Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Returning to your best shape after setback is one of the key skills of being a runner. It’s part of the long-term endurance (or persistence) that is the essence of our sport. While it’s easy to feel positive when you’re running well, when every goal achieved opens new goals, glittering ahead, it’s a lot harder to think creatively on that dark day when it all falls apart and you can only say, “Back to the drawing board.”
Yet that may be the exact moment when more than ever you need to set goals, or milestones. Negotiating the recovery process is complex and unpredictable, and thinking out the principles will give some markers to guide you through the swamp. Here are principles, from long and often agonized experience, on Setting Goals for Your Comeback from Setback (Early Stages).
Principle 1: Commitment
You will come back. That’s a given. That’s the basis of the runner’s mindset. But when you’re down and out, you may need reminding of it. Suddenly having to stop running causes chemical changes that can feel like despair. The reality is that only grave illness or accident can end your running finally.
One time I believed that it was all over, when knee replacement surgery officially meant I would never run again. Wrong. In ten years since then, I’ve run ninety-one races from one mile to half-marathon, the best at 80%-plus on age-grading, and despite slowing pace I have had almost as much fun and fulfillment from running as in any other decade. It was a long way to climb back up, but it was worth it.
I did it by believing in Principle 1, but attending very patiently to Principle 2 to 6.
Principle 2: Flexibility
Comeback goals must be flexible in timing. The best advice I ever had during a serious injury was from Vancouver’s sports medicine legend Dr. Jack Taunton, who said, “Don’t set rigid targets. You can’t know in advance how fast your body will recover from injury or surgery, or how quickly it can rebuild as you increase training. Don’t set a particular race as a goal, however tempting, because you might cause another setback by pushing before you’re ready.” Your goals can be real and clear, in other words, but must also be moveable.
Principle 3: Adaptation
Don’t run every day. Not yet. Can missing three days a week be called a “goal?” For sure, and a very tough one if you’re a lifelong, almost-every-day, near-compulsive runner as I am. It’s hard, yet it might be the very element in recovery that is most important to identify and plan for. It’s the old, old evolutionary principle of overload followed by adaptation. Stress the body, and it will adapt to the new demand — but only if you increase the stress slowly, giving your body time to build what it requires. Otherwise it will break. I take my mantra from Joseph Conrad’s character Nostromo, who has a hoard of illicit silver, and vows, “I must get rich very slowly.” In running, that means take days off.
Principle 4: Adjust for Age
Skip this one if you’re under thirty-five, but after that, beware! The older you are, the slower your comeback will be. I used to calculate that whenever I was forced to take time off, for illness or injury, it would take the same time to get back to the same level of fitness. In my fifties and sixties, I learned I had to double that calculation. In my eighties, it’s probably times three – I’ll let you know a few months from now. Four months off (as I just had, with a bone fracture) means maybe twelve months to get back where I was. It sounds cruel, but it’s the reality of age.
Principle 5: Plan but Don’t Compare
Chart the intermediate goals of your recovery process without comparing with what you did in the past. Progress is progress. If you’re over 35, every comeback recovery is a new learning experience, because you have to factor in the hard-to-calculate effects of aging. Comparisons with the past might only depress you, or worse, mislead you into overstressing. At any age, comparisons with a former “best self” will likely leave you disappointed with current efforts and progress, and lead to rushing to try to get back to “normal.” Compare with last week, not with last year. And, for masters, definitely not with five years ago!
Principle 6: Advance by Increments
As an older runner in a recovery process, I find I need the help of clear goals more than at any other time. That’s mainly to avoid mistakes and over-reaching. It’s to remind myself of how much time this will take. My structure now has classic simplicity, but it demands will power and patience.
My structure is this: progress in increments of one minute. A rolled ankle cracked a fibula this year, which meant frustrating weeks on crutches and in the boot, and then months of slow healing. I did my first jog on November 9, one minute’s jog in the course of a 95-minute walk. Two days later, it was two minutes of jogging, separately, during an hour’s walk. And so on. I add one minute of running every two days (taking every second day off). When I reached 15 x 1 minute, I began to join them, mixing in some two-minute jogs, then adding some threes to the mix, slowly phasing out the one-minute runs. I walk all the spaces in between, but the total of walking goes down as the total of running creeps inexorably up.
You would be amazed how it increases. It comes to adding fifteen minutes each month. Today, January 13, I ran a total of 38 minutes, not yet continuously, but in threes, sixes, and twice stretching out to seven minutes. My goal about six weeks from now, say the end of February (but see Principle 2) is to reach a one-hour run, with no walking. At which point, I’ll be a runner once again.
That’s a careful and cautious structure. It’s designed for an 81-year-old with weakening bone density. For me, it has worked before (see Still Hungry at Eighty), and it seems to be working again.
Modify according to your age and personal progress. You may, for example, be able to add a quarter mile, or even a half, to each run, totaling 1–2 miles more every week. Keep the increments small, keep consistent and keep track.
This progress by increments brings two great bonuses, one psychological, one physical. Psychologically it enables me to flatter myself every two days that I have broken what I call the world record, going further than I have ever gone before (this time round). That satisfies my runner’s need for progress, for seeing work rewarded by measurable improvement. The physical bonus comes via the increasing weeks’ totals. Think about it. In the first week in early November I did six minutes’ total running. Last week it was well over two hours (32 + 33 + 34 + 35). That begins to build a base.
The pace also creeps up of its own accord. I began with a shuffle, and know that now it’s a real run, slow but real. I’m not timing anything yet, but soon I’ll be ready to include a measured half-mile or one kilometer as a first check on pace progress.
Principle 7: Vary surface and include uphill
For speedy muscle rebuild, and to reduce re-injury risk, run if you can on different surfaces (grass, trail, road, track), and for speedy oxygen-carrying rebuild, include some uphill if it’s available. (If it’s not, seek out some steps or stairs as Rocky did.) That will ensure that your respiratory and cardiovascular systems get back to work. Most recovering injuries require special caution downhill, so avoid that. Figure out the walk/run components so that you walk down and run up. A little puffing and gasping doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong — it means you’re working and therefore improving.
Hopefully, such a modest progression has given the cracked bone more time to mend. It has given the rest of my battered old body an untraumatic readjustment to regular running. Modest though it seems, it is also preparation for what lies ahead, the demands of a full program — intervals, long runs, races, the whole package. March? April? I don’t know yet. But — not too far ahead, I’ll time some intervals, and the goals will change.
If I get there — no, when I get there — it will be with the help of this set of realistic principles and carefully progressive goals. Yes, several of them are goals not to do things, cautious resolutions if you like, but if you’re honest with yourself, that’s what some runners most need.
Put it positively, my goals are giving me incentive and discipline, and best of all – the ultimate reward – improvement. Today I ran my longest since June 2020. Whoopee! I will do so again on Friday, and Sunday, and Tuesday, and so on. How many people — let alone 81-year-olds — get the buzz of that kind of improvement?
Between races, injuries and comebacks, former elite runner Roger Robinson writes books like the much acclaimed When Running Made History.