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No matter how positive your experience, pregnancy is its own variety of ultramarathon. Your body goes through dramatic changes during those nine months. Some runners are able to run throughout their pregnancy while others find it too uncomfortable as their body changes.
Similarly, the experience of getting back to running after giving birth varies for everyone. Take it slowly and listen to your body to ensure a happy, healthy return to running.
Even if you’re eager to start running soon after giving birth, your body may have its own timeline in mind. You spent nine months preparing to bring a tiny human into the world, and it may take equally long (or longer!) to get back to your original level of fitness and comfort.
Kelly Frank, a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) who specializes in pelvic health at AdventHealth, recognizes that each woman’s experience is different.
Dr. Frank says, “Every mom’s journey through recovery and back into her running routine is unique. It’s influenced by her own personal story as well as her child’s and family’s.”
As you start to think about returning to running, it’s important to consider both the mental and physical aspects, as they each present their own challenges.
First and foremost, it’s important to listen to your doctor’s recommendations. No matter how good you feel or how easy your delivery was, most doctors recommend a minimum of six weeks before returning to running.
While your doctor may not fully understand your love of running, he or she is an essential voice in keeping you healthy and clearing you to run. Always seek out advice at your postpartum appointment before returning to any strenuous activity.
Dr. Frank agrees, noting the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' guidance.
“ACOG recommends six to eight weeks postpartum as a timeline for starting to return to your normal activities after vaginal birth, and a few weeks longer for cesarean delivery. However, if you were never a runner prior to pregnancy or did not run during your pregnancy then returning to running so soon might not be a good option for you. Seeing a pelvic health physical therapist before returning to high-intensity activities is recommended to assess your pelvic floor, diastasis recti and endurance for exercise.”
Your running history both before and during pregnancy will likely impact your path back to running. But just because you logged 60-mile weeks prior to pregnancy and ran throughout the majority of it doesn’t mean that running will feel “easy” or “normal” right off the bat. Many women find that it can take nine to twelve months to feel good and get back into a regular training cycle, so don’t try to rush the process.
Increased Hunger and Thirst
On top of healing from giving birth and the strenuous demands of caring for a newborn, mothers who breastfeed may require even higher nutrient and hydration requirements. While you don’t necessarily need to “eat for two,” make sure you are eating well and consuming adequate calories, protein, iron and calcium. A high-quality diet will help your body heal more quickly and help reduce your risk of injuries, such as stress fractures.
Whether or not you’re breastfeeding, investing in high-quality, supportive bras and clothing to support comfort and any nursing needs that you have for your changing body.
Pelvic Floor Health
Your pelvic floor muscles span the bottom of the pelvis and support your bladder, bowel and uterus. Pregnancy and delivery impact these muscles significantly and can lead to pain and leakage if you don’t address your pelvic floor health. Since high impact activities like running can further weaken your pelvic floor, make strengthening them a part of your daily routine even if you don’t notice any immediate problems.
Dr. Frank advises, “If you’re experiencing any symptoms of pelvic floor disorders, such as pain, it’s important to see a trained pelvic physical therapist who can help guide you to perform your exercises correctly, if they are appropriate. "
Pregnancy Hormones and Diastasis Recti
Pregnancy hormones allow your ligaments to stretch and expand over the course of your pregnancy, but still remain high for up to six weeks postpartum. This impacts many areas of your body, but your abdominal muscles are particularly susceptible.
After giving birth, as many as 40% of all women suffer from some degree of diastasis recti, which is a gap between your right and left abdominal wall muscles even months after giving birth. Diastasis recti needs to be addressed with very specific types of core strengthening exercises. For the rest of your body, easing back in slowly is the best way to prevent injury as your body’s hormones readjust.
Dr. Frank recommends specific core exercises to address several of these issues.
She says, “My favorite exercise that I feel is appropriate for patients with pain, weakness or leaking complaints is the posterior pelvic tilt with abdominal engagement. It's something moms can do laying down, sitting, and standing throughout the day as a way to engage their cores, bring awareness to their pelvises, focus on their breathing and relaxation, and safely strengthen their core and back as they continue to lift their new babies.”
As you return to activity after your delivery, it may help to reframe the way you think about your training. Start by just setting aside 30 minutes for “activity/exercise” rather than your previously scheduled running and training.
Depending on how you feel, you may want to start with a combination of running and walking, or just keep the running very short and easy. Every other day may be plenty to get started. Even if you feel good, build back your mileage very cautiously to reduce your risk of injury.
After you give birth and adjust to life with a newborn, you may find yourself in one of two scenarios:
1. You may be antsy and ready to run mentally, even though your body isn’t quite ready to accommodate your demands.
2. You may have been given the go ahead by your doctor to resume more strenuous activity but find yourself low on motivation.
Know that both are entirely normal! You also may find that your motivation varies dramatically from one day to the next, especially as you adapt to a new schedule and learn to manage your energy on shorter increments of sleep.
No matter how anxious you are to get back to training, don’t let your mind push your body too hard, too quickly. Without the weight of the baby, your first runs may feel better than you expect. But you also may discover you plateau, and then struggle to improve again. Be kind to yourself – it’s easy to get overwhelmed and you’ll feel like there are never enough hours in the day, so let running be an enjoyable outlet rather than an achievement-based activity.
The most important thing is this: give your body time.
If you expect too much, too soon, you may experience frustration and even long-term injury. So enjoy running without any major goals. The weeks and months will pass more quickly than you expect, and your training and racing will be there waiting for you when you’re mentally, emotionally and even spiritually ready.
Learn more about AdventHealth Sports Med & Rehab’s pelvic health and physical therapy services.