Everyone will likely have some illness interrupt his/her running routine and the many CoVid-19 variants make that even more likely. Returning to a good routine and regaining your fitness can be a long and frustrating process. Like many, I have been sidelined for quite some time due to Covid, but I have found it to be an opportunity to come back even better and you can too.
In general, regaining lost fitness after a severe illness like Covid will be a slow process as your body has deconditioned both from lack of exercise and from the effects of the sickness. A gradual approach is recommended, and some may need the guidance of medical professionals. Adjustments in expectations and goals can also greatly enhance fitness recovery.
CoVid-19 has changed many things and they are not all bad especially for runners that can now work remotely (more time to run in the morning, yay!). However, runners who are stricken with the dreaded virus or even the flu can be more than frustrated as their running comes to a screeching halt. The recovery period can be a great time to re-evaluate your goals and exercise routine to return better than ever by considering some of the following tips.
Re-evaluate your goals
Take the down time to really think about what is important to you and what you wish to accomplish. Being forced to stop running is a good time to re-evaluate your goals, prioritize your recovery, and adjust as needed. See my article here for more information on goal setting.
Most runners have the on-going goal of being fit and running provides a fun and efficient way to stay in shape. Others may have been in training for an upcoming race with a time and/or distance goal as they push their bodies to see what they are capable of.
Either way, focusing on missed workouts and how each day being sick is setting you back will only discourage you. Even worse, forcing your body to exercise when it really needs rest could cause even more harm and/or a longer recovery period.
Depending on how long it takes to recover from your illness, you may need to adjust your training plan and goals. The longer it takes to recover, the bigger the adjustment you will need to make.
Many of us have worked hard to establish a running routine and take pride in our workouts. We may not have even considered the idea of having another and/or different kind of fitness goal. Now is a great time to think about other goals you want to accomplish or redefining the ones you already have.
Regardless of your goals, your current physical condition must be taken into consideration which could mean the best thing for you now is let the body rest. Working on existing goals such as reading that book you’ve been meaning to get to can be motivating while you recover.
Take it Slow & regain strength
If you have experienced a prolonged illness lasting more than a couple of weeks, you will likely need to return to running slowly. Keep in mind there is still no evidence-based guidelines as to the ideal timing and safety for resuming exercise after COVID.
The best and safest advice is to be cleared by a medical professional before stating to exercise and you may require ongoing medical monitoring depending on severity of the illness or underlying health conditions. See here for more information on general guidelines.
While there is still a lot of unknowns when it comes returning to exercises, almost all experts and studies recommend a gradual approach. Depending on the length and severity of the illness, other progressive steps may be needed before you can even begin to start exercising.
Below is a general outline of what most experts recommend in order to return to exercise. As always, listen to your body and be careful of pushing too much too soon as you can have a relapse of symptoms if you overdo it.
- You should be symptom-free for 7-10 before returning to any exercise.
- Make sure you can easily get through a day of normal activities without severe fatigue.
- Be able to walk for 500 meters (bit more than 1/4 mile) on a flat surface without fatigue or shortness of breath.
- Begin with low intensity exercises for 15 minutes. Flexibility and light strength training are recommended to start rebuilding strength and muscle before increasing intensity. See here for some strength training ideas and here for core exercises which can also help with prevent injury.
- Return to running at 50% of baseline pace and distance. Experts recommend not increasing pace or distance by more than 10% each week, but even this may be too much too soon.
Between deconditioning by not running AND being sick, it can take at least twice as long to build back fitness as it took to lose it. If you’ve been ill from COVID, expect your performance recovery to take longer than it would for the same amount of time you were sick from the flu.
It is easy to mistake deconditioning with still being sick so be cautious. Be alert for any issues during your return to exercise and be sure to follow up with a medical professional if you experience any of the follow:
- Chest pains, palpitations, or tightness in the chest
- Breathlessness that is out of proportion with what you would normally expect
- Feeling faint or lightheaded
- Any other issues that are out of the ordinary or concerning
See below for additional information from returning to exercise.
- Be patient. It will take time so don’t expect to pick up running where you left off.
- Take it easy for as long as your body needs. If your lungs have been affected, it may take a long time to get aerobic function back. Focus on strength training and walking if running is too much.
- Some pushing may be needed if you’ve been inactive for weeks but watch for fatigue.
As anxious as you may be to return to running (I know I was) it is important to make a full recovery and avoid any relapses or injury. Once you are back, the weeks or months off won’t seem nearly as long as they do now. Use this time wisely and focus on what you can safely do.
Tips for coping when you are unable to run
Let’s face it, running takes time and the more you run, the more time you spend doing it. When you are unable to exercise you will find you have a lot more time on your hands.
- Focus on rest and recovery. Try and get 9, 10, or more hours of sleep a night. Don’t force yourself to keep to a normal schedule. If you’re not able to run, your body obviously needs more healing. Sleep is probably one of the best recovery methods there is (see here for more on the benefits of sleep).
- Focus on other goals that are not physically demanding. Most of us have other goals that we’ve been meaning to accomplish, but just could not find the time for. Take the extra time you have now to work on one or more of them. You will also have a sense of accomplishment which can help offset the disappointment from missing
- Prioritize the most important things in your day/life and budget your energy for those things. If your illness stretches into weeks or months and your experiencing long Covid symptoms learning to manage life with limited energy levels becomes extremely important. Your doctor may be able to help (see article here for more on Long COVID)
My experience with COVID
I came down with Covid for the first time in the summer of ’22 with the typical symptoms of fever, headache, and fatigue. While I didn’t lose my sense of smell, everything tasted terrible. I really had to force myself to eat and ended up drinking a lot of protein fortified smoothies.
I was initially discouraged that my running was interrupted by a week and then it became two weeks. While the fever subsided my headaches, fatigue, and horrible taste in my mouth lingered on.
After a month I could barely walk to the mailbox as I had lost a lot of strength and weight. I knew I was experiencing something like “long Covid” symptoms and it felt like I’d never run again, or at least not in the foreseeable future.
While I was extremely discouraged, I concentrated on accomplishing other goals that were not physically taxing (aka – this blog). This gave me a sense of accomplishment and I didn’t feel quite so bad about the time I couldn’t be running.
Although, it became difficult to write about running the longer I was unable to, the time off was good for me. Not only was I able to focus on other goals (got some books read from my to-do list), but I really thought deeply about what is important to me.
After two months and a canceled doctor appointment that took me a month to schedule, I decided to be more proactive in assisting my body. I focused on dietary supplements to support my body and finally started to get some energy and strength back.
By month three I was finally able to return to running, but at a much slower pace and for much shorter distances. I was following the advice of the research above and have not experienced any relapses or injuries.
I initially focused on getting stronger and more flexible with light activity and floor exercises. Once I started running, I gradually increased my speed and distance but was cautious. After a few months I am almost back to a baseline training schedule, but not quite.
I wanted to share my experience as I was extremely frustrated with how long my recovery took. I spent a lot of time on the internet reading experiences of other runners to gain some perspective and comfort that I am not the only one out there having a difficult time recovering.
I am extremely thankful I am able to run and feel deeply for those whose recovery is taking longer than most. I especially feel for those suffering from long COVID as many ordinarily healthy and athletic people are barely able to get through the day.
I am a fairly healthy person with no underlying issues with good eating and exercise habits so there didn’t seem any reason why my recovery was so long. I primarily eat a whole food plant-based diet and severely limit consumption of sugar, white flours, and oils.
I also wanted to share what I feel made a huge difference in my recovery. I did not have a habit of taking any vitamins and supplements as I focus on getting my nutrients from my diet. However, once I started taking some high-quality vitamins and supplements, I did start to recover more quickly.
Returning to running after a severe virus like COVID can take a long time and should be gradual. Mentally preparing yourself by readjusting your goals and being flexible as you recover will greatly reduce your frustration and enhance your comeback.
There was a point when I was beginning to doubt if I would ever be able to run to again. Thankfully I am recovering well, but the experience has helped me re-evaluate my goals, to have renewed appreciation for the health I do enjoy, and to have a broader view of what health and fitness really mean.
Perhaps you are still recovering from COVID, a severe viral infection, or are experiencing long COVID symptoms that prevent you from running. Take this time to really evaluate and reflect on what is important to you, set some new goals, and/or focus on other goals you can accomplish. By focusing on what you can safely do, you will be happier and ensure you have a successful comeback.