When I had a baby I expected my body to bounce back immediately. It didn’t. I expected to return to running and triathlon as if I hadn’t skipped a beat. I was so caught up in what I was “supposed” to be able to do and what I “should” look like that I didn’t give myself the grace I deserved. Not once did I say to myself “You’re amazing! You just created a human!” Instead I beat myself up for being “too fat” or “too slow.”
As an athlete I expected my body to perform a certain way and when it didn’t I thought something was wrong with me. When I returned to running postpartum I ended up with a stress fracture almost immediately. I felt that my body betrayed me. What I realized later was quite the opposite. My body did exactly what it needed to do to create life and give me my son. My body didn’t betray me. I was betraying it by pushing too hard and asking too much of it too soon.
Postpartum is forever. Once you have had a baby your body will never be the same. This is not to stay it will be worse; in fact it may even be better. But it certainly will not be the same as it once was. Changes that occur during pregnancy can remain for a lifetime. It is common for postural and biomechanical changes such the position of the rib cage, gait, size of the pelvic girdle, integrity of the abdominal wall or pelvic floor to be disrupted.
Returning to your sport slowly and without judgment will decrease your risk for overtraining, injury and significant frustration. Here are some tips for you to return to running in the initial postpartum period (0-12 months):
1. Walk first.Have you ever heard the phrase “walk before you run?” Walking for the first several weeks after giving birth will help you to transition back to running more smoothly and allow your body some well-deserved time to heal. Begin a run/walk program at eight weeks postpartum.
2. Strengthen.In the first few weeks after giving birth you can start to activate your core, pelvic floor and hip muscles to get you ready for running. Start with simple diaphragmatic breathing, easy deep core stability and gluteal exercises. Pilates is a great way to tap into the deep core using your breath.
3. See a Pelvic Health Therapist: At six-eight weeks postpartum we recommend a check up with a pelvic health therapist. They should assess the pelvic floor, check if you have diastasis recti, urinary incontinence or any other pregnancy related impairments. If these issues are not addressed they can lead to hip, back or other injuries in the future.
4. Don’t start where you left off. Once you have walked for several weeks begin a walk/run program. Don’t run too much too soon, especially if you are breastfeeding. Stress fractures are common among breastfeeding moms. This is because the calcium that typically goes to your bones instead goes to create the milk you produce. Too much too soon increases the risk for injury.
5. Eat. In order to produce milk women need an extra 500 calories a day. When you begin running you are burning more calories. If you don’t eat enough your milk supply could deplete and/or you will end up with a stress fracture or other injury.
Postpartum doesn't end at 12 weeks post-delivery. The changes that our during pregnancy can last a lifetime. When I treat women who have five or even ten year olds they are often surprised when I ask about their pregnancies and births. The lasting impact of pregnancy can manifest as weakness or dysfunction in the pelvic floor, poor control of the abdomen and trunk, impaired postural patterns or a dysfunctional gait pattern. If you find you are continually getting injured don’t underestimate what your body went through during pregnancy and the initial postpartum period. If you are still breastfeeding then your hormones haven’t normalized yet impacting your bone density, ligament laxity, stride length and more. It takes six-twelve months for your bodies hormones to readjust after you stop breastfeeding.
Women are resilient and strong their bodies can meet the demands of raising children, having a career, staying active, training, running and much more. To effectively return to our sports we must recognize the changes our bodies and our lives have gone through are not minor. We have to be smart enough to know when we can push through and when we need to take it slow and steady.
If you are interested in learning the details of how your body changes during pregnancy and postpartum and or how to safely return to running and exercise please check out my most recent book: Go Ahead Stop and Pee: Running During Pregnancy and Postpartum.
Good Luck out there and don't forget you're amazing!