The Perils and Pleasures of Returning to Form After a Long Layoff
by Gordon Bakoulis
For 13 years, between 1983 and 1996, I ran. Nearly every day, and up to 3,200 miles a year when I was at my marathon-focused, PR-setting peak. Starting soon after the U.S. Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials in February 1996, I didn’t run. Well, I cut back to 10 to 15 miles a week, which compared to my previous 90 to 95 felt like not running. I wanted to have a baby and suspected that high-mileage, high-intensity training wouldn’t go hand-in-hand with optimal fertility. I probably averaged a bit more, about 20 to 25 miles per week, during the first seven months of my pregnancy, but then for three months around my son’s birth I didn’t run at all. All told, for almost two years I didn’t “train.” All my runs were slow and short, sometimes with walking breaks, and they didn’t happen anywhere near every day. I didn’t race, and I didn’t do speed work, hill work, tempo runs or fartlek. I stopped keeping track of my mileage and I didn’t lift weights or crosstrain. By my old standards, I was woefully out of shape.
Six months after giving birth, I decided I wanted to start training again. I was no longer completely unfit; I was running for 30 minutes to an hour, four or five times a week and had done a few low-key local races, none longer than five miles. What motivated me was watching the 1998 USA Women’s Marathon Championships in Houston in January, which was the first qualifying race for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials. I wondered whether I could possibly get fit enough to run a qualifier myself. Of course, there was only one way to find out.
I met my goal by running 2:42:51 at the Vermont City Marathon last May. Coming back after so long away from competitive running was harder than I’d anticipated in some ways, yet easier in others, and great fun. I learned a lot from my experience and from sharing information and advice with other runners coming back from layoffs of a year or more. You may have such a layoff at some point, due to injury, pregnancy or a running “sabbatical” brought about by other reasons. Here’s a summary of what worked for me and others who’ve been in the same situation.
Take an honest inventory. Before you plan your comeback, be realistic about where you are. I recommend writing down your current weekly mileage and training pace and your most recent race result if you’ve raced within the past six months. No wishful thinking; if your weekly mileage is five to 10, say so. Be honest about exactly where you are physically. Keith Brantly, who came back from a year off with chronic hamstring injuries to win the 1998 USA Marathon Championship last spring, had to deal with the fact that he’d put on 15 pounds during his months of inactivity. “I hate crosstraining with a passion,” Brantly admits. “My idea of crosstraining is pulling weeds in my garden. I love food, with a passion toward dessert. Add the two together and, well, you get the picture.”
Keep in mind as well that you’ve aged, perhaps significantly, since you were in peak form. Although this may not be a factor for a younger runner, a layoff of a year or more can mean a considerable loss in fitness potential for someone in his late 30s or older. In other words, you may not have the capacity to ever again become as fast, strong or flexible as you once were, no matter how well you train.
Also, make an honest assessment of other demands on your time and energy, which may be different than before your layoff. With an infant and a demanding new job, I knew I wouldn’t have the same physical and emotional resources available to devote to training, and that I’d probably not be able to lift weights, crosstrain, get massages or travel to train at altitude at all. Accepting from the start that these former staples of my training would go by the boards saved me a lot of frustration.
Set a goal. This is why your inventory is so important; it will force you to set a goal that’s realistic. I recommend setting your sights on something at least four to six months in the future, and having a backup goal. I picked a race four months off, and chose another marathon four weeks later that I’d shift my sights to if my initial plan turned out to be too ambitious. At the same time, make your goal challenging. If you’re not going to work hard for something, what’s the point? The thought of running a sub-2:50 marathon when I couldn’t break 20:00 for 5K was a bit daunting, but I felt motivated, not overwhelmed by the prospect. It can be very helpful to work with a coach or adviser to come up with an appropriate goal for yourself. Set short-term goals along the way. These can be races or workouts that you aim to complete at certain standards. Again, a coach or other knowledgeable runner can help you plan.
If you’ve been injured, Brantly recommends not setting a race goal until you are completely healed and on your way toward feeling fit. “Racing was out of the question until I felt confident in my fitness,” he says. I found having a goal, even before I was race-fit, very helpful for motivation. Vague goals such as “getting back into shape” or “running regularly” just don’t do it for performance-oriented runners. You’ll need something specific and defining to change pre-comeback habits, like sleeping in on weekend mornings or skipping group workouts.
Chart your progress. Keeping written records—a training log—is second nature for most serious runners, and I did it religiously for years. When I started my comeback, however, I hadn’t kept a log in over a year. Very quickly I realized it was an essential tool, much more so than when I’d been training consistently. During a comeback, your fitness changes significantly from week to week, and you must chart this progress in order to keep training appropriately and set proper race goals. Besides, it’s great fun keeping track of the dramatic fitness improvements you’ll have during a comeback. For example, a morning run that took me 36 or 37 minutes in January was taking only 30 or 31 minutes by April, an improvement of nearly 20%. As someone who’d trained and raced at the same level for four or five years before my layoff, that was really neat. Seeing my progress at the track and in races was even more fun. I kept a careful tally of my “PB PBs,” or post-baby personal bests.
Know your vulnerabilities. This is particularly important if you’re coming back from a long layoff due to injury. If you’ve been off a year or more, chances are you’ve tried to come back at least once and had a recurrence. You’ve most likely had some sort of physical therapy and/or worked with a trainer to strengthen the muscles supporting the problem area and reduce the risk of reinjury. Not only must you increase your fitness gradually, you also need to follow your doctor’s and PT’s orders about doing those exercises, tedious and time-consuming as they may be. Keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to keep running, at least for health and fitness, for the rest of your life.
When coming back from an injury, you must be willing to accept setbacks and alter your plans and goals accordingly. “Listen to the pros,” Brantly advises. “MDs and physical therapists are the only clear minds thinking about you. Follow their advice to the letter.”
If you have put on weight during your time away from quality training, this will slow your performances and may increase your injury risk because of altered biomechanics. As a post-partum runner still carrying more weight than normal in my abdominal area, I found myself susceptible to lower-back pain and sometimes pelvic pain, neither of which I had suffered from before. When I shifted almost all my running to soft surfaces and consistently did my crunches and leg raises, the problems lessened, and they disappeared once my body returned to its pre-pregnancy size and shape. Other new moms complain of knee, ankle and foot pain, probably caused by both the extra weight and lingering looseness of the joints due to hormones released during pregnancy. Soft surfaces and reduced mileage and intensity seem to help.
Use positive affirmations. These short, motivating statements are recommended by sport psychologist and running coach Andy Palmer, Ph.D., and they’re useful for any runner seeking motivation. They must be conceived in the present tense and are designed to put you where you want to be as an athlete. My affirmation was simple: “I am a 2000 Olympic Trials qualifier.” Corny as it sounds, I said it to myself frequently—on long runs, while warming up for races, as I was going over my training log and when I was up with the baby at 2 in the morning, wondering how I’d have the energy to train the next day. My affirmation performed the simple function of giving my hard work a purpose. “If you truly can see it,” says Palmer, “then you can accomplish it.”
Live in the moment. Most runners coming back from a long layoff are happy just to be running healthily again. They may not be in PR shape, but they know that with hard work and patience, they’ll get there. “I learned to run one day at a time,” says Brantly. “I took, and continue to take, each day I ran as a victory, no matter how slow or in how much pain.”
Other comebackers are consumed by impatience, wondering why their bodies don’t just hurry up and take them where they want to be. I spent time in both camps. The first time I ran sub-20:00 for 5K, I was so happy I high-fived strangers around me in the chutes. It didn’t matter that my PR is 16:00.
Another time, I was heading for a 38:11 finish in a 10K, battling a woman who used to finish up to a mile behind me for the distance. I remember thinking, “This is so stupid. What am I doing way back here?” Then another voice in my head said, “You’re right here. Right now. Just do the best you can with that.”
And that is all this sport ever asks of any of us.