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How to get back to running after a long break

Dusting off your running shoes after a break can be daunting. If an injury, pregnancy, or busy work schedule has gotten in the way of your passion for running, you might be wondering if you’re out of shape. Will your body even remember how to run at a certain pace? Or will your legs be weak and wobbly? And how many times do you have to pound the pavement or hop on a treadmill before you have fun again?

The good news is that your muscles retain a memory of their former strength, which can make it easier for you to bounce back than if you were starting from scratch. If you’ve been away for only two or three weeks, you might not even notice a significant change in your running performance, especially if you’ve been staying physically active in your free time.

If it’s been longer, you might not want to rush into multi-mile runs. Mix running and walking, take time to strengthen unused muscles, and use a few tricks to motivate and reward yourself.

It can take about two months for a new behavior to become automatic. Once that’s done, it also becomes less taxing. But until then, you want to minimize the potential for injury and frustration. Use these expert tips to overcome the boring retraining period so you can hit the road with passion.

You’re more likely to stick to a running habit if you start with small goals. This may mean holding you back a bit, both in terms of pace and distance. “Slow and steady wins the race,” said Karena Wu, physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York. Slow down until you can pass the conversation test, which means carrying on a conversation while running.

Aim to do two to three short, easy runs a week. You can also follow a 5k couch training plan designed for beginner runners and those returning after a long break. Alternatively, you can use a strategy that incorporates walking breaks into your runs.

Whatever plan you choose, make sure it includes elements of strength training, stretching, and rest. The goal is to stay consistent and remember that you’re using this time to recondition the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissues in your legs, Dr. Wu said.

You may think you can build muscle for the first few weeks or months of running, but research suggests that motivation alone isn’t always enough. Pairing small, immediate rewards with a task — like watching Netflix on the treadmill or treating yourself to an Epsom salt bath after a long run — can make it easier and more enjoyable to pursue those activities.

“People repeat behaviors they enjoy,” said Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.” “If you hate running at the start, there’s probably not much you can do to motivate yourself to repeat it.”

Short-term rewards can help you get through the days when your motivation is lagging. And they can even speed up the formation of your new running habit.

Research shows you can also get psychological rewards from running with a group of friends, affirmations from a trainer, or listening to your favorite music. Some studies have shown that people who listen to music are able to run faster, perform better, and feel less exhausted.

Strength training helps prepare your body to run again and can prevent injury in the long run. Many physical therapists and running experts even recommend strength training a few weeks before returning to running to build muscle strength, increase flexibility, and improve overall biomechanics.

“I think a lot of people use running to get in shape, but I would definitely recommend getting in shape to get back into running,” said Irene Davis, running biomechanics expert at the University of South Florida.

Runners tend to be weak in the feet and ankles, as well as the hips and glutes, Dr. Davis said. To strengthen these areas, try weightlifting, yoga, calisthenics, or plyometrics at least two days a week.

Dr. Davis and Dr. Wu recommended exercises that train multiple muscles at the same time, like single or double leg calf raises, band side steps (or monster steps), planks, lunges, squats and step-ups.

A well-designed warm-up can also get your blood flowing and prepare your muscles for the race. Dr. Wu and Dr. Davis recommended dynamic stretching, in which you move your joints and muscles through a range of motion, mimicking the movement you’re about to perform without holding them in place. For runners, these are often the same exercises used in strength training, such as lunges and squats, as well as kicks and high knees.

Research has offered mixed and often conflicting results regarding the benefits of cooling down after a workout. But many athletes and physical therapists, including Dr. Wu, recommend static stretching, in which you hold a position for a period of time, after a run. She also recommended bringing your knee to your chest, pulling your ankle toward your glutes, leaning against a wall to stretch your calves, or doing a deep lunge and moving your hips in a circle. Experiment with stretching and see if it makes you more flexible or helps you regain energy for the next run.

Just because your body remembers how to run a five-minute mile doesn’t mean your muscles and joints are ready for the toll running can take on you. As you rebuild your stamina and strength during runs, you also break down your body in many ways, like opening up microscopic tears in your muscles. Taking at least one day off a week will help you avoid injury and allow you to come back stronger, giving your body time to recover.

With every run, your body also depletes its stores of glycogen, a type of carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver. Resting and refueling help replenish those reserves so you can use them as energy when you run again.

Remember that you are making progress throughout the process. Running is an invigorating way to exercise with the breeze in your hair and the ground at your feet. So dust off those shoes and get out there.


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