Returning to Running After an Injury

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: I am very out of shape having broken my ankle last July.  I’m healed and released to exercise (low impact) and we just bought a Livestrong Elliptical.  I looked at the fitness fusion programs and there is no way that I can start at 20 minutes.  I’m more like 3 minutes.  I couldn’t even make it through the fitness test.  How can I get a plan or program that will help me start from below ground zero where I am?  Thanks very much.  ~Sarah

A: Hi Sarah. I’m glad to read you’re healed and ready for a comeback. You’re very wise to ask this question and avoid pushing through something that is beyond your fitness level right now. Doing so will only frustrate you and delay your progress.

The elliptical is a fantastic way to return to regular exercise as it is low impact, but weight bearing, which aids in improving balance, muscular strength and bone density without the risk of impact.

The key is to develop a plan that is tailored to what your body is able to accomplish now. Seeing that you’re coming back from an injury, it is even more important to take it easy early on. Here are a few strategies that will help make the process more fun and highly effective.

  •  Include a variety of activities in your comeback fitness routine. For instance, performing the elliptical three times per week (M-W-Sa) and walking or a strengthening workout 20-30 minutes on the days in between. This allows for a variety of body movements and keeps your program fresh. Including a total body strengthening routine will also help develop your core strength and improve all aspects of your health and well being. Plus, it’s a great complement to your cardiovascular exercise on the elliptical.
  •  Circle a date on your calendar three weeks from your start date. Commit to staying with the same routine for three weeks before you increase time or intensity. This is the secret to success as we all try to improve too quickly. Gradually increasing as your body adapts will keep you happy, loving your exercise routine and coming back for more!
  • Set the Livestrong Elliptical to Manual mode and to the lowest level.  This affects the resistance and incline settings on the machine and will allow you to adapt to the movement at its lowest setting first. Don’t worry about the fitness test or doing programs just yet. That will come in time. For now, focus on getting to know the movement of the machine in its natural state in the manual mode. This mode allows you to control the intensity, which is what you need right now.
  •  Start with moving only your legs in the first few weeks and hold onto the non-moving hand grips. Not moving your arms with your legs will keep your heart rate lower and allow you to perform the exercise longer with less energy expenditure to avoid fatigue.
  •  As you become more fit, add in the arm movement gradually. At first, warm up and cool down without the arms for several minutes. Then, weave in 30 seconds to one minute with the arm movement – followed by several minutes with just your legs. This is an example of how a workout might look at this level;
  1. Warm up 3-5 minutes – legs only.
  2. 10-15 minutes – alternate 30 seconds on arms+legs, followed by 2-3 minutes of legs only to recover and catch your breath.
  3. Cool down 3-5 minutes – legs only.
  •  Making these changes should allow you to perform the elliptical for a longer period of time. If you find that it is still a challenge, combine it with a walking routine. For instance, you could walk 10 minutes, perform the elliptical for 3-5 minutes and then walk another 10 minutes. As you gain fitness, you will be able to increase the time on the elliptical machine and you can reduce the walking minutes. You can also walk in place and perform intervals right there in your house.  Here’s an example of an interval workout;
    1. Warm up walking in place with high knees for 3 minutes
    2. Elliptical for 3 minutes
    3. Walk in place with high knees for 3 minutes
    4. Elliptical for 3 minutes
    5. Walk in place with high knees for 3 minutes
    6. Repeat this until fatigued and cool down walking in place for 3 minutes.

You are standing at the most challenging point in your return to fitness. The first step you take is healthy movement towards improvement. The secret is to listen to your body, practice patience and finish feeling fatigued but not exhausted so you’ll want to do it again soon.

You can do this…one step (or stride) at a time.

Do you have a question for Coach Jenny? Submit your question here.

What is the Best Way to Recover After a Race?

Ask Coach Jenny

Q: How do I recover after short and long races – 5K to marathon?  ~Jeff

A: Great question, Jeff! The short, sweet, tweet-sized answer is – invest one day for every mile in the race. Although this is very general, it can work in keeping things simple. So, the shorter the race, the shorter the recovery necessary and vice versa.  This is why you can race multiple 5Ks in a season with less risk than racing multiple half or full marathons in a season.

The longer answer is it truly depends on a host of variables including: your running experience, your training season, your health, stress, nutrition, race intensity, the elements, age and more! I know that’s a mouthful and quite a lot to think about, but ultimately it comes down to creating your personal recovery program and understanding that every post-race recovery is unique. That way, you tune into what works for you, learn to optimize your down time and ebb and flow with all types of recoveries.

Contrary to popular belief, post-race recovery doesn’t mean sitting on the couch watching your favorite reality TV show. It simply means getting off the structure of a training program for awhile to let things heal and rejuvenate – much like the winter season or a good night’s sleep. Our body functions in cycles and when you begin to train and race in cycles, you make the most of every season. The fun part is it allows time to explore activities you may have ignored due to training. There are a myriad of options for active recovery and here are just a few ways you could go for each race distance.

5K – 10K:  

In-Season, Post-Race Recovery:

Day 1 – Rest, massage or very light, low-impact activity for 20-30 minutes (cycling, elliptical)

Day 2 – Cross-training with lower-impact activities for 30-45 minutes at an easy effort level, plus flexibility exercises (foam rolling, stretching)

Day 3 – Easy effort run for 30-45 minutes, plus flexibility exercises

Day 4 – Cross-training for 30-45 minutes at an easy to moderate effort level

Day 5 – Easy effort run for 30-45 minutes, plus flexibility exercises

Day 6 – Rest

Day 7 – Continue on with your 5K training regimen, adding higher intensity and longer duration runs back into your regimen if all feels well. If you have any aches or pains, invest a few more days of easy effort runs and cross-training to assure recovery.

Post-Season Recovery:

Weeks 1-2:

Include easy to moderate effort cross-training, easy effort runs that are shorter and flexibility exercises, keeping the workout duration to no more than an hour. Reward yourself with a massage!

Example Week

Monday – Easy effort run for 30 minutes, plus a strength workout

Tuesday – Cross-training for 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Wednesday – Play – an activity you love to do (hike, bike, play with the kids, dance)

Thursday – Easy effort run for 30 minutes, plus strength workout

Friday – Cross-training for 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Saturday – Easy effort run – 60 minutes on a new trail, route or path

Sunday – Rest

Weeks 3-4:

Include moderate effort cross-training, easy effort runs that are shorter, a harder effort short run and flexibility exercises, still keeping the workout duration to no more than an hour.

Example Week

Monday – Easy effort run for 30-40 minutes, plus strength workout

Tuesday – Cross-training 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Wednesday – Play – an activity you love to do (hike, bike, play with the kids, dance)

Thursday – Easy effort run for 30 minutes, plus strength workout

Friday – Cross-training for 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Saturday – Alternate one week with a longer, slower run (45-60 minutes) with a shorter, harder effort run (30-40 minutes – Fartlek, which is a form of road running in which the runner varies the pace significantly during the run)

Sunday – Rest

Half Marathon Marathon:

Longer races require long training seasons and more effort and stress on race day. Therefore, at least 3-4 weeks of low-key, unstructured activity is a great way to fully recovery mentally, physically and emotionally. Here is an example of what that might look like for a runner that normally trains four times per week, plus cross-training.

Week 1 – Keep the effort easy and activity short:

Monday – Rest, massage and very light flexibility exercises

Tuesday – Cross-training for 20-30 minutes at an easy effort, plus flexibility

Wednesday – Rest

Thursday – Cross-training for 30 minutes at an easy effort, plus flexibility

Friday – Rest day or light walk for 30 minutes

Saturday – Easy effort run for 30-40 minutes, plus flexibility

Sunday – Rest or light walk for 30-45 minutes

 Week 2 – Keep the effort easy, and build the activity time slightly:

Monday – Cross-training for 30-40 minutes at an easy effort, plus strength

Tuesday – Easy effort run for 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Wednesday – Cross-training for 30-40 minutes at an easy effort, plus strength

Thursday – Easy effort run for 40 minutes, plus flexibility

Friday – Cross-training for 30-40 minutes at an easy effort, plus strength

Saturday – Easy effort longer run for 60 minutes, plus flexibility

Sunday – Rest

 Week 3:

Monday – Easy effort run for 45 minutes, plus flexibility

Tuesday – Cross-training at moderate to hard intensity for 45-60 minutes, plus strength

Wednesday – Rest

Thursday – Easy effort run for 45 minutes, plus flexibility

Friday – Cross-training at moderate to hard intensity for 45-60 minutes, plus strength

Saturday – Easy effort longer run for 60-70 minutes, plus flexibility

Sunday – Rest

 Week 4:

Monday – Easy effort run for 45 minutes, plus flexibility

Tuesday – Cross-training at moderate to hard intensity for 45-60 minutes, plus strength

Wednesday – Moderate effort run for 45 minutes, plus flexibility

Thursday – Cross-training at moderate to hard intensity for 45-60 minutes, plus strength

Friday – Easy effort run for 40 minutes or cross-training

Saturday – Easy effort longer run for 70-80 minutes (or hold at 60 minutes if that’s more comfortable), plus flexibility

Sunday – Rest