Running set backs and come backs and how to manage them, from the perspective of a runner with epilepsy.

In life we all have set backs from time to time.  As a new runner it is not only frustrating but it can have a devastating effect on your progress.  It can de-rail your relationship with running and even end you’re running journey.

I have Epilepsy, and so my health is somewhat unpredictable.   Needless to say that I regularly have to come back from a set back.  I am well versed in the ups and downs of setbacks and the frustrations of the comebacks as well.

There are a number of articles and books which I have read on this subject to try to work out the best ways of dealing with it.  So here is my experience and what I have found to work for me at different stages of the setback/comeback journey.

My set back 

I had been running for just over 3 months when I experienced my first set back.  I was trying to hit 20 mins of constant running and I was finding it tough.

Due to a deterioration in my health, I had to take a two-week break from running and I felt utterly bereft.  The impact of not running was far more devastating than my epilepsy!

The  irony of it was not lost on me!  Previously I would have given almost anything to have an excuse not to exercise.  Now suddenly my mindset had changed and I was gutted, to say the least.


Suzie who I started my running journey with, would regularly, reach running milestones ahead of me.  I was always concerned I was never going to keep up with her.  Much less keep up with the progress Suzi would be making during my time out.

Not that it was a competition but I desperately wanted to make sure we completed the same milestones at the same times.  This set back, fed my fear of failure and sent me into a blind panic.  I Began to think ‘what is the point’.

Self Sabotage

What is worth noting, is that, the more fragile you’re running confidence the more de-railing it can be.  It is really important at this point not to sabotage what you have already achieved, by giving up altogether.

Don’t lose site of your achievements

To stop myself from throwing in the towel I tried to remember where I was and how far I had come.   Remembering is one thing but  sometimes you need more than that.  Speaking to friends helps but sometimes you need to be confronted with real evidence of your progress.

Facebook posts, are particularly useful if you use it.  I find that, ‘ this time last year posts’ are really helpful at highlighting your progress.  Especially, when you read the comments everyone’s made.  All of that positive reinforcement at a time when you thought you could not do and realising you did!  Really inspiring.

Fitness apps or watches are really useful when reviewing your progress.  It is great to see your running journey over time. Your personal bests and  pace, time, distance as an example.

Photographs are another useful tool if your body shape has changed.  You may have lost weight, more muscle definition.

In my case,  I had lost a significant amount of weight,  my shape had changed and  I had more muscle definition.   Therefore, I did not want to put weight back on.  More importantly I was really enjoying running and did not want to lose my ability.  Therefore,  losing fitness was a massive concern for me.

Beginning of running journey

Running 8 months – weight loss evident in face!  

Losing Fitness

There is a lot written about losing fitness due to injury.  Much of that information agrees that you lose very little fitness, in the first 2 weeks.

However, as a new runner, working hard to build baseline fitness, a little can seem like an awful lot. The thought of losing any fitness, can be turned mentally, into an unmitigated disaster. It is this negative mindset that can prevent the return to running at all. Therefore, with that in mind it is important to keep the possibility of losing fitness in proportion.  

Taking a break may even have a positive impact on your running efficiency.  Magill, Schwartz and Breyer in their book, building your own running body, state that running is the stimulus to trigger the adaptations your body needs to make, to be an efficient runner.  However, it is the recovery period that ensures that those adaptations happen.  The muscle fibres essentially breakdown during running and rebuild into a stronger version of themselves in recovery.  Quite often we are tempted to overtrain which prevents these adaptations from occurring as quickly as they might.

Therefore, on the bright side sometimes an enforced break can actually go in your favour!   A break from running could allow your muscles time to adapt. You might just have stronger muscles at the end of it, especially if you cross train.  Every silver cloud and all that!


Cross Training

Taking a running break is a necessary evil but there are other forms of exercise out there that you may still be able to do.  A cross training routine provides a means of enhancing fitness whilst also training alternative muscle groups.

If you have an injury that is due to a specific weakness in a muscle group, then you can offset this by using a form of exercise that will target that area.  If your injury is due to a tightness in a muscle group then Yoga is a good means of freeing those muscles up and creating some flexibility.  Swimming is particularly good for musculoskeletal injuries as it is non weight-bearing but works all muscle groups as well as improve cardiovascular fitness.

However, in my case I chose to do no cross training whatsoever.  Instead, I gave myself a complete break as with my health issue that was needed.

It is really important to listen to your body to make sure your ready to return to exercise.  If you hurry the recovery process, rather than expedite your return to running, you can potentially cause it to fail and become even more frustrated when you have to take more time out of running.

My advice is to cross train if you can if not don’t worry as long as you are listening to your body and not giving up you will be OK!

The reality of my set-back

Yes, I did lose some fitness during this particular set back.  However,  I was able to get back to 20 minutes within a couple of weeks of running consistently.

Although,  I made a few decisions that impacted negatively on my mental strength when I returned to running!  Which could have easily stopped my running journey!

Running Solo

The first return run I did – I ran with my running buddy and was so disappointed when I had to stop earlier than her.    The fact that I was not able to start back where I left off and  needed to go back to a run walk approach was frustrating and demoralising.

It annihilated my confidence even though I had managed to motivate myself to return to running.  This, completely destabilised me again.  I felt like everything was slipping away and it caused me to panic.

The lesson here is that running your first return run with a fellow runner is not always the best idea.   Especially if like me you compare yourself to the people you run with.

So take the pressure off don’t put yourself in a place where you will be comparing yourself to others.   Keep in mind this is you’re running journey not theirs, so leave them to it until you have some confidence back.

Building confidence

The first step in building confidence is to make your first run a positive experience and not to set yourself up to fail.  Don’t try to achieve what you had before.  Take your mileage and/or time back,  listen to your body.

If you set yourself a lower target for your first run back and achieve it, you will finish on a high.  This, sense of achievement gives you the motivation to continue.

A few weeks ago, I had a few, really bad runs, due to seizures, so I took a self-imposed week off running.  Trust me that was tough to do, but I knew I had to listen to my body!   On my return, I knew I had to try to keep the run positive.

I decided to do a small easy route for the first 2 miles.  Much of which was down hill.  I walked for approx 5 minutes and chose to finish the run on a hill.

All hills are my nemesis and I see completing any hill small or large as a victory.  I thought if I could complete the hill it would have a positive impact on my confidence.

Therefore, by doing a shorter run and building in a walk break I had put all the necessary components in place to give me the best possible chance of completing it.  These measures ensured I returned on a positive building belief in my ability to get back to where I had been prior to injury.

How to create a positive return run

PIck your focus.  Are you going to focus on distance or time?

Remember take it back a notch – don’t expect to start where you left off.

Map your route before you start-preparation is key to setting yourself up to win.

Choose an easier route whether your focus is distance or speed

Speed focus – Instead of aiming to do a set distance as fast as you can, ease yourself in with some fartlek (speed play) training.  In fartlek training you vary your speed across the course of a set distance.  By doing this you will complete your distance but won’t focus on the end time but more on how you are managing the variations in speed throughout the run.

Be mindful of the nature of your injury and what impact speed will have on it.  Remember you don’t want another setback.

Distance focus slow your pace right back and focus purely on distance not time or pace.  By slowing down you are more likely to make your end goal.  I would still focus on returning to what you would class as your short run and not a long run.  To add to the possibility of success run an easier route.

For novices like myself-

I was running 10k prior to my last set back and was aiming to up my mileage to work towards a half marathon distance.

Therefore, to feel that I was still making progress I downloaded a half marathon training programme for beginners.  I started it at a section I felt that I could complete which was less than when I last ran.

However, because it was a half marathon plan and I was not at the beginning but at week 6 of a 12 week plan.  This made me realise that a half marathon was not beyond reach.

No matter how you return to running aim to make the goal small remember the overall aim is to make sure a positive mindset not do a personal best!!


Building up strength

With time off and a reduction in mileage, loss of leg strength has been an issue for me.  More so earlier in my running journey but still occurs now.  Therefore once I have had a few post set back runs under my belt and I have handled them reasonably well, I start hill training.

Hill training as part of a running schedule is brilliant for building strength, power and endurance.  It hurts like hell but it is great for improving your running efficiency.

Either run a route with hills in it or do hill repeats.  With hill repeats you start  with a short warm up run i.e. 10mins.  Once completed you can either choose a short hill to run, or run part of a  longer hill for a defined amount of time, i.e.  1 min.

You run up and walk down and repeat 5 times.  Building up the incline or the number of repeats, not both together, over several training sessions.

I generally do a mixture of both, to build my strength.  Hill repeats are great but sometimes you just need to test whether you can cope with hills mixed into a standard run!

Recovered and improved

Since my last set back I have taken about a month to get back to where I was.  It seems like a long time but actually the issue has been less about the physicality and more about the mentality.

Mental strength or the loss of it is much harder to overcome than the physical and in all honesty that is what I suffer with most.

I try to keep things positive in the ways mentioned above but this does not mean that each time you increase your pace/distance/speed that you will achieve your goal.  It is important to be ready for the frustration that brings.

Have at the forefront of your mind, why you are doing it and what you have achieved.  Use mantra’s, speak with friends, coaches do whatever it takes but don’t give up, don’t let it beat you!  You have got this.