by Fatima Ahmad
An extended layoff from racing usually isn’t good news. For one thing, injury, illness or burnout usually causes the break; for another, the rehab and rebuilding processes can be painstaking and prone to setbacks. Still, there are silver linings to be found in time spent away from racing, and sometimes unexpected pleasures upon a return to competition.
When American 3K and 5K record holder Bob Kennedy took the first extended break of his career last year, following a back injury sustained in an automobile accident, the hiatus helped him regain his passion for running. “Sometimes it takes a bad experience to recharge the batteries,” says Kennedy, who attempted to make the Olympic 5,000m team at the U.S. Trials despite his injury, and finished sixth. Seven running-free weeks followed, then a gradual, methodical build-up.
“Sometimes [running] can become a job. The passion is not there all the time,” Kennedy said after his first comeback race, the Millrose Games 3,000m in February, where he placed third. “Right now it feels like it did when I was in high school or college. I want to win races not because I have to for my sponsors, but because I want to.” The non-sponsored among us can share in that attitude. Surely you’ve felt so elated to put an injury behind you that you vow never to dread racing again. The longer we’re sidelined, the more time we have to reflect on how fortunate we are to choose to pin on a number.
A break also can foster a refreshingly forward-looking mindset. Regina Jacobs, who also missed the Olympics, due to an ill-timed respiratory infection, returned to racing in February. “I’m not going to talk about [the Olympics] anymore,” she informed reporters after her first race, the Millrose Games mile. “My goal for the year is to win a World Championships medal—any color.” Sure, disappointments linger for all of us, but stepping back from an intense focus on a particular season or event helps a runner refocus on the future, and the long-term goals contained therein.
Returning from an extended layoff has challenges, chiefly knowing when and how to come back. There’s no formula, and coaches’ and top athletes’ approaches vary widely. Jacobs seemed happy with a 4:42.15 Millrose showing—the slowest winning time in the event’s history and more than 18 seconds slower than her time last year—claiming she was racing herself into shape. That strategy works well for those runners who need the adrenaline rush of competition to approach peak capabilities. The only real danger of this method—besides possible humiliation—is that of pushing oneself too hard, thus risking re-injury. Other runners prefer rebuilding their fitness to a high level before their first comeback race. Susannah Beck, the fourth-place finisher at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, stopped racing for six months last year due to patellar tendonitis. In her first serious race back, the Carolina 8K in February, she set a PR. “For me the training is harder than the racing,” she explains, “so when I’m ready to train again, I’m ready to race again.”
Whatever the reason for your racing layoff and strategy for your comeback, plan your post-layoff races carefully to help stay off the injured list. Build planned breaks into your racing schedule to keep the passion alive as well.