Dear Dumb Runner,
I recently had knee surgery, but fortunately my surgeon and physical therapist say I'll be able to run again. What's your advice for starting to run again after an injury? I can't wait to get back but also fear overdoing it. I also fear being the slow kid in the group where I run two miles in the time it takes everyone else to run 10. I'm trying to balance the mental frustration of "Ugh! I used to be better than this!" and the physical reality of "Oh hey knee, let's take it easy so you don't need more surgery." Any tips?—Emily, Portland, Oregon
When I read the words "knee surgery" I got nervous—as a rule, I don't give advice on medical issues and the like. (I am not NEARLY qualified to do that.) Then I read that your surgeon and physical therapist have given you the green light to run again. Or at least have told you that you'll have the green light sooner or later.
Once you are cleared to run again, I agree that the biggest risk will be overdoing it. You'll have so much pent-up energy and enthusiasm. It will be hard to harness that. The good news is that you're aware of this. I think a lot of people in your shoes would not be. So that is a very good thing.
Actually I think you hinted at the answer to your own question when you asked, "How do I learn to run again?" The smartest approach for you, I think, would indeed be to act as if you're a newbie once more, just learning to run. Because the advice we give newbies—ease into it; increase pace and mileage super-gradually; if anything hurts even a little, back off; etc.—is exactly the advice that you need to follow as you return to form post-surgery.
It'll be just like starting over.
In fact, I'd recommend that you find a friend or two who are actual newbie runners, and run with them for a while. You'll benefit from their naturally slower pace and lower mileage, and they'll benefit from having an experienced runner around to offer advice and motivation. Win-win.
Jumping back in with your usual running group would be a mistake, in my opinion, for the very reasons you suggest—namely, that you'll feel demotivated (at best) and be tempted to run faster or farther than you should (at worst).
Best of luck to you for a full and happy recovery. Take it easy!