Six Tips for Returning to Running Postpartum
Today marks 20 weeks after my husband and I welcomed our new baby girl into the world. I am pleased to say I’ve reconnected with my old friend, running! But, as sometimes happens when you reunite with a friend after a long time apart, running and I need to get to know each other again. I’ve changed quite a bit in the past year, both mentally and physically! And while some changes will surely benefit my journey with running postpartum, like my newfound mental strength and endurance that I built up through the difficult process of pregnancy and birth, other physical changes will require some adapting.
Get Reacquainted With Running Postpartum
Whether you chose to stop running during pregnancy as I did or are returning to running after your birth recovery, here are six tips that I’ve learned since returning to running postpartum.
1. Start By Walking
Particularly if you ran during pregnancy, there is a temptation to return to running ASAP so you don’t lose your fitness. But birth, even when it’s a positive experience, is still a physical trauma. Your body needs time to heal just as it would from any injury. You’ll do much better by waiting until your body feels fully ready. (And make sure you give yourself a true and honest assessment!)
New research suggests waiting until twelve weeks postpartum to resume a running routine may be the best recommendation to protect your pelvic floor health. With this in mind, give yourself plenty of time before resuming a running routine.
Luckily, running isn’t the only way you can hit the pavement! Three days after coming home from the hospital, I took my first slow, gentle walk with my husband and baby in the stroller. We walked for maybe ten minutes along my usual running route before I felt I’d had enough. Even though it was only 10 minutes, I got a lot of the same mental benefits of a run. Getting out in the fresh air and sunshine and moving my body in a way that felt good. Over the next several weeks I gradually extended my walks until I was walking for 30-, 40- or 60-minutes with baby in tow. All that walking rebuilt my fitness in a gentle way while giving me many of the same mental health benefits of a good run. This really helped calm my perinatal anxiety.
2. Set Realistic Expectations
Tune into your body and give yourself plenty of grace. You’re likely not going to PR your very first run after pregnancy. Regardless of your prior fitness level, it may take several weeks to get back to running the speeds and distances you ran before having a baby. By expecting this in advance you can protect yourself from disappointment and frustration. My first run, I didn’t even turn on my shiny new fitness tracker that I received for Christmas. I didn’t want to pressure myself or even track my speed or distance at all – my only goal was just to take it slow and run for as long as it felt comfortable.
While many women run right through pregnancy and pick it back up very soon after giving birth, consider waiting a bit longer. My doctor cleared me for exercise at my six-week postpartum checkup, but I did not go for my first real run until eleven weeks postpartum. It took that long for me to really feel ready. I tuned into my body and waited to run until I felt healed and strong again. Because I waited, I had a much more positive experience on those first few runs than I would have had I forced myself to run earlier.
3. Wear the Right Gear
At around ten weeks postpartum, when I was starting to feel ready to take that first run, I went to get fitted for new running shoes. Like many moms, my feet grew about a half size in pregnancy. While I can still happily squeeze into most of my pre-pregnancy shoes, it’s really critical for safety and comfort that running shoes fit properly. I was fitted for a new pair that are a full size larger than my regular shoe size. Sizing up gives your feet room to expand a bit and helps prevent issues like the oh-so-dreaded black toenails. Plus, having a shiny new pair of running shoes was a great motivator to get out and run!
My second important postpartum purchase was a new sports bra. Whether or not you are breastfeeding, your breasts are likely to have changed size during pregnancy and after birth. Since I am breastfeeding, I really needed extra support and a sports bra that was properly fitted to my new cup size. For comfort’s sake, I typically pump right before going on a run so my breasts don’t feel too heavy or uncomfortable. It’s also important not to hang out for too long in a tight, sweaty sports bra after a run while breastfeeding. This is something I had a tendency to do before pregnancy. Now, I make sure to change back into a clean, softer fitting nursing bra right away to help prevent issues like clogged ducts, thrush, and mastitis.
4. Make Time for Pelvic Floor Exercises
Carrying a baby damages the pelvic floor. This is true no matter how straightforward or difficult your pregnancy and birth experience was. Concentrating on healing the pelvic region can prevent issues such as incontinence or prolapse when you eventually return to running. I searched YouTube and my local yoga studio’s online class directory for postpartum-safe pelvic floor exercises and yoga flows. And I feel they really helped get my body to a point where I felt ready to run. Many of these exercise routines included moves to strengthen the core and heal diastasis recti, another common postpartum concern. If you’re struggling, talk to your doctor and consider asking for a referral to a pelvic floor physiotherapist.
5. Be Flexible
I stuck to a pretty rigid running schedule before I got pregnant. While that helped me successfully train for multiple 5k’s, a 10k, a half marathon, and complete a 40-day run streak, I quickly learned I needed to back WAY off of anything that put extra pressure on me and my schedule during this time in my life.
As I continue to learn and adjust as a new parent, I have to actively reject my perfectionist tendencies. If I had planned to go on a nice morning run but found myself alone with the baby, had a diaper blowout to deal with, or exhaustion set in, I let myself skip that run without any guilt. (I even let myself skip guilt free just to catch a nap! Sleep is a precious commodity with a new baby in the house!) Rigid schedules worked well to keep me motivated in the past. But right now, my only goal is to stay flexible, give myself plenty of grace, and only push myself when it feels right.
6. Ask for Help
This is possibly my most critical tip. The only way I’m able to have the time and energy to dedicate to self-care activities such as running (or taking a long shower, or catching a nap) is because:
I am lucky enough to have a partner, family, and friends who are willing to help, and
I give myself permission to ask them to do it.
It would not have been mentally healthy for me to reject assistance, to smile and say “I’m fine, I’ve got it!” and then struggle to keep up with the lion’s share of baby care. I had to learn to accept offered help and how to clearly articulate exactly what I needed from my partner.
Dropping the guilt over taking time away from your baby to care for yourself as a new mom is HARD. But, basic self care like showering, sleeping, and eating and preserving your identity by engaging in hobbies or spending time with friends are all SO critical to your mental health.
As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. I am a much better partner, friend, and mother when I’ve taken time to care for my basic needs and engage in my hobbies: like going for a run, practicing yoga or digging around in the garden for an hour or two. And while I do enjoy baby and me yoga classes or sometimes do a little gardening with my baby in a sling (and I just can’t wait to break in my new jogging stroller), I still feel it’s essential to regularly take some time for yourself away from baby.
Take Care Of YOU
If you’re also a new mom or are expecting a new baby soon, congratulations! Take the hard days in stride and soak up the sweet moments, appreciate your own incredible strength. And above all else, prioritize yourself. Reach out for help if you’re struggling. Reach out for help even if you’re feeling okay! Self care is not selfish! By taking time when you can to run (and rest!) for your mental health, you’ll be taking important steps toward being the best mother you can be.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. These tips are based on my personal experience of having a complication-free vaginal birth. Your experience may look very different if you dealt with complications or are recovering from a c-section. Before returning to running after having a baby, please check in with your healthcare provider. Make sure you’ve been cleared for running and other forms of exercise by your provider.