7 tried-and-true tips for running after you’ve had a baby
Pregnant runners often dream of returning to their pre-baby runner form as soon as possible after giving birth. Let’s be honest: Once baby is born, we’re eager to get back to race pace. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able run again, to get back to our “old selves,” to run faster than before, or to even start running for the first time.
But in order to prevent injuries and other setbacks, we need to avoid rushing into it. The first step is to check in with your OB-GYN, who’ll assess your body and hormones to give you the green light to start exercising. Next, heed these seven tips:
1. Take care of yourself.
Pregnant and postpartum women who exercise have been found to cope better with the life change of becoming a mother and caring for a baby than those who don’t. So advocate for yourself and your desire to run.
“It’s very important for new moms to realize their needs matter,” says Dr. Shoshana Bennett, clinical psychologist and author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies. “Don’t lose what’s important to you as an individual; do what you enjoy. If you enjoy running, then you move toward running.”
How? Check those dreams of regaining your fitness overnight. Instead, cultivate realistic expectations. “Say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this much today and be proud of myself,'” advises Bennett. New moms benefit from acknowledging — and accepting — that simple acts, like walking to the mailbox or down the block, are a start to the goal of running.
2. Strengthen and stabilize your core (with caution).
“Running recreates the bearing down…the downward force of labor with each jarring step,” says Lynn Schulte-Leech, women’s health physical therapist and postpartum recovery expert. Schulte-Leech advises allowing your pelvis to regain stability and focusing on strengthening your core before returning to running, which can take up to three months postpartum, if not longer. (Don’t forget to check in with your OB-GYN!)
“It’s the pelvic floor muscles and the transverse abdominus that get stressed during labor,” explains Leech, “and these need to regain strength and stability to handle the impact of running.” She recommends strengthening three areas: the pelvic floor, transverse abdominis, and glute muscles.
First up? Kegels. Kegels — the contraction and release of pelvic floor muscles — help control incontinence, for one thing, and create a strong and stable pelvic floor. The beauty of kegels is that you can do them anytime, anywhere. For example, if you’re breastfeeding, do your kegels. While your baby noshes, you’ll be training for your triumphant return to running. If you don’t feel your muscles have the ability to contract fully and they stay weak after doing kegels for a few weeks, Schulte-Leech recommends a visit to a women’s health PT for an assessment and possible treatment. “Releasing tension and trigger points in your pelvic floor muscles can improve your ability to contract the muscles,” she says.
How to do it: To do this exercise, contract and lift the pelvic floor muscles, as if you were trying to stop peeing. Leech says to work up to holding a kegel for 10 seconds, then releasing it.
Your transverse abdominis (TVA) —the group of muscles beneath the obliques — gets stretched to the brink while carrying a baby for nine months. Training them to shorten again after delivery will help you loose the “pooch” from pregnancy. Strengthening the TVA also helps to bring together the two rectus abdominus muscles (aka your “six pack” muscles) that may have separated during pregnancy. This separation is called “diastasis recti” and decreases your core stability. This needs to be healed prior to running again particularly because it can cause injury to your spine.
Before starting this move, start with kegels. Schulte-Leech warns that if your pelvic floor muscles aren’t strong enough, doing exercises for the TVA can trigger internal organs to prolapse, or fall out of place. To avoid this, gain strength with kegels. Then, once you work up to the TVA exercises, contract your pelvic floor muscles first before engaging the transverse. If you feel increased pressure in your pelvis, see a women’s health expert to get your pelvic organs and pelvic floor muscles checked out.
How to do it: Schulte-Leech recommends pulling the belly button back as close to the spine as possible, and holding it at the end range for a couple of seconds, then releasing it. Start with 20 repetitions, and work up to as many as 100 in one sitting.
The gluteal muscles are just as important as kegels in balancing out the pelvis. To test whether your pelvis is balanced, Schulte-Leech recommends lying facedown on the ground with your pubic bone and hip bones touching the ground, then lifting one leg in the air to see how far you can lift your leg while keeping the pubic bone and hip bones in contact with the floor. You should be able to lift it up about 30 degrees. If you can only lift it a few inches off the ground, your pelvis is in a posteriorly rotated position, which inhibits the glutes from working properly when you walk and run. A physical therapist can help correct this condition.
Chris Cloyd, lead trainer and manager of Performance Training Center by pro skier Julia Mancuso in Truckee, Cali., explains that this “posterior pelvic tilt is a definite problem for a lot of women coming off of a pregnancy.” He finds that many women need to commit to a full rehab plan after pregnancy to stabilize the pelvis and strengthen the core and hip flexors, particularly the glute max muscle.
To address this so-called “No ass syndrome,” Cloyd recommends that new moms create pelvic symmetry. “I like to use a stretch on a flat, hip-high table that reduces tension in the piriformis and glute max,” he says.
How to do it: Stand with your hips square to the edge of a table or another flat surface. Raise your right knee up to hip height and place it and your lower leg on along the edge of the table, resting on the outside (right) of your knee and shin. Drop your weight toward the floor until you feel the stretch; breathe and hold for at least 20 seconds. Rotate your torso to each side and repeat the stretch again. Repeat on your left leg.
Once a runner stabilizes the pelvis, Cloyd provides a corrective strengthening program. His regimen targets the glutes, hamstrings and quads with a variety of squats, reverse lunges, and supine leg extensions (with a med ball).
3. Realign your body.
Although some women return to running seamlessly after giving birth, cranking out miles and even races without missing a step, some don’t. “Be careful,” warns Sam Ianetta, founder of Functional Fitness in Boulder, Colo. “I’ve seen women return to running, only to find structural issues like plantar fasciitis, pelvic floor dysfunction, SI joint and lower back problems haunt them years later.”
He assesses each patient’s body alignment and structure and the effects of pregnancy and caring for a baby. In his practice, he helps to realign them and increase the muscle mass needed to support the pounding of running. He recommends specific exercises to help people balance over their heels, and to encourage the natural curve in their low back.
How to do it: Try one of his favorite structural exercises, “Sit to stand,” which is a modified squat. Stand in front of a full-length mirror with a chair behind you. With both your feet and knees pointing forward — not falling inward or outward — sit backwards in a chair. Then stand back up. “It will feel hard at first,” Ianetta says. “Keeping the proper alignment of the feet, knees, spine and head is the critical part.”
Ianetta also recommends doing what he calls the “Farmer Stretch.” Hold a rubber cord with your arms reached straight out in front of you, palms up toward the sky, and slowly move your arms out sideways. As you pull your arms back behind you, keep your elbows slightly bent. (The cord will rest across your chest.) “This activates the muscles of the upper back, and pulls your head back into alignment,” he says. “New moms tend to slump over when holding and feeding baby, and many women say, ‘Ah, I can breathe deeper’ after doing this stretch.”
Expert tip: Trainer Cloyd recommends using a foam roller and lacrosse ball to give yourself deep tissue trigger point therapy for myscofascial release. Foam roll your glutes and posterior hip extensors (deep hip-extending muscles) one butt “cheek” at a time, using the ball to target your deepest muscles. Also roll on your IT band (From just above the knee to the hip bone, avoiding the joints).
For all new moms, walking is great exercise. And though it might not rev up the endorphins like running, or make you feel like your old-runner-athlete self, walking can be very enjoyable. The key? Stay patient, and put things in perspective.
Legendary running coach Arthur Lydiard was a huge proponent of taking walks for recovering from hard training or racing efforts. Look at it this way: Labor and delivery are hard efforts from which your body needs to recover.
Walking gets you outside and breathing fresh air. It gets your blood circulating and builds muscle and bone strength while slowly — and safely — building into running endurance.
5. Do the run/walk/shuffle.
Coach and author Jeff Galloway’s run/walk training method has transformed thousands of successful runners from beginners to marathon finishers, and even helped lower many marathon PR times.
When you’re coming back from childbirth, this method of alternating running and walking allows your body to readjust to the feeling of running without overdoing it. Once you’re able to start running (Hallelujah!), start slowly by alternating walking and running. Listen to your body. If it feels good, gradually increase your running and/or total time.
How to do it: On your first jaunt, alternate 1 minute of running with 1 minute of walking; repeat 5 times. Run/walk every other day, but no more than 5 times per week; you can include cross training such as cycling on alternate days. Increase to 2 minutes of running with 1 minute of running for 15 to 20 minutes total. Gradually increase to 30 minutes total, being mindful of recovery and how your body feels.
Expert tip: It’s important to be okay with whatever pace you’re able to summon. (Leave the GPS tracker at home.) Start with a shuffle. Continue to shuffle — and be okay with it — until your whole body feels ready to pick up the pace. Just breaking a sweat is going to feel so, so good.
6. Run with a jogger, alone, or on a treadmill.
There are a lot of benefits to running with a jogging stroller. For one, you’re not tied to the house when you’re home alone with your baby, which equals freedom. Secondly, baby joggers can hold your water bottle, diaper bag, extra layers, and more without weighing down your body.
But know that pushing a baby jogger is no joke. Not only are you pushing weight and putting force on your arms, shoulders and back, you’re increasing the force in your feet, says Ianetta. Be conscious of your running form, as well as the extra effort of pushing a baby jogger.
It’s also good for new moms to make time to head out alone. Reach out to friends, family and running groups to create a support network of potential babysitters. Other mother runners, for example, are particularly receptive to “swapping” babysitting duty for a few precious minutes to pound the pavement or hit the trails solo. Remember: Even 15 minutes spent doing something for yourself can refresh and rejuvenate your presumably weary self.
Another option is getting a treadmill. This investment (from $300 to upwards of $2,000) enables new moms to hop on and walk, shuffle or run when Baby is napping or babysitters are M.I.A. What’s more, especially when you’re exhausted, you can stash a pillow and baby monitor next to the treadmill. Just in case you decide to sneak some shut-eye on the horizontal surface (Make sure the incline is set to 0).
7. Give yourself a break.
While some women return to their pre-baby race times sooner than others, not everyone can…and that’s okay. Yes, Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe had great success within a year of giving birth, but remember: they are professional athletes.
“It’s important to have the perspective of, ‘I’m going to start where I can, even if it means I’m doing just part of the trail I used to run,'” says Dr. Bennet. “Rather than comparing yourself to what you used to be, I encourage women to look forward to what they’re doing.”
Article Photo Credit (above): Ed Yourdon Creative Commons License