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The postpartum period looks different for everyone and the many decisions made during that time, including breastfeeding and returning to running, are individual choices for mothers and their families. Running a marathon while still breastfeeding may not be for everyone, but for those women who choose to do it, an extra level of coordination in training and race day logistics is required.
“There are the things that you need to plan as a mom that you never had to worry about [before having a child],” says Olympic marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk. The new mother recently competed in the Olympic marathon at the Tokyo Games, her first after giving birth to her daughter, Zoe, in January. Although Tuliamuk dropped out at 20K with an unrelated hip injury, she learned a lot in the build up about what it takes to breastfeed through marathon training.
Initially, she planned to breastfeed for only four months and stop when her training started to pick up in intensity for the Games. However, she found an unexpected enjoyment in it and continued to breastfeed despite 100-mile training weeks. “I was really struggling with the idea of stopping breastfeeding and I felt like it was going to make me very unhappy. My training was going well and I felt like everything was on track and so I was like, if it’s not going to significantly affect my performance, then I don’t really want to stop.”
However, even a high-level athlete like Tuliamuk admits that she has learned from her experiences and could stand to improve upon coordinating breastfeeding with her training and race day preparation. “I can’t really say that I’m perfect in that. I think I still have to learn a lot because even though Zoe is 7-and-a-half-months now, I decided I want to continue to breastfeed until I’m ready to not breastfeed anymore.”
Running a race in which participants are on the course between 2 to 6 hours may pose a challenge to mothers used to nursing or pumping with that same frequency. But assuming your body has adequately recovered from childbirth and is ready to cover the distance, the logistics don’t need to be daunting. Here are some things to consider when preparing to run a marathon, or other endurance event, while breastfeeding.
Plan. Plan. Plan.
To reduce race day stress, select a race that will make supporting your breastfeeding needs easier.
Steph Tang, a mother of two from Westport, Connecticut, found running smaller-scale races was a key to successfully running a marathon while still breastfeeding. Because she could drive to the start or stay at a hotel within walking distance of the start/finish lines, she could pump in a familiar, private environment and didn’t have to think about where to store her pump or breastmilk while she ran. “I knew that I would feel uncomfortable towards the end of the race, but I also knew that I was really close by so I would be able to just rush back to the hotel in time,” she says. This strategy may also make it easier to bring your baby and nurse them before or even during the race, instead of pump, if you have someone else there to care for him while you run.
For some women though, the chance to run certain races might be worth the extra coordination. Many larger races will make accommodations for breastfeeding mothers, but you may not find the information on their websites. The Boston, New York City, and Chicago Marathons, for example, will provide a semi-private place for mothers to pump near the start and coordinate transport of any medical equipment (i.e., breast pumps) to the finish. Runners should reach out to the races directly to ensure coordination of these arrangements. If you need to travel by plane to your race, Tang advises researching the TSA policy for traveling with breastmilk, if you plan to do so, to avoid confusion and delays at the airport.
Still, it’s important to consider if the available accommodations will work for you. At five months postpartum, Bethany Couto of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, ran the Disney Marathon. That particular race has a Baby Care tent for nursing mothers at the start as well as gear check option that can be used to transport breast pumps to the finish. But Couto was still concerned about how long it would take her to run the race. “I didn’t think that those were the best options because once I checked my bag, or once I passed by the Baby Care tent, I still had another 45 minutes to an hour before the race started and I really wanted to pump right before I started running,” she says.
Instead, she opted to wear an oversized T-shirt over her singlet and use a manual pump as she walked to the start line. Once she was done, she tossed the pump and the T-shirt and was ready to run.
Breastfeeding logistics may also be affected by the timing of your race day. Typically, the older your child gets, the longer you both can go between feedings. Knowing how long it takes before your chest begins to feel uncomfortable is important both on race day and during your training. Tuliamuk notes that she didn’t really need to coordinate pumping while away from her daughter during training runs: “It was great because I didn’t really start running a lot of miles until the end of June. So by that time Zoe was able to stay longer or she was able to take some solids foods.”
In addition to knowing the needs of your child, knowing, as best you can, your changing postpartum body is also important when undertaking the training for an endurance race.
“I knew my body better when I was just an athlete, but I don’t really know my body as much now as a professional athlete breastfeeding,” says Tuliamuk. She noted how larger breasts affected her running form and sometimes led to some “pretty gnarly chafing.” Wearing two sports bars and doubling her caloric intake during long runs while training for the Olympic Marathon were all things she had not considered before training while breastfeeding. She acknowledges it is a lot of trial and error, but recommends once you figure it out, to practice your plan in training so you are ready on race day.
Be Prepared for Things to Go Wrong
If you plan to nurse your child the morning of the race, know how long your morning routine usually takes and allow extra time for disruptions to that schedule, such as sleeping away from home or waking up earlier than usual to get to the race. These factors may affect your child’s routine as well, forcing you to resort to a back-up plan. Tuliamuk admits that she almost missed her breakfast the morning of the Olympic Marathon because her daughter was not interested in nursing and she required unexpected extra time to pump before leaving her room.
Emily Bliss, a mother of three in Bend, Oregon, raced a Half Ironman when her oldest was nine months old. Bliss describes her daughter as a “good feeder” and never thought she would have trouble nursing her the morning of her race. “I was so dehydrated and so sleep deprived, and she was so distracted by everything that was going on that she wouldn’t latch and she wouldn’t feed. I was sitting in her stroller in line about to start the race in my wetsuit—half of my wet suit—trying to feed her. It was a complete failure,” she says. She suggests bringing a pump as a back-up plan or learning how to self-express to ensure you start your race empty if your baby won’t nurse as usual. If your plan (or back up plan) is to pump pre-race, ensure you will have access to electrical outlets if your pump requires it, charge your pump’s batteries, and double check you have all the required parts before leaving for the race.
Besides babies, weather and race delays may also mess up your plans on race day. Couto reaffirmed her decision to use her manual pump rather than the race amenities when the start was delayed and she didn’t have to stress that she risked running on borrowed time—or with engorged breasts. And although she ran faster than she expected, the heat that day could have easily slowed her down. Knowing this, she had another manual pump packed in her gear bag at the finish line so she could have quick access if she needed it post-race.
Returning to Racing Postpartum: When Is the Right Time?
When training for an endurance race months after childbirth, mothers should consider the impact to both their physical and mental health. For many, it’s emotionally not the right time to undertake the challenge, while for others, it is the outlet they need. “Running has been such a saving grace through all the challenges of figuring out parenthood and also trying to figure out your own identity after having kids, because of course that changes too. It’s been really great to continue to run through all of that,” says Tang.
Bliss, who is also a physical therapist specializing in women’s health and postpartum care, wants new mothers to remember that it’s easier to get back to running long distances if you’ve done them before—so postpartum is not the time to run your first marathon. And even experienced runners should do some foundational training for gaining pelvic floor strength and endurance, managing C-section scars, and getting the core and breath coordinated again before starting to run. “Start slow and listen to your body. Getting back to running sooner doesn’t mean that you’re racing better. You’re a different person and I think it’s more discovering who you are now as a mom and how running or sport fits in your life,” she says.
Running a marathon or other endurance event while postpartum and breastfeeding is not for everyone, but these women are proof that it can be done. “Motherhood is a beautiful thing and you want to make sure you are happy and doing the things you want to do. Choosing to breastfeed, choosing not to breastfeed, choosing to bring your child to the Games or not…your choice has to be something that makes you happy,” says Tuliamuk.