The long-distance runner’s litmus test of serious health concerns is the rare day when running isn’t on her mind.
Oftentimes, we can’t run but we want to. Or we run but we shouldn’t. Or we shouldn’t run but we won’t. Sick or injured, runners keep thinking about running, or about not being able to run.
I passed the test at the end of March when I came down with pneumonia. Once the worst of the fever was over, I expected the usual urge to get back to exercising, along with the frustration of dealing with a weakened body. It didn’t. I wasn’t obsessed about resuming running, or any sport — even mild yoga. I wasn’t obsessed about losing form and speed. I wasn’t obsessed about ticking the daily activity box with anything. I let it go.
This mindset lasted eight days. On the ninth day, I worked on a two-month recovery plan.
My road back to running was like a beginner’s marathon training program, starting from a low base. Pneumonia took a disproportionate toll on my body compared with the relatively short period of time during which I was symptomatic. The delirious high fever was over in about 48 hours, and the sneezing, coughing or other nose-blowing had subsided after a week. Throughout the sickness, I didn’t suffer from major shortness of breath. But the illness left me weak, light-headed and skinny.
The key to getting back to running is: don’t hurry. I started with six days of mild stationary bike — gradually lengthening the sessions from 35 minutes the first day to an hour by the fourth — followed by yoga and core exercises, to build back some strength without straining my lungs. On day seven, I graduated to the gym’s elliptical machine. On day eight, finally, I ran for the first time in 19 days: 3.14 miles in 26 minutes 2 seconds. That’s a pace of 8:17 a mile (or 11.7 mph). It was slow by my pre-pneumonia standards. Still, it felt good to be back.
Recovering from injury or illness, at any level of training, involves working very gradually at increasing distance and speed — but not at the same time. Pre-pneumonia, I was focusing on getting faster on shorter distances to prepare for two races: a 1-mile relay in May and a 3.5-mile race in early June. Before I could return to speed, though, I had to build up some mileage. On weeks two and three, I slowly increased the runs to about 5 to 7 miles, keeping the same slow pace — not that I had the choice. I couldn’t go faster.
On the day I returned to my Tuesday night speed-work group, on week three, our coach announced it was time for the annual session he calls “The Workout,’’ capital letters. The Workout is perfect for runners who’ve trained all winter and are peaking in their training, just in time for the big spring races. The Workout goes like this: four times 400 meters; twice 800 meters; 1 mile; twice 800 meters; four times 400 meters. The rest time is 30 seconds between the repetitions, except after the mile, when rest is 2 minutes. Reading it on a screen doesn’t do The Workout justice: It is designed to hurt. Sticking to my “don’t hurry” plan, I joined a group that’s slower than my regular one. The Workout provided a blunt reality check on my level of fitness: I ran my slowest 800 meters in 7:02, and the full mile in 6:48. For comparison, in November, my pace on the first 10k in the Philadelphia Marathon was 6:36.
Apart from one Tuesday in April when the weekly club workout was cancelled due to cold, torrential rain, I’ve been doing speed-work every week. I slowly, doggedly made my way back to my regular pack, trying to handle with grace the frustration of trailing far behind runners I could keep up with before March.
I tried hard to apply the “don’t hurry and don’t worry” motto. But on the relay’s race day in May, the dormant racing animal roared back, along with the insecurities. The mile is a convoluted course with five sharp U-turns and some cobblestones along Wall Street: It’s not a fast course but I was anxious regardless. I pushed as hard as I could, but my limbs felt weakened and uncoordinated, my breath short. I finished in 6:30, disappointed. I have since run two 5Ks, in heat and in rain, at paces averaging 6:30 and 6:28, respectively.
The recovery phase is over and I seem to be stuck in the 6:30 gear. Next up will be the 3.5-mile race in New York this week. My expectations are low.
Then I’ll go back to long distances in the fall. I need a plan.
The recovery program:
- Week one: cross-training such as stationary bike, elliptical machine, plus yoga and core exercises.
- Weeks two and three: gradual mileage increase from 3 miles to 7 miles.
- Week three: first weekly speed work.
- Weeks four to six: focus on speed, weekly mileage stays in the 20s/30s. Longest run no more than 10 miles.
- Weeks seven and eight: Adding a race (5k) to the weekly workouts. Total weekly mileage remains the same.