What I’ve learned about myself: Five gifts of running

There are many reasons why I love to run.  The reward is sweet in so many capacities.  You are probably thinking through the reasons in your head right now.  The escape, the mind-body connection, the feeling of fitness, the challenge of new distances and new paces, the community of friends, the health benefits, the opportunity to see new places.  There are endless reasons why we love to run, and any one of those reasons would be enough to convince us to set our alarms at ungodly hours and push ourselves to the point of pain.

IMG_20160320_112457

My husband just ran his first marathon and I couldn’t be more happy!

Now that I am in recovery mode from my surgery, I have plenty of opportunity to think about running.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful to be able to cross train, but both running through pregnancy and now taking a break for surgery have taught me to enjoy every mile. One of the biggest gifts of running is that you can go out on a run and learn something about yourself that you didn’t know before.

These are a few of the things I’ve learned lately:

1. I can set goals and achieve them.  I’ve qualified for Boston twice now, and I know how to follow through with a training plan.  I don’t let discomfort or inconvenience stop me.  I know how to get things done and have discipline.

3

Qualifying for Boston at the Kiawah Marathon in 2014

2. I can do hard things.  Like natural childbirth.  My running experience gave me the confidence to follow through with my birth plan, and I am so grateful that running gave me that gift. My body ran a 50 mile race right before I got pregnant and it also kept on running through pregnancy.  Pushing out a baby was an extension of doing hard things, but I’d already proven that I was tough enough for that.

12082727_10104872431270520_945672813_o

I had a great, natural delivery, and running helped give me the right mindset and toughness to push through.

3. My body is strong, and strong is the new skinny.  Feeling strong is so much more empowering to me than feeling skinny. I don’t care what the scale says, and that’s pretty liberating. I want to eat healthy to fuel my body properly, and I want to exercise so that I can run far and run fast.

IMG_20160511_173455

I love incorporating weights into my training.

4. Being passionate about running makes everything in life more rewarding.  I have something that gets me excited every day.  I love to read books on running and listen to podcasts on running. I’ve got a dimension in my life that goes beyond just waking up everyday and driving to work.

IMG_20160507_113427

Running with Cadence is my all-time favorite!

5. Our bodies can do incredible things. I am so much more in tune with my body because I am a runner.  I enjoyed pregnancy and postpartum recovery more because I felt connected to what was happening.  Running helped give me energy and ward off postpartum depression during the early baby days when I wasn’t getting nearly enough sleep.

Cadence_FineAfternoon-2

Don’t be deceived.  It may look like she likes to sleep, but she really is a party animal at night.  🙂

So, what have you learned about yourself through running that you didn’t know before?

Being a Mother Runner: 10 things I’ve learned about postpartum running (and how crazy cool our bodies are)

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!

IMG_20160508_121708

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!

IMG_20160427_110926

Pumping at work is a blessing and a curse.

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!

IMG_20160408_223019

Freshly milled wheat makes for delicious, healthy bread

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!

IMG_20151126_104347

I ran a half marathon with my husband 8 weeks postpartum.

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.

IMG_20160117_151143

Don’t be deceived.  Sleep is not something that comes easily in our house!

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.

IMG_20160206_101732

I got second place female at a local 10k five months postpartum.

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.

IMG_20160501_111548

I love running even more as a mother!

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.

IMG_20160504_171930

The hernia is really small along the midline of my belly above my belly button

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?

Baby Miles: Running through pregnancy

Running has only been a big part of my life for the last couple of years (my husband bought me a Garmin in 2014 and he created a monster), but I’ve always loved to be active with exercise.  That’s why I knew that when I got pregnant, I would want to stay as active as possible. The problem that I found was that there is very little information online (imagine that! normally there is too much!) about exercise and pregnancy.  Sure, there are plenty of articles saying that 30 minutes three times a week is okay, but I had just finished running my first 50 mile race when I got pregnant, and 30 minutes of light cardio was not going to cut it.

Quote

First, I talked to my doctor, and I recommend that you do that too above all else.  Even though it can seem so abstract that there is a little human growing in your body, that little baby is your number one priority!  You have a new race, and this race is one that will be the most rewarding yet.

As I said, I did not find many articles online that satisfied the level of fitness that I was trying to achieve, but I did try to find resources online.  I also read a book called Exercising Through Your Pregnancy that describes the physiological changes that occur when pregnant and exercising, which I found to be empowering when there were so many unknowns going on with my body.  Finally, the biggest source of knowledge regarding running through pregnancy was from friends who had blazed the trail for me already.  I joined a Baby Center running mama forum, and I talked to the few friends who I knew who had maintained my kind of mileage during their pregnancies.  These connections were invaluable, and that is what I hope to instill to you through this post.  I’ll write a post later about the science stuff behind pregnancy and running (which is really very cool), but for now, I just wanted to highlight some of my experiences of pregnancy.

IMG_20150627_100449564_HDR

25 weeks pregnant while running in hot Hilton Head

As I said earlier, I had just run a 50 mile race the week we conceived.  I was in peak shape, so I was able to run at a higher level at the beginning of my pregnancy.  They say that it is fine to resume your current level of activity, but do not take on new levels of fitness once pregnant (i.e. do not sign up for your first marathon after you see the double lines one the stick).

At 7 weeks pregnant, I ran a trail marathon that I had already signed up for, and although I had just run 50 miles a month before, this race was an extremely different experience.  I had talked to my doctor several times to make sure that all would be fine for me to participate (notice that I say participate and not race!), and they assured me that no harm would come to the little bean in my belly.  It took a little swallowing of my pride to finish that race in a slower time than my pre-pregnancy body would have run.  No one knew that I was pregnant, so it just looked like I was struggling on the hills, drinking tons of water, and peeing a lot in the woods, all of which was true.  But I am really glad that I didn’t let fear win that race.  By running that marathon, I set the tone for the rest of my pregnancy.  I would enjoy feeling my body with each mile, and I would feel a special connectedness with the baby who was along for the ride.

IMG_20150906_111109419(1)

I never took a run for granted, knowing that with each week, my discomfort level might increase.

I exercised for at least an hour everyday, which is my typical workout regime, but my intensity level dropped with each week.  The first trimester was the most challenging because relaxin was coursing through my body making me feel fatigued and light-headed.  The second trimester felt like night and day with resumed energy and a tiny little baby bump.  The third trimester was like a balancing act between my growing belly and the rest of my body.  I learned to take a lot of breaks, run close to bathrooms, and cross-train.  Strength training was also a big part of my pregnancy routine, although I never lifted heavy weights.  I made a point to do push-ups and planks each week, even as my belly was expanding and the weight was increasing.  By the end of my pregnancy, I had run 1,152 miles, and walked/cycled/stairclimbed/hiked at least twice as many.

weeklymiles

At about week 20, I developed a stress fracture in my ankle.  My gait had changed, and my body had not adapted to it yet.  This is when I learned the value of cross training and gained a new love for the bike.  I also started taking calcium supplements, as recommended by one of my running momma buddies.  A month later, I was back to running, albeit with a slower pace and a little more caution.  Other things that made running more comfortable for me were to run in compression socks.  I was pregnant in the summer, so hydrating well and running earlier in the morning were important.  I would run from park to park so that I could stop to go to the bathroom.  While I love the trails, I stayed off of them once I got a belly because I am very prone to tripping.

IMG_20150919_072929462

Planking with Maggie

I met some great friends through my pregnancy journey.  Every week I attended two different pregnancy fitness classes called Oh Baby Fitness in Atlanta, and I made some of my best mom friends through those classes.  I also learned which exercises were best for my pregnant body.  The thing that I value most of all is that I learned more about my body by being a pregnant runner than I would have discovered if I had not exercised. And I believe that exercising through pregnancy helped keep a lot of the bad pregnancy symptoms to a minimum.  My energy levels and my mood were much better with a good run.  And I also felt prepared when it came time to give birth that my body had the strength to labor and my mind had the mental toughness to endure.

IMG_20150927_122248187

This was my last pregnant run a day before Cadence was born at 39 weeks.

Running through pregnancy was one of the most rewarding things for me during pregnancy.  What other things do you find to be rewarding in your pregnancy? 

Anyone run through more than one pregnancy?  I’m hoping that baby #2 is just as easy of a pregnancy, but I hear they can all be different. (For the record, I am NOT pregnant with #2 yet!)