Elite runner Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz, 30, of Boulder, Colorado, 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 SlowTo 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 registered 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 HelpSeeking 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.