I continue to be amazed at the human body, especially after having a baby and breastfeeding. As I’ve said before, running makes me so much more aware of my body, and postpartum running is no exception. I returned to running about four weeks postpartum, and it didn’t take long to realize that I was returning at a faster pace than my pre-pregnancy self. (Don’t get discouraged if you have had a slow return! Everyone is different!) I have a biomedical engineering background, and I love to understand the science behind what is happening to my body (part of why I love running), so below I’ve listed my top ten favorite lessons about my postpartum running journey so far at seven months in. Just like every pregnancy is different, every postpartum experience is different too. I’d love to know how much you relate to my journey. If you are not a postpartum runner, you may still enjoy learning about how our body uses biological feedback to keep things running!
1. The Golden Leash: When I was pregnant, I was aware that it would take a little work to get back to my pre-pregnancy state, but I did not at all anticipate how breastfeeding would delay any possibility of truly returning to a pre-pregnancy state as long as I was still “growing a baby” through breastfeeding. First, I’ve always enjoyed being small chested, where cheap sports bras were sufficient. Not so with breastfeeding. I cried at my first attempt at a run when I realized how uncomfortable large, unreinforced breasts are (sorry to my big chested friends!). Supportive sports bras have since fixed that problem, but I am still aware that the added weight can affect my stature and create added stress to my back (that varies depending on the last feeding).
Perhaps the biggest component to consider with breastfeeding and running is the energy expenditure required to sustain a baby through breastmilk. This research article found that about 26 ounces of breastmilk requires about 625 calories. Fueling properly for a run means that it is necessary to both eat enough fuel and hydrate a lot. If you read my Boston Marathon write-up, you’ll see that I produced a lot of breastmilk throughout that marathon day.
Lastly, breastfeeding is a golden leash when your baby eats every three hours. I’ve given up trails for the most part other than special occasions (drive time is too much), and I have had to set my expectations for long runs to either be broken up to nurse in between, or I just run for about three hours at a time. But, the rewards of breastfeeding far outweigh any challenges to that are imposed on running!
2. Nutrition and Hydration: This follows breastfeeding but it deserves a separate bullet point because it impacts my life so much, especially as an endurance runner. I am hungry all of the time! Between my work-outs and breastfeeding, I have to make sure that I get the nutrition and hydration that I need. I really like Matt Fitzgerald’s agnostic diet approach to eating a balance of foods. I go to bed with a big glass of water by my bed, and first thing in the morning, I drink another big glass. I am very aware of getting the protein that I need, but I also focus on good carbs, vegetables, and fruits. I also eat a lot of chocolate candy and desserts, which is something that I am going to work on. As for carbs, I have started eating only whole grain breads that have been made with freshly milled wheat. Freshly milled grains contain 40 of the 44 nutrients essential to the body, and I feel so much better putting good nutrients into my body. Luckily for me, my mom mills her own wheat and has started feeding my bread habit, literally!
3. Blood Vessels: During pregnancy, blood volume increases up to 40% to help provide nutrients and oxygen exchange for a growing baby. Along with an increased blood volume, blood vessels remodel to redistribute blood flow to the baby. Once the baby is born, blood volume decreases pretty quickly, but the vessels remain in place until the hormones and chemicals signal for them to return to their pre-pregnancy state. While the vessels exist in the body, they are able to provide greater oxygen exchange to the muscles, potentially creating a better running environment in the body. I found that I was faster postpartum, part of which is attributed to the increased blood flow in my body. Anecdotally, I have been told that it is possible to maintain some of this vascular advantage if you use it. So run!
4. Hormones and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS): This entry could be very long, so I’ll stick to estrogen and DOMS. Hormones are what signaled your body to create an environment to grow a baby, so it is no surprise that hormones have a huge influence postpartum. There are many hormones that affect the postpartum body, but one of the first effects that I noticed had to do with estrogen. During some of my first strength training sessions postpartum, I noticed that I was much more sore than typical. Come to find out, postpartum and during lactation, estrogen levels drop significantly. It is estrogen that protects muscles from delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, so what I was feeling was exactly right given my hormone levels.
5. Sleep, what’s that?: Similar to hormones, this entry could be super long, but I’ll save that for another post. The book Sleep for Success by Dr. James Maas states that well rested athletes are about 20% quicker at performing physical tasks than those that lack adequate rest. There are critical muscle growth and recovery steps that only occur when the body is able to enter specific stages of sleep. Sleep is an area in which I have been deficient since Cadence was born. Between being a typical baby and catching colds at daycare, it is a rare, good night for Cadence to go 5 hours without waking. We had a few months where Cadence woke up 8-10 times a night, and I was waking up to care for her at night, running in the morning, and going to work throughout this period.
6. Gait changes- the things your jeans won’t tell you: Researchers have found that postpartum runner hips can remain wider even after having delivered the baby. This article describes a study that found that the pelvis remains unstable for up to a year after birth, and this instability can cause pain and injuries, as the connective tissues and muscles were stretched during pregnancy. Squats, planks, and bridges help activate the muscles to help strengthen the areas that were weakened. I have included these moves in my weekly strength work, but every now and then, I still notice that my inner thighs are strained on a run.
7. Pace, because life certainly doesn’t slow down now that you have a baby: Don’t be discouraged if you did not return to running at a faster pace. Many women take years to get back to their pre-pregnancy pace depending on each individual pregnancy and postpartum experience. I have found that I am a bit faster post-partum, and I’ve enjoyed exploring the reasons why. As I mentioned with the blood vessel entry, added vessels can contribute to increased speed. Two other notable factors can also contribute to faster postpartum running. Most women who deliver babies take a break from running during their recovery, short or long, and this time of rest is said to help the body recover from any overtraining issues, thus making for a stronger comeback. I waited 9 days before I returned to working out, so I am not certain how much I took advantage of this factor. The other factor that can help increase pace is hard work. After having been pregnant for 40 weeks, I appreciated every postpartum mile that I worked to get back into shape. I have returned to running with a renewed motivation and appreciation for running, and a faster time is just the icing on the cake.
8. Priorities: Having a baby has undoubtedly changed my priorities. I am a mother who runs. I’ve learned to give myself more grace and to not pay as much attention to the numbers. Most days, I’d rather run with the jogging stroller at a slower pace with multiple stops than to go out on a fast run. My family is my number one priority. But I also still love running, and keeping that part of my identity has been really important to me as I adjust to being a new mom. As a new mom, it is important to prioritize time for yourself, whether that be through running or through reading a good book. I believe that running has made me a better mom and wife.
9. When things come apart, diastasis recti: An undeniable change that occurs during pregnancy is the balloon shaped belly that women acquire over time. Growing a baby stretches everything and shifts all of your organs inside of your abdomen. When the muscles on either side of the belly shift apart, the gap in between is called diastasis recti, or ab separation. All pregnant women will get ab separation, but some of them go back to normal quickly, while others always have a little gap between their muscles. Specific core work can help the body to return to normal more quickly, and it is advised that you do not start any exercise routines without first talking to your doctor. I followed my doctor’s direction with exercise throughout pregnancy and afterwards, but I still have a little gap of ab separation. I learned last Friday that I also have a very small hernia, which is where a weakness in the fascia between my abs has acquired a small hole. (I’m having surgery soon to fix this.) Despite being intentional to improve diastasis recti, I still have some work to do. The hernia is not at all related to my exercise routine. It just happens. And sometimes that is how things are.
10. Prayer: Running has always made me feel closer to God, but I especially feel like that now that I have been blessed with our amazing baby. I like to use my time on my runs to pray to God, and I always feel a renewed clarity and hopefulness after a good run. God wants to know our hopes and dreams, even if we only pray for a good run! As silly as it seems, I have prayed many times for God to make me a good runner, heal an injury, or calm my mind for a race. When I give glory to God during my run, I view it as a form of worship to the One who created our bodies to run. After learning about all of the amazing ways that our bodies are able to respond to pregnancy and postpartum recovery while running, how can we not worship Him?!
Are you a postpartum runner? What are your biggest lessons learned on this journey?