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Returning to training after injury or illness

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

After a few days, or longer, off training with illness, we’re always desperate to rush back to it. But sometimes coming back too soon, or trying to do too much too soon when we restart can do more harm than good. So follow this handy checklist to avoid taking a backwards step.

The risk of training when ill, even when you’re on the road to recovery, is that you divert the body’s resources away from helping you get well again, and delay the recovery (or worse). In terms of knowing whether you’re well enough to train, the first thing is to assess how you feel, but it's often tempting to ignore what our body is telling us in our eagerness to get back to training.

So make sure you keep an eye on your resting heart rate (RHR) when you’re well so you know what your normal resting heart rate is (taken first thing in the morning, either by taking your pulse, or from your training watch IF you wear it overnight). Then if it’s around 5 bpm different from your normal RHR but you feel ok then stick to some easy training (in terms of intensity and time). If it’s much more than 5 bpm different then don’t train. These numbers will vary slightly for everyone, find what’s right for you over time, add notes on your training plan so that you can check back on patterns over time.

If you use Heart Rate Variability (HRV) then it’s even simpler. You should know the relevant numbers for you, don’t mess with them! There’s no point in taking HRV readings if you don’t then use them to adapt your training.

Take it easy with the first session(s) back. Don’t worry about pace - listen to your body and take down the intensity/ length of the session if needed. Keep an eye on your heart rate, if it’s very different to your normal heart rate for that sort of session then you might have come back too soon. Don't be afraid to cancel the session if you realise you’re not ready yet. And don’t just end up doing a half-hearted session – think about it, for a training session to be effective you have to push your body hard enough to force it to adapt to the demands of the session. If you’re pushing it this hard then you’re adding stress to a body that is already under stress trying to fight whatever has made it ill.

If you've been off for a while, then don’t just jump into the next session on your plan. If your training plan is progressive (so each week is a little bit harder than the week before), you’ll be better doing a session from the week when you got ill (or even before that if you’ve been off for a long time). If there’s no imminent goal to get ready for then you can just push all the sessions back until you next update your plan. If you’re following a set plan and want to get back on track then adapt your next session so it’s somewhere between the one you just did and where you were meant to be on the plan (but it will depend on what sort of session it is and how long you were off for).

What's gone is gone - don’t be tempted to try and cram in missed sessions. Where appropriate you might need to adapt the session to bridge the gap between where you are and where the plan is, as above, but don’t add in extra sessions. If you try and do more than what your body is used to you’ll only end up wearing yourself out or getting injured.

The biggest issue comes if you’re at an important stage in your training plan where you’re building up the amount of time at a certain intensity or building up the distance in time for a key race. If you still plan to do the race then have a look at the remaining sessions on the plan before the race, identify the key ones, and see how you can redistribute them. The first session back should be close to where you were when you had to stop training so you don’t overdo it on the first session back. And then you’ll need to redistribute the remaining key sessions in the time available. Don’t try and do them all, but look for a progressive build up to where you need to get to, allowing enough time for recovery between the sessions. Make sure you keep the taper, you won’t be doing yourself any favours by going into the race already fatigued!


If you're coming up to a key race and your training has been derailed by illness or injury, and you're not sure how to update your plan, think about booking in a coaching consultation call where we can discuss how to adapt your training in the time remaining.

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