Getting back into running after a time off

If you have read either of my last two posts, you will know that my running has gone through a bit of a patchy period in 2018: After setting a long-sought after 10k PB in January, it flagged a bit and my change of jobs, commuting patterns (my weekly commute was 8 ½ hours over five working days, it now is 16 ½ hours over three days – but I work from home the remaining two) and the corresponding changes that has brought to our family routine have played havoc with any concept of regular training.

I used to get very frustrated by anything that interfered with my ability to maintain a consistent training regime, as I felt (and to an extent still do) that these hindered my progress towards the runner I hoped I would be: whether that is measured by race times, mileage, physique… whatever. Until I recently realised, and the last two posts capture this realisation, that that’s the way life is: Whether you are a multiple Olympic champion who’s training is interrupted by injuries or a pregnancy (think of Bolt or Ennis-Hill) or Jo / Joanne Blogs who is trying to fit training around the vagaries of daily life, chances are that there will be times that you find yourself out of training for a couple of weeks; which, before you know it, have become a couple of months. And then you are faced with the uphill struggle of having to establish a running routine from zero, your mind remembering the sensation and pace of your faster self, but your body feeling slow and heavy, as you train and re-adapt…

If this sounds like you too, fear not dear reader! I have been in that exact position more times than I would have wanted to, and I’m there again now. So as I build a new routine to accommodate my new circumstances, and try to get my fitness to the point it was at the end of 2017, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share what I have learnt about getting back into training with you.

But first a couple of common-sense disclaimers: If the reason you had to take a break from running is health-related, then please do the sensible thing and speak to a health professional first before getting back into it. And this advice is based on my extensive experience of start-stopping training (this blog is named after Sisyphus for a reason after all!) and works for me. It may however not work for everyone, so take it in the spirit it is intended, adjust it for your circumstances and personality and make it work for you. The important thing is that you get back out on the trails (or pavements, or roads, or track) and enjoy running again!

Ready? Good, lets go!

So in my experience making a decent return to training after an absence comes in three phases:

First of all you have to acknowledge that these things happen, life will always throw things at you and never lose sight of your – real – priorities. Don’t see everything else that’s happening in your life as a distraction from training, rather it’s the backdrop against which we all – pros and amateurs alike – train.

Then you need to take stock of what your new circumstances are (if they have changed), see what new limitations are placed upon you, and identify any new training opportunities they offer. The key here is to establish a new training baseline (in terms of time dedicated or sessions per week), that works for you and which you can rely on yourself to perform consistently. And consistency here is the key!

And once you have a training baseline which you know you can rely on to follow week-in and week-out, you can then set some realistic goals; and having built your aerobic base, you can begin adding variety to your workout, by incorporating intervals or threshold runs.

And here is a pictorial summary, with some colour thrown in:

040418_1548_draft1.png

So let us take each in turn, starting at the base and working our way up:

1. Life comes first:

So something happened which means you can’t train like you could. Perhaps it’s an injury, a change in circumstances (different work pattern, new member of the family) or just too many things happening elsewhere which haven’t left you time to train. Even if it is a pleasant event that caused the break, chances are the endorphin-deprived runner in you will be getting frustrated, seeing his running shoes sitting idle and the bathroom scales shifting… My advice here is to take a deep breath, muster all your stoicism and tell yourself that these things are cyclical. You are a runner after all, one of nature’s more resilient beasts, and soon enough you will be pilling the miles back on and shedding the pounds!

Above everything else, don’t lose sight of what is really important in your life. Hopefully running and fitness will be up there as well, for the emotional and physical benefits if nothing else: it makes you a happier, more balanced person. But don’t forget to enjoy everything else that gives life meaning: they will make you a happier, more balanced runner!

In the meantime, to the extent that you can, as irregularly as it may be, make an effort to get out there. You don’t have to follow a programme of any sort at this stage: it’s probably better if you don’t, especially if your break has lasted a few weeks already. You will not be as fast, you will not run as far, and perhaps you will feel yourself to be slow and sluggish. Ignore these thoughts, enjoy the fact that you are in motion again, and don’t try to compare your current self with what you were like at the height of your training. This is all about keeping physically active, keeping some fitness in the tank and – most importantly – keeping a smile on your face until you can run regularly again! Nice, comfortable runs are the order of the day here, not going out for intervals or tempo runs when you haven’t run for a month!

As the dust of everyday life settles, these ad hoc runs will hopefully become more frequent and regular, helping you establish your new running routine organically, rather than picking a programme off the internet or a book and trying to shoe horn it into your life.

The take away message here is to be philosophical about life’s ups and downs; but to keep running, as and when you can, without putting any undue pressure on yourself.

2. Establish new baseline:

Get creative with your schedule!

Ok, so things have changed and perhaps you can’t attend your favourite training sessions, or follow the timetable you used to. But there are likely to be swings and roundabouts, which means that other opportunities may have opened for you: For example, my recent job change means that I have to leave home at 06:10 every morning, drive half an hour to the railway station, reach London at 08:05 and then catch the tube to get to work for 08:45 or thereabouts. The return journey means that I don’t get home till about 19:30, when I occupy myself with our 15-month old’s bedtime routine, not having seen him during the day. So no more time for a Tuesday speed work session, or a Thursday easy run.

But the flip side of my schedule is that I can work from home on Mondays and Fridays. This gives me two days when I can go out either for a cheeky lunchtime run, or straight after work at 17:00 or 17:30, leaving the rest of the evening free to spend with my family.

Then, as I am getting used to my end-to-end commute, I see there are also opportunities to get some miles in during the commuting days of the week as well: If I was to run from the railway station to the office instead of taking the Underground, that would add 3 miles to my weekly mileage each time I did it: 6 if I ran back as well, and if I did that every day from Tuesday to Thursday, that’s 18 miles in the week just there! Now, I don’t expect these to be quality workouts, as I don’t think I’ll have the space to do intervals on pavements full of commuters and carrying a backpack, but they will certainly add to the 80% of my training which is supposed to be low intensity anyway (remember?) And even if I am only likely to run the outward leg to the office (I leave the office in too much of a hurry to catch my train to have time to change back into my running gear), that’s still 9 miles a week from three days which I had considered completely lost from a running perspective. Not bad!

So the action for you here is to look at your weekly schedule and identify any opportunity to add some miles in. Even if it’s not what you are used to, or the time of day you prefer to run at, give yourself a chance and your body will very quickly get used to it. They don’t have to be intense or long workouts either, we are building for weekly volume and consistency here.

Adjust your expectations

Perhaps before whatever happened you had set a new PB, averaged silly miles per week or came first in your local Parkrun. But you haven’t ran regularly for a month or two, so you know that your fitness, speed or endurance will have suffered as a consequence. And that’s fine. Just be realistic with your expectations of yourself, and adjust your goals accordingly.

Especially if you are coming back from a longish break, expecting your body to run at the pace and mileage it did at the height of your training will only lead to disappointment, probable injury and will undermine your effort to build consistency. And be honest with yourself about how long it’s been since you trained regularly: our memory tends to play tricks, so look at Strava, your online tracker or your good old trusty paper logbook and see how long it was since you last trained consistently, at your usual weekly mileage for, say, three or four weeks in a row?

If you have followed my advice so far, pace will be the least of your concerns: Your runs will be comfortable to steady, and you will be able to pace by feel, or (better) heart rate. Regarding mileage, just be sensible and build this up gradually, both in terms of the distance of each run, but also weekly mileage. The total weekly mileage you are aiming at will be determined to a great extent by what you have found by looking at your weekly schedule (see above). That in turn will help you gauge the maximum length of your long runs: I find I am happy with a LR of up to about half of my weekly mileage, although I have come across advice to limit it to a third of weekly total. As long as you listen to your body, space your runs properly in the week, increase gradually and don’t neglect your stretching, I would treat both these figures as broad guidelines.

And remember to make these runs enjoyable! Establishing positive associations is more important at this stage than setting a Segment PR on Strava, so pick routes you like, add variety, go out with a friend or your club… whatever works for you!

If getting creative with your schedule was about fitting running opportunities in, this is about making them pleasant, realistic and sustainable. Easing yourself back into it without the negative emotions (or adverse physical effects) of chasing your fitter self. Together these will help you…

…Establish a new consistent baseline

Which is the key really to this second phase, and indeed the whole approach. You started out in phase 1 by going out every now and then, and by scrutinising your new circumstances you have identified opportunities to make this a more frequent and regular occurrence. By not pushing your pace until you have built a decent base (spoiler!) and by increasing your mileage gradually, you have already set the foundations of a sustainable programme. But it will still take a bit of effort and commitment on your part to get to the point where you can rely on yourself to churn out x number of miles over y runs, week in and week out.

My rule of thumb is four weeks. If I can train consistently for four weeks in a row, adjusting my running days if needs be, then I know I am at a stage that I can commit to following a training programme again. Remember that habits are formed when a behaviour is repeated so often that it becomes second nature: This is where we want to be, so make the effort in the early days to turn this repeated behaviour into a habit, and your brain will take care of the rest!

Consistency (and communication and involvement – but this is a chapter in itself!) will also help those around you, be they your family, friend or work colleagues by giving them a baseline they can schedule around.

Key point: keep at it! Before you commit to a training plan aimed towards any race distance, make sure that you know how many times per week you can rely on yourself to train, and for how long. Make the effort in the early weeks, and it will help your mind to form the long term habit.

Work on your aerobic base

If you’ve got this far, this is all but sorted! All the runs that you have been doing at a comfortable pace (which now have become quite regular as you have taken every opportunity your new schedule allows) will have gone a long way to help you (re-)establish your aerobic base.

Make sure you don’t neglect your long runs though (even if you are only interested in shorter distances, you will still benefit from the improvements to your endurance and base), at a distance appropriate to your current level of training and race goals. So if you only want to race 5k for example, long runs of 10 – 12 miles are sufficient, no need to put in 20-milers!

As your running becomes more regular, do mix fartleks and the odd hill rep in. The added variety will do you good mentally, as well as physically. Structuring base training is a science in itself, and outside the realms of this post, you can find a useful introduction in this article at runnerscorner.net.

Also please remember that aerobic training isn’t something to only do at the start or during “base” periods of your training. A correctly balanced training programme will continue to build your aerobic capacity throughout, even if the focus may shift from one training phase to the next.

Key point: nice and steady, build mileage, mix some fartleks in. Don’t neglect your base as you build back up.

3. Ramp it up:

As this post is about getting back into running, this section serves almost as an epilogue. Once you’ve re-established a consistent running habit, with a set number of days and mileage / duration a week, you have achieved your prime objective. Where to go from here?

Set a goal

So by now you will know how much time you can consistently dedicate in a week for training, and you can start targeting race-specific training again. The purpose of re-establishing the habit first is to help you be realistic about the goals you can set at this moment in time. If for example your current work / family routine only allows you to run three times a week, perhaps aiming for a new marathon PB isn’t the most appropriate objective. You could instead target a shorter race (which could in turn translate to a faster marathon time, when circumstances allow you to train meaningfully for that distance) or just aim for consistent weekly mileage, including a long run which could serve as a springboard to a marathon training when your schedule can accommodate the demands of such a programme.

Spice things up!

Having built the frequency and mileage up again, you can now incorporate different workouts in your training programme with little fear of injury. Often these will be selected based on the areas of your relative weakness (e.g. I know that even after 7 marathon training programmes, I still set out too fast and fade towards the end of almost all distances I race: So all my programmes now include a number of progression runs, to help me be disciplined at the start and build intensity as I go), or (more often than not) the specific requirements of the goal you have set yourself.

Again, designing and building your own custom training programme probably deserves a separate post altogether, but it’s worth repeating that in your quest for spice, you should not neglect your staples: comfortable, easy and long runs still have a major role to play in your routine. Don’t neglect your base, and remember the 80 : 20 principle!

Monitor progress:

Another area deserving its own post or two. I have touched upon it before, but it’s important to ensure you maintain consistency in your training, and that your training is having the results you want it to. There are three broad areas which you should keep on top of:

  1. Training Quantity you put in: you can measure this in training sessions, mileage, hours or training load over a period of time (usually weekly or monthly). See whether it is broadly consistent and how it varies over time: ideally it will increase gradually, allowing for easier periods (e.g. a “rest” week of lower mileage after 2 or 3 more intense weeks).
  2. Training Quality and Balance: this is as much about an appropriate balance between lower (80%) and higher (20%) intensity training, as it is about selecting appropriate workouts for the distance you are training for and your individual strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Performance you get out of it: Self-explanatory, but this can be measured in actual race performance or an appropriate proxy (you won’t be racing marathons every weekend!).

I spent a while a few months back describing the spreadsheet I have built to allow me to keep on top of all these areas, and while calibrated to myself, I think there is a decent foundation there which can be re-calibrated to work for other runners willing to put the effort in. As I am now getting back into training, I hope to find the time to design v2.0 of my “Geeky Runner’s Spreadie”, making it simpler and more intuitive to use and interpret.

4. Congratulations!

The first few times I got back into training after a period of absence, I felt frustrated at what might have been if I had trained consistently throughout that time. I felt that this absence had made me slower, fatter and – through natural passage of time – older. I felt it had robbed me of some decent performances and put me behind runners I used to train with before that absence.

Perhaps it did all of that. But every time I managed to pull myself off the sofa and back out on the streets, I returned stronger, more determined and more resilient. It reinforced the value of hard work, reminded me of how hard it is to reach your objectives and how easy it is to let it all go downhill in a blink.

Life is life, and then it isn’t. Every day and week gives us ample reasons not to run, to do something else more urgent or important. In today’s world, getting out of the door and spending one or three hours sweating on a road or a trail is perhaps the most pointless and rebellious act any of us will do; embrace it!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. SPH says:

    This is very appropriate to my running over the last 3-6 months. In fact for the last couple of years my mileage and consistency has been sporadic at best but the last 2-3 weeks I have managed to start getting into something of a routine.

    I found leading a Couch to 5K group was the perfect distraction for me in a couple of ways; firstly, it took my focus away from my own pace and distance and onto other people’s (which removed some of the pressure I was putting on myself) and, secondly, it meant I was clocking up week after week of regular slow and easy mileage which was actually building a base for me to improve on.

    It is so key to recognise where you are at and plan accordingly rather than simply focusing on where you were at your best and getting frustrated because you are not still there!

    Like

    1. Leonard says:

      Absolutely, and thanks for the considered comment! When does your C25k “graduate”? Will you Parkrun it?

      Like

  2. Anonymous says:

    yy

    Like

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