As part of our Women in Sports month, we wanted to address a question that only female athletes can have: when walking around with a big belly and strange cravings for nine months, how do you get back to pounding the pavement?
Having a baby and starting a new training plan can both be uncharted territory and together, they can make an overwhelming combination. Luckily, we had Rebekah Mayer help break it down for running moms. Rebekah is the National Training Manager for Life Time Run, a certified pre- and post-natal training specialist, and a mother of three.
How does a woman’s body change with pregnancy and how does that affect running?
There are so many physiological changes that happen, but there’s three that really have a major impact on exercise. One is that your body produces relaxin, a hormone that helps your hip ligaments stretch to create space for the baby and prepare for childbirth. Unfortunately, relaxin acts on ALL ligaments, creating a loose joint structure, reduced power and an increased chance of injury.
Weight gain is an obvious one; most women gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy. So in addition to a loosened joint structure, you now have more strain on those joints and your bones. Besides slowing your pace, this gain also changes your center of gravity since most of your weight is being carried on the front of your body. This can cause hip and back pain and makes stretching and core exercises even more valuable.
Your blood volume also increases during pregnancy to provide oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby. While this elevated blood volume can provide a performance boost in your first year postpartum, it does change your heart rate response and makes heart rate training more of a challenge. During this time, I recommend using a rating of ‘perceived exertion’ to guide intensity instead.
What are the biggest obstacles in pregnancy and postpartum training?
Every pregnancy is different, but there are a few challenges that we all face at one point or another. Morning sickness is one that I can personally attest to. During my first pregnancy, I had so much morning sickness in the first trimester that it was difficult to do any running (or eating for that matter)! You learn to take it day by day; squeeze in short runs when you feel up to it but be easy on yourself when you don’t. I added in walking and indoor cross-training where I would be close to a bathroom if needed!
Fatigue is also a huge challenge, especially during the first and third trimesters. It can be hard to find the energy to get through the day, let alone exercise – especially if you have work or older kids to take care of. But adding short, easy to moderate workouts can actually give you more energy, so it’s worth the effort!
Finally, the structural changes I mentioned above make for another challenge. Running physically feels different during and after pregnancy. So run in areas with solid footing, expect to slow down, and be open to cross-training if running becomes too uncomfortable late in pregnancy.
What can women do during pregnancy to prepare for returning to running?
Core and strength training are key to maintain your posture and strength and reduce the chance of diastasis recti, a splitting of the abdominal muscles. There are so many great exercises to support postpartum core muscles, but they’re not the ones you find in a typical core class.
Generally, I recommend pelvic tilts, reverse crunches, superman ball lifts and glute bridges. The Sahrmann exercises are another great option, especially for moms with diastasis recti. These exercises are detailed on my LifeTimeRun.com blog here and here, but every mom should meet with a fitness or medical professional with a postpartum specialization to get on the right track based on their specific strengths and weaknesses.
How do you balance nutrition with breastfeeding and trying to grow stronger and/or lose baby weight?
The first six weeks postpartum is not the time to focus on weight loss; this is when it’s especially important for you to take in enough calories to establish breastfeeding. After your six-week check-up (assuming your OB gives the OK), you can increase your focus on building fitness, and begin to work towards sensible weight loss.
To do this, focus on food quality first. You need to make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrients for both you and your baby. Your body will naturally shuttle nutrients to breastmilk first, so it’s easy to end up with a deficiency if you cut calories too deeply. Plus, breastfeeding requires about 500 calories a day and exercising will burn even more! Eat quality proteins first, add in lots of healthy veggies, some fruits and healthy fats, and the pounds will gradually come off.
After giving birth, many women can be disheartened by the difficulty of training or “getting their body back”. What is your advice for managing expectations and staying motivated?
Remember that the postpartum phase is just one stage of life! Pregnancies last about nine months and it can take just as long to get close to feeling like your pre-baby self. Pick little goals to focus on, like running a 5K when your baby is 6-12 months old. This can keep you motivated and give you a feeling of accomplishment, even if your ‘skinny jeans’ don’t fit perfectly.
Also keep in mind that it will get easier. Stay focused on good nutrition and exercise and before you know it, you’ll be back to wearing your favorite pre-baby clothes! In the meantime, remember that your body just created a new human being. So give it some credit!
Sleep deprivation can make training even harder. What are your tips for getting the sleep you need as a new mom?
I still struggle with sleep as my toddler seems to be teething constantly. My best advice is to go to bed as early as you can! It can be tempting to catch up on chores or prep things for the next day after the baby goes to bed, but try to squeeze in as much of that as you can while the baby is still up. There’s few things worse than going to bed late and having the baby wake up just a few minutes later, so get an early start to make your middle-of-the-night mommy duties a little easier.
Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep, either. Sleep is when your body recovers and produces human growth hormone, which is key to support your working muscles. It also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which makes it harder to lose weight and increases cravings for unhealthy foods – a double whammy when you’re tired and just want to eat all the chocolate!
You have 3 kids, and even just 1 new baby can be very demanding! What is your advice for balancing your kids with your training?
My best advice is to have a plan and schedule your workouts in advance – but stay flexible. I have a coach who builds my workouts a month at a time so I can figure out how to fit them into my family schedule (another bonus of a coach is that you don’t have to worry about planning your workouts and have someone to be accountable to)!
But even with a weekly plan, you have to be flexible. When my toddler is on a streak of short nights, I skip morning runs in favor of an 8pm run after the kids go to bed. You might have to run at lunchtime, early in the morning, or mid-morning on a weekend. It’s all about getting out the door and finding the times that work for you and your family.
How has your attitude towards postpartum training changed from Baby #1 to Baby #3?
I’ve learned to give myself more time to get back into long-distance running shape. With Baby #1, I didn’t start running until he was six weeks old due to a difficult delivery, but I was still ready for my first-ever sprint triathlon at 3.5 months. I was working part-time then and could tuck him into the Baby Jogger to log miles in the middle of the day. I was able to run my first post-baby marathon when he was 13 months old, even though I couldn’t get into serious training mode until he was 9 months and sleeping through the night.
My second was born in winter, so the Baby Jogger wasn’t an option. I also had a busy two-year-old and was working full-time, so there were even more scheduling challenges. It took about six months of very light running before I started training more, and I waited until he was done breastfeeding (at a year) to get back into marathon-training mode. I ran my first post-Baby #2 marathon when he was 18 months old.
With Baby #3, I was even more cautious in my build-up. Even though I was able to start very light running at two weeks post-baby, I knew my body needed more time to rebuild as my core had been weakened by a pre-pregnancy car accident. I ran casually the first six months; then I hired Life Time Run Coach MK Fleming, a fellow running mom, to help guide my training. I did very little intense training while my ligaments were still loose from nursing and instead focused on rebuilding my core strength and aerobic base. We planned for my first post-Baby #3 marathon to come just after her second birthday, with my longest race during the first 13 months to be the TC 10 Mile.
Every pregnancy is different and your post-baby training will be, too. Learn to take your time and not feel rushed in your training.
If you could give one piece of advice to new moms returning to running, what would it be?
Be easy on yourself! Running is your ‘me-time’ and should be (mostly) enjoyable, so don’t feel bad if you are so tired you have to walk or cut a run short! If you got out of the house and had time to yourself, that’s a blessing in itself! Your faster pace will come in time, and the longer distances will be more fun to tackle once you’re getting decent sleep.
If you need additional inspiration for postpartum training or help finding your first post-baby race, join Athlinks! We’ll help you connect with friends and keep track of your race results, all in one place.
Rebekah Mayer — Life Time Run National Training Manager
Part of Life Time – The Healthy Way of Life company, Life Time Run is aimed at providing the best in class people, programs and places to runners across the country. Rebekah has been running for 26 years and writes the “Chasing Potential” blog series. She has three children, aged 7, 5 and 1.