much too soon. Kudos to you for being smart about your recovery and return to training.

  30. I’m on the verge (I hope…I think) of beginning my recovery from Plantar fasciitis which has had me unable to run for almost eight weeks now. Since my PF flared up just after I signed up for the OKC marathon in late April, I was continuing strength training twice a week and logging all my scheduled training miles on my elliplicle. That is, until my Dr suggested I stop all the madness and actually let my foot rest to it could heal. I am now in my second week of real rest and am already starting to see improvement in my foot. Soon I hope to be able to start running again and will start out with just a few miles and build back up slowly. My hope is that I’ll be able to do the Half (instead if the full) in the OKC Memorial at the end of April.

  31. When I have to restart, I start with a 2 mile run from my house. It’s an easy run that when in shape I do in about 23-24 minutes. I run that course 3 days a week until I can get it around 25. Then I run that run 3 days and my next up run – 2.8 – 3 days a week. When I get that one at a reasonable time, I trade one set of 3 up again. Then after those runs are at a reasonable time, I start a training plan.

    This time though, my injury is in my foot so I’m running 2 days a week, swimming 2 days a week and biking 2 days a week. My run times are finally to the point of going up in distance. But I’m really paying attention to how my foot feels. I’ll back off if I need to. But with the swimming and biking already, I’m thinking I may sign up for a late spring/early summer tri.

  32. COming back from pregnancy I have unwittingly employed my golden retriever, Buzz, who hates running, to join me on my 2 mile jaunts around the neighborhood. I did not do this intentionally at first– it was purely for the sake of time- poor guy has been barely getting a walk with a newborn baby at home… so it made sense to have him join me (or us- me and baby) on some 12 min miles around the ‘hood. Buzz hates to run more than 2 miles on the leash.. and he likes to go slow and stop a lot to sniff around and “and leave a message for the other dogs” So after feeling frustrated the other day- wanting to go faster, longer, harder I realized that, in fact, Buzz has been looking out for my best interest and just like I swear he knew I was pregnant the whole time, and how he’s been a super angel with the baby, he is trying to help me make my comeback without getting injured. And you are right Dimity- it is hard and humbling.. last year at this time I was running a streak of half marathon prs and now.. 8 min slow= hard.

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