Getting back into shape

It’s easy to write about how well your training and racing is going when you’re in tip top shape, but it’s much more challenging to get excited about your running when you’re in less than peak physical condition. Whether life has gotten in the way of your running or injury has made an unwelcome visit it’s important to be careful about how you make the journey back to fitness and resumption of your full training load.

Currently I’m a touch out of shape and beginning the road back into a decent level of fitness and training. Luckily I don’t have any injuries to contend with and while it’d be nice to resume crushing training on any given day, I’ve been cutting myself some slack and accepting that from time to time I won’t be able to dedicate very high levels of time or energy to my running.

This period has and continues to be a good chance to reflect on and re-learn the advice I dish out to other runners to not take on too much too soon. It would be overstating the case to say I’m living by a set of running rules at the moment, they’re more like statements of good intent, but they’re helping me keep focus and make sure this build-up can be as effective and enjoyable as possible.

1. Mix up the pace

I’m like a lot of less gifted runners in that I can’t just commit to doing a 6 – 12 week base running period of essentially steady state running. Maybe one day I’ll move well enough to put together a big ‘aerobic base’ but until then I’m sticking with injecting some quicker efforts into the mix. At this point that’s not speed but some controlled tempo and slightly faster pace efforts twice per week.

To maximize my recovery opportunities and keep running days to 4 or 5 per week I’ve been combining my longish run with a short tempo paced effort of 12 minutes somewhere toward the end of a 60 – 65 minute run. Note: a few short weeks ago the 60 minute run had to be punctuated with the odd walk and/or 60 second go-slows. In truth I was going a bit far and fast for my fitness levels, but knowing when to take a short break was allowing me to run with a bit more intent.

2. Run for effort not necessarily pace

Those sneaky tempo efforts are just that – efforts. I have no idea how fast I’m running as I’ve been purposely doing them on stretches of road and trail that I haven’t measured out. This way I can put in a perceived tempo effort without the pressure to run the pace that I might have done when I was a bit fitter. No GPS wearing for this session.

3. Make strength training a priority

While the running has dropped off my strength training has been relatively consistent with at least one solid session per week. At the moment with running training not a massive priority I’d been able to experiment with different types of strength sessions. Some of these have been quite intense and resulted in being pretty sore for two or three days.

If you’re in a base period or low key training block you can get away with this, but if you’re in hard training, race preparation phase and especially during your goal race period it’s best to consider your strength work to be maintenance and take things easy. Check out my previous article on strength training strategy for more information.

I feel like my strength is ahead of fitness at the moment, which means I’m falling apart aerobically before technique and strength fails. It’s actually not a bad place to be for a change.

4. Don’t run too far too fast

Brian 500 repsOne of the key aspects of getting back into shape is to not run too fast for too long. By this I mean jumping straight back into doing 1,000m or mile repetitions at your old 5k race pace isn’t a great idea. Nor is belting out a bunch of 200 or 400m sprints.

I’ve been happily avoiding that type of training, instead doing some 6 by 500m rep sessions at about my old 10k race pace.

This session really is my technique training day as it’s at this kind of pace that I need to produce a good personal performance for 5 or 10km races. So if I’m not getting it right here there’s little chance of producing the goods when it counts. I’ve already had one check-up from Mark doing this session and have been working on a few things since. It will be interesting to see how well I’m going in the next few weeks. Make any adjustments you need early before bad habits become ingrained.

5. Allow plenty of time for recovery between harder efforts

A lot of runners like doing their repetitions off one minute recoveries. Early days this isn’t going to be practical or advisable. Push out your recoveries to double that (or more if needed) and then slowly whittle the rest periods back as you get fitter. First session of 500s was done off two minute recoveries, the last was off approximately 1.45. I’ll see how it goes but maybe I’ll run the next session off 1.30 and get a few more done.

6. Use drills as warm-ups and cool down stretches

I don’t use running drills obsessively but I usually walk through the A and B march and then skip once each before heading off on the run. After a run if I’m beat up I might do the walking drills as a dynamic stretch. I feel much better than you might expect doing these and it saves time on static stretching which I loath with a passion.

A few easy strides after easy runs can also be a good dynamic stretch and help keep the legs ticking over when you’re not doing any structured speed work. Keep them well under control and don’t run them too far or too fast: between two and four 50 – 80 meter efforts is fine. If your body feels smashed after the first one don’t feel bad about skipping the remaining efforts.

7. Wear a heart rate monitor

I’m not overly fond of high technology when it comes to running,  a stop-watch is usually as far as I go into this territory. But if you’re a beginner or getting back into training it’s as good a time as any to wear a heart rate monitor on easy days and long runs to ensure you’re not pushing too hard. Later on I’d rather not know, especially during harder efforts, it’s a personal thing really.


As an individual these are some of the strategies I’m using to ramp up my fitness. As a coach the approach follows similar principles but is often more conservative where runners don’t have a lot of experience or are recovering from injuries. For me at this stage it’s important to keep a close eye on three things: is my fitness sufficient to run-out any given training session? Am I strong enough to hold my form together and finally am I moving well enough to translate race pace training into a race? As ever, in the background, I’m listening like crazy to my body to try and detect any grumbles as early as possible.

How do you get yourself back into shape?

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