How To

Return to Running: Injured Runners

on August 20, 2021

The Return to Running Training Plan was designed by Malindi Elmore, an Olympian, Zwift Ambassador, Mother and Coach.  She is a lifelong athlete and passionate about helping others reach their goals and to get them safely back to running. 

It is frustrating to be stopped in your tracks from doing what you love and having to adjust your goals and plans to accommodate an injury.  Injuries force us to evaluate both what the cause of the injury was, as well as how we are going to physically and mentally deal with it. Returning to run post injury requires both understanding the nature of your injury, and also evaluating the causes which led to it in the first place.  It also requires a patient and long term plan as you build back your fitness and rehabilitate your body to be able to handle the load of running.  The Zwift Return to Running plan is specifically designed to help you manage your running after returning from a long stint away from running (over 6 week off running) which can include acute and overuse injuries and pregnancy. 

Injury Diagnosis

There are many different kinds of injuries – and all require different prognosis and treatment.  One of the keys to treating an injury is having an accurate diagnosis. For example, I have had several bone injuries (stress fractures) in the past, but the first time I had a tendon injury in my hamstring, I did not understand how to treat and rehab the injury.  I was only 8 days out from my “goal race” the Canadian Marathon Trials when I was stopped in my tracks one run with significant hamstring pain – initially presenting as sciatica but also with sacral / glute and hamstring pain close to the insertion.  After a few very painful attempts to run in the days leading into my race, it quickly became apparent to me that my body was in no position to race a marathon. My instinct was to take 6-8 weeks off training completely, which is how you treat a bone injury; however, tendons do not respond to passive rest and need a specific protocol, including progressive strengthening.  

I was very fortunate that quick access to an MRI and a strong team of professionals (sports medicine and physiotherapy) was able to help me diagnose the injury and come up with a plan to minimize my time off running.  If I had simply taken passive rest as I had initially planned, my injury would have immediately returned once I started running again.  On the other hand, if it had been a sacral stress fracture (ruled out by MRI), complete rest would have been necessary. As such, my advice to runners when they experience pain is to get an accurate diagnosis and to consult with the best professionals you can to develop a rehab plan before worrying about returning to training.  It is best to get a handle on your injury and treat it successfully than try to force running. If pain persists or returns after some time off or treatment, then pursuing diagnosis imaging is really beneficial.   

Address The Cause of Injury

Running injuries are as common, or maybe even more so, than high contact sports.  However, running injuries are more often classified as “overuse” rather than “acute”.  There is generally not one single incident leading to injury, but rather the culmination of running and factors that make the runner’s body able to adapt and recover from the load of running which can lead to tissue or bone breakdown.  Therefore, it is crucial to address the cause of the injury.  Do you have weak glutes? Is your pelvis out of alignment? Are your quads significantly stronger than your hamstrings?  Again, this is where a trusty team of professionals can help you figure out the problem, and how to help prevent future injuries.  Often, a diligent strength training program will help build your body to be stronger and more resilient.

There are also external factors that can lead to injuries and keeping a record of your training will help identify them.  Common reasons may include: ramping up volume too quickly, adding too much intensity to training, making a significant change to your training environment (hills, pavement), or not wearing the right shoes.  In fact, one of the biggest predictors of future injuries is returning from a recent injury when your body may still be compensating in subtle ways from the past injury.  Finally, while cross training is great to preserve cardiovascular fitness, it can create a discrepancy whereby your “engine” is stronger than your “chassis” and when you start running again you are able to do volume / intensity of running that your skeleton-muscular system cannot yet handle. 

Practice Patience

The key, therefore, to returning to running after a long break (6 weeks or more), is to be progressive and to exert a high level of patience.  If you rush your return to running you risk a flare up of your original injury, or a new one entirely setting off a nasty injury cycle. It is imperative that you end the injury cycle as efficiently as possible by treating it and preventing future setbacks through strengthening your body to better support the demands of running.

The best way to return to running is through a very gradual walk-run program. For runners accustomed to higher volume, it can be very tedious to start back on a walk-run which initially favours the “walk” portion.  However, I have used this protocol on many occasions, and sticking to it will have you closer to your goals than rushing the process and needing to return to the passive rest phase. It is better to take mini steps forward, than one step forward and two steps backwards.  The walk-run program introduces running very gradually so that your bones, tendons, muscles and ligaments can adapt to the load, and if anything starts to bother you, you will know early enough without doing any more damage.  If you start the program and your pain returns (a bit of “discomfort” can be normal), then your body is sending you the signal to back off again and maybe return to passive rest for another week before resuming the walk run program (start at the beginning again).

Please join us for the Return to Run training plan on Zwift where we will take you through the necessary steps to rebuild your running gradually and safely.  By the end you will be back to running 30 minutes consecutively and starting to introduce some faster paced work!

How Do I Find the Return to Running Plan?

You can access all 8 weeks of workouts after you connect your devices. Check the Training Folder in-game under WORKOUTS. Scroll down to find ‘Return To Running’ and click the dropdown menu to see each week's workouts.

Learn more about Malinidi Elmore on her website and check out the Return to Running training plan to guide you safely back to running.



Return to Running: New Runners about 1 year ago