How to Return to Running After Injury or Sickness

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
July 25, 2023

Let me first say this: I’m not a doctor or a COVID-19 expert.

But let me also say this: I’ve had my fair share of setbacks, including having had COVID-19, and like to do research. (I’m a journalist, after all.)     

My personal COVID-19 tale is that Omicron circulated through my house—from one son to the other, then to my husband, and then to me. My kids had stuffy noses and one of them had a cough. They both recovered quickly and were able to return to school after quarantining and recovering.

My husband and I, on the other hand, were knocked down with cold/flu-like symptoms that were hard to kick; those lasted a couple of weeks. (Luckily neither one of us is experiencing long COVID.)

If you run or enjoy being active, there’s always a balancing act of listening to your body and your mind. For some (myself included), being active helps maintain mental health. But when sick or injured, being too active can negatively affect physical health. So how do you know what to do?

For those with COVID symptoms, the CDC recommendation is to:

“Take care of yourself. Get rest and stay hydrated. Take over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, to help you feel better.”

But I mean…for those of us who crave exercise as a form of self-care, how are we to differentiate?

The World Health Organization (WHO) gets a little more specific:

“Do not exercise if you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Stay home and rest, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority.”

I didn’t have a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing. But midway through my COVID experience, I did too much, too soon, and found myself with a pounding headache and stuffy head for a solid week afterward. I likely returned to a level of activity too high for where I was in my illness, too soon.

Coming back from anything that keeps you from running should be taken slowly and with care. Returning too quickly—from an injury of any sort or an illness—can set you back or even make you worse off than you were before trying to exercise (as it did me!).

All that isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try to stay somewhat active while injured or sick unless you’re really down and out. I’m always a proponent of listening to your body with training, but this is when doing that becomes crucially important.

How to Return to Your Running Plan (what week should you return to? 🤔)

For anyone trying to return to a running plan after being sick or injured, it’s important consider where in your training plan to resume. Refrain from picking back up as if you never left, starting Week 6, for instance, if you became sick or injured during Week 4 and it lasted two weeks.

Refrain also from picking up where you left off, starting at Week 5 if you became sick or injured at the end of Week 4 and had to take a couple weeks off.

Instead, go back a week or two or more, re-doing Week 4, Week 3, or Week 2.

How far you go back depends on how long you were out.

Much of this will be up to your personal interpretation of why you were out, how long you were sidelined, and how you’re currently feeling. But backtracking in your plan will actually help you stay healthy moving forward, and get you to your end goal sooner, feeling better, and more enjoyably than if you return too heartily, too soon.

If you resume Week 4, as in the above scenario, and it feels like too much for any reason, listen to that.

Back it up.

Redo Week 3, or if you really felt poorly in your first run or run/walk of Week 4, redo Week 2 or 1, or, give yourself more rest and try again in a few days to a week.

How to Stay Sane During Downtime

Aside from the advice given in the post “The Mental Side of a Physical Injury,” here’s a strategy that can help:

If you’re itching for more activity while you’re stepping back in weeks in your plan, and if your body allows, consider what it is that you miss:

Is it being outdoors? Consider doing some yardwork, reading outside, or going on walks.

Is it getting sweaty and feeling like you got a good workout? Depending on what you’re recovering from, consider hot yoga, weightlifting, or cycling.

Is it the motion of running? Try the elliptical or Aqua Jogging.

Is it time to yourself? Do anything alone—running errands by yourself can even fulfill this need (busy parents, you know what I’m talking about).

And not to worry—you’ll be back.

Further reading: When Should I Repeat a Week of None to Run?