As anyone who’s had a baby will tell you, pregnancy and childbirth is a marathon not a sprint. Nine months of growing and delivering a baby can have some profound effects on your body which even the most dedicated runner should bear in mind before strapping on their running shoes again postpartum. There has been relatively little scientific research done into returning to running postnatally, and it’s fair to say that there is no one-size fits all prescriptive approach, but here we take an objective look at a new mum’s route back to running.
There is often confusion amongst new mums about what their 6-12 week check up after birth means for exercise. It’s not helped by the fact that many doctors won’t point out that running is considered to be a high impact exercise, and therefore shouldn’t be attempted postnatally until a bit more groundwork has been put in – particularly where core and pelvic floor strength is concerned.
The impact of hitting the ground when running can be up to three times our own bodyweight, much of which goes straight up through the pelvic floor, so it’s vital that this has been given due care and attention prior to anything resembling high impact exercise.
The timing of getting back to running after childbirth will be different for everyone. Much will depend on your birth experience, recovery process and how much strength work you’ve been able to put in your initial return to exercise. But with the right preparatory work done, it’s fair to look at around three to six months after having your baby before starting to factor in your first run.
Before you lace up your trainers for the first time, there are a number of things to consider.
First and foremost is the pressure and trauma that pregnancy has submitted your body to. Liken it to a training injury like a sprained ankle – you’d do lots of mobility and strength work before trying to run again after a sprain. You need to give your birth recovery the same respect.
It can take the body up to a year to heal from pregnancy and birth – sometimes longer. We need to be on the lookout for any red flags around the core and pelvic floor areas in particular. Incontinence, a feeling of pressure or dragging on the pelvic floor and abdominal separation or doming are all really normal things to experience while recovering from birth. However, they are all things that you’d be well advised to speak to a women’s health physio about before embarking on an exercise regime.
Aside from these core and pelvic floor contraindications, other key elements to give some thought to include:
- Weight gain. Pregnancy weight gain and the increased pressure that this puts through the feet and abdominals might be something that you need to factor in when planning your return to running. Perhaps it will mean starting off with shorter, slower runs.
- Overall fitness levels. These will determine how far and fast you can go when you are able to start running again, so it’s a good idea to incorporate other types of fitness training before you are able to run again.
- Your psychological frame of mind. Why do you want to start running again? The first few months after giving birth are such a sensitive time that if you’re using running as a support mechanism it might be worth delving into that to check you’re not masking any underlying issues.
- Scar tissue mobilisation. If you have scar tissue from a c-section or perineal damage, it’s something that can seize up so needs to be moved around and loosened up with massage and stretching before getting back on the road.
- Sleep & nutrition. Yes we know that getting enough rest with a new baby can be a big ask. But if you’re exercising it’s really important that you make sure you’re getting enough rest and recovery time – not to mention the right nutritional balance to fuel your body. Protein intake can be particularly key for efficient exercise recovery.
- Breastfeeding. You can absolutely run while breastfeeding – it just needs to be factored in to your planning and preparation. Breastfeeding can mean lower oestrogen but higher levels of relaxin in your body for longer which puts you at more risk of injury. You will definitely need a decent support bra, and might find it more comfortable to run after a feed when your breasts aren’t so full.
Getting Ready to Run
Wherever you are in your postnatal recovery journey, it’s best to make short and long term goals for yourself, then follow these easy steps.
- If you have experienced any of the contraindications relating to abdominal separation or pelvic floor strength mentioned above, see a women’s health physio. Even if you haven’t, it might not be a bad idea to see one anyway!
- Work your pelvic floor! You can start from as early as two weeks post birth.
- If you’re just starting back to exercise, and particularly if you are between two and six weeks postpartum, start with some really basic exercises that will start to activate the muscles we use in everyday life. Glute bridges are great, along with shoulder rolls and stretches.
- From around six to eight weeks after having your baby, or twelve if you’ve had a more complicated delivery such as c-section, you can change gears slightly and add in some extra exercises for the lower limbs like squats and lunges, and ramp up the distances and pace with walking. Walking is especially good for scar mobilisation, and strength – while remaining low impact.
- After twelve weeks you can add in something a bit more intense like cycling, but still keep it low impact.
- After you’re feeling happy, comfortable and strong with all these elements you can start to integrate your first higher impact work.
From Running Prep to Actual Running
Timing the move from preparatory work to actual running is the greyest area – there are no clear cut guides or tests to say whether or not your body is ready to run! However, there are a few questions you can ask yourself:
- Do you feel fighting fit?
- Are you free of contraindications?
- Do you feel fully recovered?
- Have you been working on your pelvic health, core stability and leg strength?
If you can answer yes to these then move on to a more physical test of how ready your body is. You don’t need to be able to do all the below to start running again, but the exercises give you a good idea of what you need to work on in order to be ready.
- Can you power walk for 30 minutes with no leaking or pulling on the pelvic floor?
- Can you balance on one leg for 15-20 seconds without any serious wobbling? This is a good indication of both core and leg stability.
- Can you perform 10-15 reps of a single leg squat from a seated position? Singular leg strength is really important for running.
- Can you jog on the spot for one minute without any leakage, abdominal pain or discomfort?
- Can you hop on one leg for 10 reps each side?
If there are any obvious red flags from any of the above then you will need to continue to work on your pelvic floor and glute strength. If you nailed these exercises then you can feel more confident about getting back out there!
Please be patient with yourself! It will take a while to get back to where you used to be! You’d be well advised to start with a “Couch to 5k” style approach that combines running and walking and allows you to gradually increase running duration, load and distance. But it’s a good idea to limit yourself to no more than a 10% increase in progress each week.
Progress probably won’t be linear either so you may not see an improvement each time you run. Postnatal or not, we all have good days and bad days and sleep, nutrition and other variables all have their parts to play.
It’s really important to continue to balance strength and flexibility work with your running to avoid injury. And you might want to think about the kinds of routes and terrains you’re running. Running uphill can be great postnatally as it puts less pressure on the feet and up through the pelvic floor. Grass or softer running surfaces can reduce the impact on your body.
If you’re running with a buggy make sure you have one that is designed for running. It might alter your stride, causing you to lean forward more than you would do otherwise, so extra spine or glute mobilisation and strength work might be needed to compensate.
We hope this has been a useful read if you’re thinking about how you’ll return to running after having a baby. If you take anything away from it, let it be these few things:
- Treat your body as if you’ve had an injury – with a slow, steady and specific recovery plan.
- Get a women’s health physio check up if you can.
- Don’t neglect your strength exercises – especially for your pelvic floor
- When you are able to return to running, take baby steps to begin with and don’t push yourself too far.