Improving Running Fitness and Endurance after Illness

by Lorraine
(Staffordshire, UK)

I have been running for most of my adult life, with an occasional year off due to pregnancies and illness. In the last ten years or so, I've only managed 9 minute miles (over 6 miles) despite running almost every day and doing the usual combinations of slow,hill, fartlek etc, with weight training.

In December 2010 I had an accident which resulted in the development of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. I continue to take medication to this day (Butrans patches (an opioid), Pregabalin and Duloxetine).

Last summer I made a real effort to regain my general fitness, starting with walking, then walk-running and now can run for 3 miles. My problem is that my runs never get any faster or easier.

I run 5-6 times a week, over 1, 2 or 3 miles each session and have not yet improved upon about 12 minutes for one mile and 15 minute-miling over 3 miles.
My breathing is quite laboured and my stride does not have any "bounce". I am at my usual body weight of 10 st 7lbs (at which I look quite slim) and will be 46 this year. I am female and in in otherwise good general health apart from long-standing hypothyroidism.

Is it realistic to get back into nine minute miling this year and if so, how do I go about it? Are the medicines themselves creating difficulty? Or is it just age??

running tips
Answer by Dominique:
Hi there,
Thanks for your questions about returning to fitness after taking a period off running. And thanks for sharing your story.

Let's start with the positives. You are running again. Running 5-6 days a week for 1-3 miles. That's more than probably 95% of the population. This will help improve your fitness and improve your quality of life long-term. It's important to not lose sight of that.

I am not a doctor so I don't know if the medicines and your medical condition have any effect. What definitely is having an effect is age and time away from running.

I had a knee injury a while back. Not caused by running I'd like to add. I lifted something heavy, stepped onto a high step and something in my knee cracked. Kept me entertained for a year.

After a year of not running I felt it was incredibly hard to get back into running. It was much harder this time round than it was 5-6 years prior when I experienced another longer period of non-running. I put it down to age, and I am 10 years younger than you, so I imagine that for you it might yet be a little bit harder to get back to previous fitness.

The positive is: at one point I did get back to previous levels of fitness. First I had a little bit of improvement, then suddenly a whole lot. The main lesson for me was that I just needed to persist and try to keep up the exercise, no matter how frustratingly slow I was in the beginning.

In order to improve your times I would say:

  • Keep up the running. 5-6 days per week is very good. You could even reduce the running and complement your running with some cross-training. Depends on what your favorite activity is, but swimming, cycling, yoga/pilates, etc. are all great cross-training activities.

  • Make one or two runs a little bit longer, e.g. 4 miles. Maybe not in one go, build it up in small steps.

  • Make one of your runs a bit faster, do something like fartlek workouts, where you do some surges / faster running in between.

  • It may even help to get back to run/walks, where you do the runs at a faster pace than what you are currently used to, then recover with walks in between.

  • Don't make every run a race. Most of your runs should be run at a low intensity, where the focus is not so much on time. I know I made my first big jumps back to previous fitness when I stopped aiming for previous training times, and just went with my heart rate and feel. Rather than pushing myself every single workout, what worked for me was basically "letting go" and having confidence in the process.

  • This will see you do most of your runs at a slower pace and some of your runs at a pace faster than what is currently comfortable. That is still the best recipe for improvement.

    Recommended further reading:

    Base Running Drills
    About the importance of base running. This explains why slow and easy running should be the cornerstone of your running.

    Improve Your Running
    General guidelines that will help you improve your running.

    Hope this helps.
    Best of luck.
    Kind regards,

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