Tips to a Successful Running Comeback

By Amy Reinink

Elite runner Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz, 30, of Boulder, Col., is accustomed to 100-plus-mile training weeks, grueling speed workouts and pushing her body to the limit in frequent weekend races.

But in early 2010, her workouts looked like this: five minutes of walking, followed by one minute of easy running, repeat.

After a forced three-month sabbatical from the sport due to a foot injury, Fryburg-Zaitz was eager to run again, but knew that she needed to ease her body back into training. Following a run/walk technique at first, she slowly built up to higher mileage. It was difficult to shift from her hard-charging training schedule to a conservative, scaled-back recovery plan, but her patience was ultimately rewarded. “Taking it slow was huge for me,” Fryburg-Zaitz says. “I erred on the side of caution, and it paid off.”


Take It Slow

To stage a successful running comeback, the key is to proceed with caution. In fact, your first workouts may not include any running at all. Janet Hamilton, an Atlanta-area running coach and clinical exercise physiologist, tells clients they need to walk before they can run–literally. According to Hamilton, only if you can walk 10 miles per week without pain should you add a minute of running for every four minutes of walking. “Do less than you think you’re able to, and let your body prove to you that it’s ready,” she says.

Olympic track star Kara Goucher, 32, says she’s coped with post-injury comebacks by sketching the most conservative plan possible–and then forcing herself not to exceed it. “Otherwise, you’ll think, I’m feeling fine, I can go farther than I thought,” she says. “But as great as you think you feel that day, you end up totally crippled again 10 days later.”

Even once Fryburg-Zaitz returned to running high-mileage weeks, her coach, Craig Sherman, advised her to hold back from racing and other all-out efforts while she created a solid foundation of training. “I love summer racing, so that was really hard for me,” Fryburg-Zaitz says. “But slowly building a base helped me to develop confidence that my body was ready to race.”

Enlist Expert Help

Seeking out a coach can help runners stay on the right track through a combination of support and personalized training. It can also be beneficial to enlist the help of other valuable resources, from physical therapists and doctors to massage therapists and Pilates instructors.

Sally Boyd, 53, a recreational runner from Marietta, Georgia, began planning her return to running from a femoral neck stress fracture before she was even off crutches. In order to come back to the sport safely, she hired a coach, dietitian and counselor. “I wanted to know why [the injury] happened before I ran again,” Boyd explains.

The experts helped her understand that a combination of disordered eating and excessive training contributed to her fracture. To ensure she didn’t repeat the same mistakes this time around, her coach devised a plan that included strength and flexibility training, plus appropriate rest time. “Having a coach had everything to do with me being able to come back strong,” she says.

Initially, Fryburg-Zaitz worked with a chiropractor to rebuild her physical ability. Later, Stephen Walker, Ph.D., a sports psychologist from Boulder, Colorado, helped her to regain confidence as she returned to the racing scene. “I believe my first races back were as successful as they were because of my work with [Dr. Walker],” she says. “He helped me believe in myself, and believe in my training.”

Stay Focused

To banish feelings of frustration, channel the discipline you would normally apply to your training and dedicate it to recovery. This might take the form of a physical therapy program or mental exercises, such as watching race videos or focusing on relaxation techniques.

Once you’re ready to run again, Kara Goucher says maintaining any kind of workout regimen can help you stay on track mentally. This same approach, which she used to recover from a cracked kneecap, Goucher is currently employing following the birth of her first child in September 2010. “For me, it’s about staying as much to my regular routine as possible, keeping in mind that the actual workout is completely scaled back–really, incomparable to what it was before,” she says.

Runners can also benefit from tried-and-true motivation tips, such as scheduling running dates with a buddy or local group. “It makes running a social thing, which makes hard work just fly by,” Walker says. Staying positive and focusing on the end result–becoming a healthy runner again–can get you through a slow recovery. In Sally Boyd’s case, a break from training gave her a new found appreciation of the sport: “Having to take time off really reinforced how much I loved to run.”

Listen to Your Body

Coaches and runners alike say the most important component of a successful comeback is recognizing that recovery is an individual process. It is vital to make frequent, honest assessments about your progress and adjust workouts accordingly. “If you tune in to your body’s little whispers, it will never have to shout at you,” Hamilton says. “People tend to bludgeon their bodies into fitness. But if you just take half a step back to let your body catch up to your spirit, you’ll be fine.”

It’s a strategy that worked for Fryburg- Zaitz. Last September, after months of gradually rebuilding her training schedule, she placed eighth in the U.S. 20k Championship with a time of 1:09:56–a new personal record.

“Ask yourself, ‘How did that minute-long jog go?”‘ Fryburg-Zaitz says. “If it felt good, then you can do it again. If not, you take a step back. Too many people push through the pain. I did that for years, and I know from experience you just end up back where you started.”


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