Director of Cross Country and Track and Field at Northern Arizona University Mike Smith provides his tips to help beginners tackle the trails.
Pregnancy can be a lot like training for an endurance event–it’s just spread out for nearly 10 months. But once the “race” is over, the accolades of your accomplishment don’t fade away: you’re still in charge of keeping a tiny human alive, all while trying to recover physically and keep your headspace balanced. When you do come out of the fog of those early weeks of parenthood and want to resume some sort of exercise routine, what should you expect? Here are some tips about how to approach the journey of postpartum exercise.
First Postpartum Checkup: Ask Questions
Usually this occurs about six to eight weeks after delivery. In most cases, your doctor will “clear” you for exercise. Make sure to probe about what this actually means and discuss what your goals might be. A lot of this depends on your previous activity history, as well as your labor and delivery. Even if you were active throughout your pregnancy and had a fast labor, it still takes weeks or even months for your body to heal. Have your doctor examine your pelvic floor strength and check to see if you have any abdominal separation (which is quite common). Ask for a referral for a pelvic floor therapist if there are concerns, or get a second opinion if something doesn’t feel right.
Be Body Positive
Both pregnancy and exercise allow you to get to know your body in different ways. If you were active while pregnant, it probably gave you a deeper understanding of how your body responds to stress, as well as to changes in weight gain and distribution, blood volume, oxygen capacity and digestion. It also likely helped you understand your approach to body image and self-appreciation. During labor, your body is literally pushed to its extremes in every way–physically, mentally and emotionally. When the baby does arrive, our bodies can feel like a wreck of what they once were: we’re engorged, bloated and squishy in areas that we don’t want to be. In those early postpartum weeks and months, the physical and emotional extremes linger, making it easy to slip into negativity. While you may feel like there are never enough hours in the day for yourself, try to practice mindful body positivity. Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones during exercise will leave you with a stronger core and better sense of self-worth.
Prepare To Work Out With A Stroller
Once the baby arrives, you may need to do the majority of your workouts with a stroller. You will probably run at a slower pace: after all, you’ll be pushing the stroller, the car seat (if your child is younger than 6 months old) and your baby! Chances are, that’s at least 25 extra pounds that you are pushing forward. This can be quite physically challenging, so starting with a run/walk method is quite effective. If you don’t have a jogging stroller, long walks and even stationary strength training with the stroller are great ways to get your heart rate up. It’s always an added bonus when your baby falls asleep: being able to have your baby nap AND get a workout in can leave you with a sense of accomplishment. Embrace that “super mom” feeling!
Get Good Breast Support
If you plan to do any sort of impact activity, you’ll know immediately if you need a more supportive sports bra the second you take your first step out the door. Wearing two bras isn’t ideal, so invest in a supportive bra; or, better yet, get a sports bra specifically designed for nursing, if you are actively breastfeeding. Since you may need to stop mid-run to breastfeed (or know you’ll need to once you return home), having a nursing sports bra can make your life a little easier.
Related: Tips For Breastfeeding Runners
Be Flexible With Your Time
Regardless of whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle-feeding, you’ll need to be flexible with the time you allot for your workout and plan your route ahead of time. There have been countless times when I had to stop and feed my son on a park bench mid-run, which added at least 30 minutes to the time I’d planned to be out–all because my little man decided he was ravenously hungry or had an epic diaper blowout (or both).
Adjust Your Pace
When you resume running after pregnancy, your perceived effort and sense of pace will likely be different. In a sense, you may feel like you are starting running all over again. Even if you aren’t training for anything, you should approach running as if you are and gradual increase your distance, intensity and speed.
Strengthen Your Core
Your core is weak(er) postpartum, and you may even have some form of diastasis recti (the natural separation of the two abdominal walls). A weak core may cause a muscular imbalance (or can lead to future injury) in the hip flexors, glutes, lower back and legs. It’s a good idea to complement running with strengthening exercises that focus specifically on the postpartum body, including preventative and corrective diastasis recti exercises. You can start with some basic diaphragmatic breathing–which, done regularly, can help to gradually knit the abdominal wall back together.
Expect Soreness And Fatigue
Even if you ran all nine months of your pregnancy or exercised in other ways, chances are that your stride length will have decreased, your pace will have slowed and your form will have shifted during that time. When you start running again, be very cautious with your pace and increase your distance gradually. Relaxin, the hormone that allows your ligaments to stretch and expand over the course of your pregnancy, is still at an all time high for as long as six weeks postpartum. Once you’re cleared for exercise before or after this period, you will still be at risk for over-extending your muscles and ligaments. Starting at a slower pace is key to preventing injury.
Pay Attention To Your Pelvic Floor
No matter how many months postpartum you are, make sure to pay attention to your pelvic floor (the hammock-like structure of muscles and ligaments that support the organs of the pelvis, which include the bladder, uterus, bowels and vagina). High-impact activities like running can further weaken your pelvic floor, which can cause a variety of minor or major issues ranging from occasional urine leakage to organ prolapse. You’ll want to make pelvic exercises part of your regular routine, even if you don’t notice any problems. Sometimes it’s only when you exercise at a higher intensity, cough or sneeze mid-run or are more tired than usual that you notice a problem, so don’t assume you are exempt from practicing pelvic floor exercises. These muscles also weaken with age and inactivity, so making them part of your routine is critical.
It’s Worth It
Are all of these things really worth the trouble just so Mom can have a few active minutes to herself? Your body has endured a tremendous number of changes from pregnancy to postpartum, so of course it’s going to feel hard in the beginning. Acknowledging this and easing back into exercise with a better awareness of our new bodies takes time. Embrace the process and your new body. Focus on the positives, the milestones and the way you’re feeling. Getting back in touch with your body and finding a rhythm and routine takes a lot of practice, so be kind to yourself as you adjust to your new routine.
Rachel Spurrier, founder of Go & Glow, is a Road Runners Club of America certified running coach and a pre- and post-natal corrective exercise specialist. A seven-time marathoner and Boston Marathon qualifier, she is also a mom to two young boys. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.