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Running Through Motherhood: How Having Children Changes Our Relationship with the Sport

Real stories about how running and motherhood change each other.

Photo: Getty Images

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When we talk about running in pregnancy and postpartum, we talk a lot about pauses, about grace, and about bodily changes: pelvic floor trauma, six-week “clearances” that often push new moms onto roads or trails or treadmills too soon with too little guidance. We talk about growing bellies and all that the female body can do, and it’s a good and worthwhile conversation.

But what we don’t talk about as much is just how intimately and intensely motherhood changes our relationship with running; how running and motherhood fundamentally change us at the core of who we are; and how running stays with us as we grow and as our babies grow—yes, even when our mileage is zero.

Some moms, like Lauren Radke, a mother in Los Angeles, empower themselves to train for birth like they’d train for any other race. “I looked at running and walking and getting fresh air as the best way my baby could train for this marathon we were about to face,” she says.

Sam DuFlo, a physiotherapist, running coach, and the founder of Indigo Physio, stopped running at about 17 weeks pregnant after she pulled off the sidewalk and lost her breakfast. “I mourned my Nikes,” she says.

Many professional athletes run up until delivery; nausea and vomiting of pregnancy sidelines others early. The journey is a deeply personal one, unique to each and every pregnancy. But there are some common threads.

Post-baby, DuFlo says that many moms who come to see her are tearful—overwhelmed by the complex, nuanced, new emotional experience of running in early motherhood. “It’s such a complex feeling, because for most, getting back to running is not about weight loss or ‘getting back to a pre-baby’ self, it’s the emotional and physical autonomy, freedom, and mental health benefits of running that the mother is now experiencing a loss of and is grieving,” she says.

Running is a part of our identities, and, at times (particularly postpartum), it can feel lost.

Postpartum running is hard—there’s no other way to slice it. “It was even hard for me, and my career is centered on rehab and training athletes who are racing postpartum,” DuFlo, who has a 3-year-old, says. “I was totally exhausted, my core was weak, I wasn’t devoting the time I knew I needed for pelvic floor rehabilitation. I felt slow, bouncy, hormonal, and in a body that felt foreign to me. I felt angry that I wasn’t the runner I once was.”

Many moms ache to run in those early days. “I’m mourning the hopefully temporary lack of running in my life right now,” says Lisa Martin, a mom to a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old in Birmingham, Alabama.

While she loved running while pregnant, a long postpartum healing journey (that included a stress fracture) and a second pregnancy and baby have now made running difficult. “I’ve often wondered if or when I’ll ever be able to enjoy running consistently without injury,” she says.

Because the truth of the matter is, pregnancy and birth have many physiologic variables that affect the body, explains DuFlo. There’s weakness, pelvic organ prolapse, diastasis recti, breast size changes, scar tissue, hormones—the list goes on. And while society tells us that after about six weeks postpartum, we should be in tip-top shape after birth, what they forget to tell us is that the body requires more time—a year or even 18 months—to recover from the demands of a pregnancy.

You might need to see experts in pelvic floor, learn about core pressure and impact, strengthen and stretch in different ways. “Even with that preparation, not all of the most prepared individuals return to running at 8 or 12 weeks postpartum, which can feel like a shock,” says DuFlo. Reality can be a harsh contradiction to our expectations—but the shock is often a shared experience.

Kimberley Johnson, a mom to an almost-3-year-old in Salt Lake City who experienced a pelvic floor injury during birth, mourned the initial loss of running in the first year postpartum. “It wasn’t just long-distance running that was called into question, but the ‘simple’ things I’d previously taken for granted. Would I be able to run alongside my daughter as she learned to ride a bike? Play soccer with her someday?”

Today, running looks different for Johnson. Through time, grace, and hard rehabilitation work, she’s regained much of what she believed was forever lost. “I still can’t run marathons these days, but I can head out on short brain-clearing runs and jog alongside my daughter—something I no longer take for granted,” she says.

Motherhood often changes the way we view running. And running changes as the weeks and months and years go on in motherhood. Postpartum is also a season.

“My mindset has had to shift from an ‘all or nothing’ attitude toward running to allow for greater flexibility,” says Martin. “I may run shorter distances and try to do more sprinting. Running may look like playing chase with my preschooler for 20 minutes three times a day.”

Allie Rucker, a mom to two small girls in Vacaville, California, says “prior to becoming a mom, I ran solely to get in shape. After becoming a mom, I started running to do something solely for myself.”

Nance Hill, a new mom in Seattle, says that motherhood has given her a newfound appreciation for her body. “I never knew the depths of my strength and fortitude until I grew a human, ran through 33 weeks of pregnancy, gave birth, and trained for and ran the Boston Marathon 12 months postpartum, all while breastfeeding.”

Running remains her happy place, she says: “I run to honor the athlete that co-exists with motherhood. I run less mileage now as a mom, but I maximize that time as much as I can. When I can get out there, I feel like I appreciate it so much more.”

“We’re moving toward a new era of valuing our bodies for what they can do, not what they look like,” adds Johnson. We embrace cellulite because we’re strong—those dimpled legs can power our runs and bounce our babies. But sometimes, they can’t… and I’ve come to believe that our value transcends function and form.”

In a life locked down by schedules and often chaos, running often means freedom to moms, too, says DuFlo. “As a runner, being pregnant changes the freedom of being able to lace up and leave the house.”

Radke runs before her son wakes at 5 a.m. every morning. “It is dark and quiet and often the only true ‘me time’ I get all day.”

Rucker says: “Getting outside for 20-plus minutes a day to run is a mental break I didn’t know I needed; it’s easy to get lost in the needs of your children especially in the early years.”

For many moms, running in motherhood comes with new hopes and goals, too.

“My hope is that as my daughters see me leaving for a run or taking them with me on a run, they see a woman that is strong and capable,” says Rucker.

“I really hope to pass on my love of running and movement to my daughter. I want to teach her how strong she is and how to overcome difficulties and obstacles she may encounter,” says Hill.

The kinship among mother runners, DuFlo says, is this: We all lace up and hit the road—whatever the distance or reason for it. And redefining what a runner is and what a runner looks like at different stages along the way is what’s key.

“Patients will come to me and tell me that they ‘don’t run that much, maybe 80 miles a week,’ while others report they are a serious runner at three mile runs a week,” she says. “Moms are runners if they take 10 minutes on the treadmill once a day while the baby is napping or if they’re doing run-walk intervals at age 55 with their grown children lapping them on the track.”

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