How quickly should we return to running after having Covid?

Rushing back to training, even if symptoms were mild, could do more harm than good

It’s only 24 hours since I received my positive test results and I’m already googling tips on running post-Covid. While it’s still early days, I am curious about how the effects of virus will impact my running and overall fitness both in the short and long term. I guess I’m not the only one who has asked this question. There are hundreds of articles and personal stories written on the subject.

Everyone is different

Like everything to do with Covid, there is no clear path. We all experience such a variety of physical symptoms that the road to full recovery is just as individual. But as a general guideline, the good news is that many people who have mild symptoms of the virus will feel comfortable enough to get back running within a month of their isolation period. But there will always be exceptions and naturally if the symptoms have been more severe, the recovery will be slower.

Too much too soon

The big risk for runners is that we can tend to be quite impatient and expect our bodies to return to their ‘normal’ pace sooner than it might be wise. By pushing our bodies before they have fully recovered, we risk not only further illness and fatigue, but also injury. Even if our symptoms have been minimal, we need to remember that our time in isolation has meant that our movement patterns have been different. The more gradually we adapt back to running, the more we can notice how our body is feeling. Just because Government guidelines allows us to roam freely after a certain number of days doesn’t mean our body is ready to return to its previous activity routines immediately.

Basics for starting back

Start with walking when you feel you have the energy to get back outdoors, and pay special attention to how your heart rate, breathing and energy levels feel on the day and in the following 24 hours. Once walking is comfortable, add in hills or walking up stairs before experimenting with running. If you are a competitive type, steer clear of your running buddies or events like park run or races for a little while. The temptation to keep up with others might distract you from what your body is trying to tell you. Once you feel comfortable running again, allow yourself at least one month to build gradually up to your usual intensity level.

Treat it like an injury

Your energy, confidence and motivation with indeed return, but how quickly this will happen will depend on how long you have been off your feet and how the virus has impacted you. As runners, we are often programmed to push through discomfort, but this is certainly not the time to do that. It might be worth treating your recovery from COVID like a cautious return to running after an injury. Adjust your training plan and listen to your body. Do only what feels comfortable, rather than what you feel you should be able to do. Keep your eyes off the clock and try not to compare with your pre-Covid pace. Accept that sometimes a slower road to recovery will make you stronger further down the line.

Time off your feet

Of course, the recovery from any injury is easier if we look after ourselves in the early days. So even before you make your post-Covid running comeback, you can still set yourself up for success during your time in isolation. If running is the last thing on your mind, then that’s a sure sign you are nowhere ready to be prioritising it. However, making time to rest can be frustrating, especially if your symptoms seem mild. Rest days can be a challenge for many runners, even when in good health, so learning to accept the setback can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. Our minds are often in the future with one eye on our next running event and in this case some events might feel like they are slipping away from us. Managing our expectations can be on of our biggest challenges.

Rejigging our future

When COVID arrives it doesn’t take into consideration for our training schedules or upcoming races. Everything must go on hold and naturally there is a lot of frustration for those who have spent months working hard to get to a certain fitness level to peak for a particular race event.

The fear of losing fitness is very real for many athletes and recreational runners. But rather put additional pressure on your body to peak for a certain date, consider how you can adapt your schedule and goals. The past few years have taught us that there will always be more events and races when the ones we are training for are no longer possible.

Itchy Feet in isolation

If you are reading this wishing you were back on the road, remember that none of the time off our feet is wasted time. There is plenty you can do to help your running future without running a step. You can spend time sitting in different positions throughout the day to help mobility, you can focus on learning more about breathwork, or research running technique. You might even dig out the dusty foam roller or yoga mat and move your body gently. But even if you don’t have the energy to leave the couch, you can still work on replanning your running future, watch a running movie, read a book or, dare I say it, rest and do nothing at all!

The perks of time out

Time out from running can be of great benefit to a runner, but there is a big difference between choosing to take time out and being forced off the road even temporarily. We cannot change the fact that we have contracted Covid, but we can help ourselves by letting our bodies take the lead in the recovery process and manage our expectations. Once I get back out running again, I will see it as one big experiment to be learned from. We have recovered from all our previous running setbacks of the past. I’m optimistic that this one will be no different.

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

Mary Jennings is founder and coach at ForgetTheGym.ie. Her spring programmes for runners start in Dublin, and online, on March 8th.