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How Races are Supporting Lactating Runners

From road races to mountain ultramarathons, many events now offer resources to support new mothers in pursuit of their goals. Here’s the latest.

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Like many marathon training runners, Ellen Benoit began planning for her race weeks in advance. But in addition to finding shorts that don’t chafe and fuel for long runs, Benoit, who breastfeeds her ten-month-old daughter, also wanted to plan how she would pump before this year’s New York City Marathon. 

“I posted on the Ali on the Run Facebook group, ‘Hey, do y’all know anything about this? Who can I reach out to?’ And a lot of people were very helpful,” Benoit said. The group members (roughly 4,000 fans, many female) of the Ali on the Run podcast post about everything from running news to training and racing advice. They shared tips from bringing their own hand pumps to who to email within the New York Road Runners (NYRR), to ask about accommodations. 

Lactating runners often rely on the advice from friends or other runners who have been through this before. But this fall, several races took steps to expand and promote lactation support services, making their events more inclusive for this modest but present population.

Making Races More Accessible and Inclusive 

Participating in an event that requires being away from your child, or breast pumping for hours, can be a deterrent for many lactating runners who may breastfeed anywhere from several months to several years postpartum. A runner’s pace and lactation frequency may be factors for runners seeking accommodations at races. While some ultra distance races have allowed runners to carry breast pumps in their packs or meet crews toting their pumps (or children) to aid stations while on the course, races of any distance that offer lactation support make it easier for these runners to take part in an activity they enjoy.

In 2019, Erin Cooper, Senior Marketing Manager of Run & Outdoor at Salomon North America – also a mother – sat with her colleagues to dream up the ideal race that, as women, they would want to participate in. “Free childcare and lactation support was at the top of the list,” says Cooper. “As mothers ourselves, we joked and griped about the experiences we’ve had at races without support. We decided to stop joking and figure out a plan to alleviate that barrier for mothers.”

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Salomon’s plans to host the inaugural WMN Trail Half Marathon were delayed more than two years as a result of the pandemic, but took place in September 2022, with lactation support at the start, finish, and every aid station. The race also provided free childcare.

“It honestly shouldn’t even be a question races have to ask themselves,” says Cooper. “It’s a basic service that allows a major barrier to be broken, to allow a great race experience to all who want to participate. No one should have to pump and dump in their car or feel unsafe or unsupported in breastfeeding or pumping.”

Cooper’s team worked with &Mother, a non-profit organization co-founded by Olympic athlete Alysia Montaño, and scientist and advocate Molly Dickens for guidance in bringing their plans to life. &Mother believes that offering services to support mothers and caregivers is critical to improving equity and removing barriers to participation in running and beyond. Montaño, an Olympian and mother of three, hopes &Mother can help races view lactation support as a normal part of race infrastructure, much like aid stations, medical tents, and porta potties. 

“It’s our goal is to be demonstrating and normalizing infrastructural shifts that are necessary to support mothers and caregivers,” said Montaño. “That would be the dream, to have this just be standard. [To have someone say] ‘You don’t have lactation support? That’s weird.’” 

While &Mother has collaborated with five events this year, providing childcare and lactation support to mothers and caregivers, the New York City Marathon, with almost 48,000 finishers, was by far the largest. The race, which has offered some accommodations for lactating runners in the past, expanded the services this year, providing lactation tents at the start and finish, as well as along the course at miles eight, sixteen, and twenty-one. Pumps and individually-wrapped, sanitized accessories were also provided at the start, finish, and mile sixteen tents.

“We’ve talked a lot about our efforts to really center equity and accessibility from the inside out in the [organization], with everything we do applying a diversity and equity lens. And [expanding lactation support] is just the natural progression,” said Erica Edwards-O’Neal, Senior Vice President of Culture, Diversity, Equity, and Social Responsibility at New York Road Runners. She called this year’s efforts “phase one and a half” of an evolving process that includes using feedback from the marathon to explore what expanded lactation support looks like for other NYRR marquee events.

Cooper said Salomon also plans to use this experience to continue finding ways to offer lactation and childcare at all races they sponsor as a brand. 

“The logistics and fine details will change depending on the variables, but part of the commitment to the work is setting an example for how you can find a way no matter the circumstances,” Cooper shared. “When we talk about running, trail running in particular – and wanting more women out there – we need to look at barriers in their way and find solutions. We learned so much from this and will take that to our next race and keep improving as we go.”

Spreading the Word

It is not uncommon for it to be the responsibility of lactating runners to figure out what support is available at a race. However, races are improving their communication efforts, recognizing that participants need to know accommodations exist to truly be more inclusive. 

Lactation support has been promoted through press releases, on race and partner websites, social media channels, and in runner communications. Race organizers we spoke to acknowledge they can improve upon these efforts and are exploring ways to share information earlier, or in more places, to make it even more visible to runners in the future.

The Monterey Bay Half Marathon, partnering with &Mother, offered lactation support to its runners for the first time in November 2022. The race website included specific details and linked to an FAQ page for runners who might be interested in the services, which included lactation tents at the start and finish of the course, FDA-approved multi-user pumps, as well as pump and milk transport. 

“We wanted to be very open that [lactation support] was being offered. And we wanted it to be used and [known] it was open to everyone. We wanted people to know that it was there. That was just a desire on our part to do a good job of having lactation space at our event if we were going to have it,” said Christy Slye, Director of Experience at Blistering Pace, the race management company that puts on the Monterey Bay Half Marathon.

Communication efforts also include increasing awareness of the services among those assisting runners at the event, especially at an event as large as the New York City Marathon. In addition to the information on their website and in emails to runners, NYRR incorporated information about the offerings at the expo and at volunteer/staff trainings, so that people throughout the race weekend were equipped to direct runners to available resources, said Edwards-O’Neal.

Partner Up!

Races that have partnered with &Mother to bring lactation services to their event agree that &Mother’s input has been extremely helpful in carrying out their initiatives. 

“I think it was really critical to have the playbook that &Mother put together, detailing what needs were required by the race management company and the things that they could handle, or help us with, when we were completely unsure,” said Christy Slye.

Although &Mother’s experience and advice has been valuable, races have also brought these services to their runners with the help of local partners. The Boston 10K for Women, for example, partnered with a local, family-owned business, Reliable Maternity, at their October 2022 race to provide lactation support to runners. 

Lisa Falkson, a Certified Lactation Counselor at Reliable Maternity and mother of five, wanted to combine her interest in health and fitness with the company’s desire to give back to the community. Falkson reached out to Conventures, the event management company that puts on the Boston 10K for Women, about showcasing their products and services, and Conventures saw the partnership as a great opportunity. 

“There was an instant overlap in the DNA of what we were trying to do. [Reliable Maternity] wanted to promote their products and services, and we wanted to make a space in our race that was available for our participants who needed that service. We were thrilled to be able to make it happen,” said T.K. Skenderian, Director of Marketing and Communications at Conventures.

Reliable Maternity had a booth at the start/finish in the Boston Common that included a private tent for runners to pump or breastfeed, as well as product demonstrations and resources for lactation counseling, pelvic floor physical therapy, and local breast milk donation. Conventures has a multi-year agreement with Reliable Maternity to continue providing these services at the Boston 10K for Women. 

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“I feel like we’re empowering women to be active and not let anything hold you back. There’s a way to figure things out. And we’re glad we can help with that,” said Falkson.

Progress Not Perfection

From wilderness trails to big cities, from 250 runners to 50,000 runners, races in different environments and of different sizes are welcoming lactating runners. What they offer and how it comes together varies across events, but they’ve taken steps to make their races more accessible to these participants.

All types of diversity, equity, and accessibility work can feel overwhelming, Edwards-O’Neal acknowledged. She urged race organizers that want to increase inclusivity to just start somewhere, as even small changes can be impactful. Every race does not have to match the scope of the efforts made at the New York City Marathon. 

“[Don’t] have analysis paralysis. Move forward in consideration with your participants, hearing from folks and figuring out what actions you can take to move towards really centering equity and removing barriers for participation,” she advised.

None of these races think their efforts to support lactating runners were perfect this year, but they all offered something, expanding inclusivity and setting an example for other races considering such accommodations. 

“We also recognize with this being year one, that there are going to be shortcomings that need changes for the future,” said Montaño. &Mother and their race partners collected survey data from participants to assess the utilization and opinions about the services offered. Although data is still being analyzed, Montaño hopes the results will help to better understand the successes and limitations of their efforts. She encourages runners to share their feedback, both positive and constructively critical, so that races can work to improve resources at future events.

According to Benoit, runners at the New York City Marathon were taking advantage of the tent at the starting line. Benoit, who started in an early wave, said that although there were just two people there when she arrived, by the time she left, the tent was full and there was even a line outside. 

In addition to feeling supported by the accessible lactation space and helpful volunteers, she noted a feeling of camaraderie among the runners in the tent. Providing lactation support welcomed runners, in part, by letting them know there are others like them present at the race. 

When one woman in an early wave arrived in a full tent, another runner with a later start time gave up her spot and said she would come back later. “All of us supporting each other was really wonderful,” Benoit said.