Running Beyond Pregnancy -By Jackie Pirtle-Hall

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Running Beyond Pregnancy: Postpartum Transition

As the Runnababez finished up another great Sunday run full of goofy laughter and ridiculous stories, the conversation ensued on giving birth, on motherhood, and on balancing running. And while these conversations have occurred often lately – mostly ending in: alright that’s enough birth/mommy talk for today, I realized I have some experience and knowledge to share with my teammates and other runners who may be contemplating pregnancy yet unsure how it can impact their running. In fact, there have only been a few studies done in the recent years on how pregnancy affects a runner positively and negatively. This research has helped me along my own pregnancy journey while logging 35-40 miles a week up to the day my second daughter, Gwyneth Kate, was born at a healthy 6 lbs.11oz/19 inches – the same exact size as my first born! I’m consistent right?  So now I want to further explore and share postpartum physical and mental challenges and perks the female runner may encounter.

Challenge #1: Pelvis Tilting Forward

Running Clinic Director and professor of orthodics and rehabilitation, Bryan Heiderscheit, set out to explore the running mechanics of pregnant and postpartum runners. The Scientists found that as pregnancy progressed in an active runner, the pelvis started and continued to tilt forward, effecting how the runner landed. Furthermore, six months postpartum, a majority of this forward tilt remained. In addition the runner now displayed a more side-to-side pelvic motion. For instance, the clinic had a mother of two come into the clinic due to hip and back pain 14 months postpartum.  The researchers determined that her pelvis tilted abnormally far forward during running and moved too much side to side, and her right leg struck the ground harder than the left, absorbing 30 percent more force with each stride (Reynolds).

Dr. Heiderscheit responded, Pregnancy and labor stretch the muscles and connective tissues in the abdomen which allows the slightly unmoored pelvis to tilt and sway… I think it’s time we acknowledge that having a baby is going to change how you run.  He emphasized that there is no evidence that mothers are slower or more injury prone postpartum but that things are just going to feel different. (Reynolds).

Solutions: Only doing crunches will not suffice!

  • Target the small, deeper abdominal muscles. Dr. Heiderscheit recommends pulling the belly up and in multiple times and also imagining that you’re cutting off the flow of urine.
  • Engage in traditional strength work: squats, planks, and deep core activation to help stabilize the pelvic area.
  • Try shortening your stride a bit to reduce the pounding experienced on a run.

Perk # 1: Strength and Speed Improvement

Many women actually claim they are stronger and speedier postpartum. Kara Goucher ran a personal best in the marathon (2:24:52) at the 2011 Boston marathon just seven months postpartum. Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months postpartum. And if you’re thinking like me: well running is their job; so they were probably training extensively through pregnancy, think again! Deena Kastor, who couldn’t even jog through most of her pregnancy, still managed to place sixth at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials- just eleven months postpartum.  In addition, Clara Peterson, who ran 40 miles a week throughout her second pregnancy, came back strong six months postpartum to place sixteenth at the 2012 marathon trials, with what she refers to as the “crazy mom strength people talk about.” According to O’Mara’s article, Can Women Come Back Faster After Pregnancy, Dr. Karen Nordahl (obgyn and author of Fit To Deliver) said women who exercise through pregnancy experience strength increases as a result of working out with additional weightI actually think they do come out stronger, not necessarily fitter. 

Challenge # 2: Mental Focus and Enduring Suffering

During pregnancy, running by feel and staying in touch with your body is essential.  However, as you return to training, including challenging workouts, you may need to re-train your mind to endure the suffering that accompanies fitness gains.  In other words, you are not going to get back to your pre-pregnancy fitness without some lung searing, tough workouts.  This is the complete opposite type of running that you have done during the last year of your pregnancy. Re-teaching your brain to focus and re-learn that your body can endure can be difficult.  For Instance, I had to take well over a year off of any hard running (pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, and postpartum) and let my body dictate my slower, relaxed runs.  I am now eight weeks postpartum and have completed a few challenging workouts already; the first few intervals of these “pushed” efforts proved very hard to concentrate and handle, but once I got going, proving to myself I could maintain, the workout got done just as I had planned.  I have a feeling it will be tough like this for some time until I have had some more intense sessions for my mind to draw from.  However, when I think about what I went through to give birth drug-free, I feel like I can endure anything…just as long as my legs can keep up with my mind! Kara Goucher has said, …what was even harder (than losing the weight) was getting back to the competitive mindset.  I ran when I was pregnant, but the number one rule is to never push yourself.  I had to relearn how to push through the pain (Sugar).

Solution: Begin with shorter interval workouts and tempos. With every challenging workout or race you complete, you are sharpening your mental focus and strength.  Be patient with yourself. Time will get you back to your pre-pregnancy volume and intensity. Do not try and match your pre-pregnancy running log; you will only feel defeated and possibly injured. Be smart and patient while not being afraid to suffer a bit.

Perk # 2:  Increases in blood flow, oxygen, human growth hormone, and VO2 max

Pregnancy increases blood flow, oxygen, and human growth hormone.  In fact, there was speculation of pregnancy doping in the past.  The rumor was women were getting pregnant then having abortions just to reap the benefits of these increases (sick!).  According to one study expressed in O’Mara’s article, fifteen pregnant and non-pregnant athletes -at similar levels of exercise- were followed for over fifteen months. The results showed an increase of VO2 max in the pregnant athletes.  Dr. Nordahl states, you’re actually able to maintain physiological effects for up to a year (postpartum).  Clara Peterson adds, I’m doing stuff I never thought I could do, while Alex Allred (Olympic bobsledder) states that multiple studies have shown that moderate exercise throughout pregnancy can result in a happier, healthier pregnancy and mom (O’Mara).

Challenge # 3: Finding Balance

Even Kara Goucher, whose job is running, experienced a meltdown two months postpartum.  She was sleep-deprived and stressed trying to get back into shape running on her treadmill at home.  She told her husband she couldn’t physically keep this up anymore. Goucher realized being a mom and a runner was not going to be easy.  In fact, she said, it took a full year before I felt like myself again.  She quickly rebounded and remembered her passion and love for running.  She said, when I got pregnant, I knew and accepted that running would never be my top priority again.  While I hoped that I would often be able to put as much into it as I always had, I was prepared to make sacrifices as a runner for the sake of being a good mother.  After a tough first several weeks (postpartum), I got some momentum going and was maintaining a good balance.  Colt was doing well and I was getting the hand of being a mother, so I was able to make a full commitment to my running without making any sacrifices as a mother (Goucher).

Breastfeeding may also be a factor in your balancing act.  Kristin Alexander of Chicago who returned to running three weeks postpartum suggests: you have to time it so you feed the baby and get out right away before your milk before your milk comes in again…before this I was engorged and knew the baby was hungry and had to run home with huge breasts!

Solution:  Create a schedule and get the entire family on board.  Whether you wake up early or stop by the trail before heading home after work, make your run an appointment and keep it.  However, do not obsess if you have to miss a run- always be reasonable and flexible.  Understand that family is your first priority. Also, consider a baby sitter. This was part of Goucher’s solution after her early struggles. I can say it is worth the money: healthy mom equals happy mom. Other options are running strollers or treadmill running.  I have pictures of both my kids sleeping in their boppie chairs while I ran on the treadmill postpartum; I think the rhythmic sound of the belt lulled them to sleep!

 

Perk # 3: Experiencing the Joys

Running increases energy and can provide you quiet time from the demands of motherhood.  For most runs, I arrange a babysitter or go out after my husband returns from work.  I slowly started back to my running routine just two weeks postpartum to help me get through those days after sleepless nights with baby.  Getting outside in the fresh air renewed me and boosted my mood instead of shuffling around the house constantly complaining about how exhausted I was (I sometimes still did that too though!).

Two weeks postpartum, a joyful Deena Kastor shared, the forty-five minutes I walked was more than I slept last night, and it is amazing how that walk recharged me. Kastor shared her experience on her first day back to running after a pregnancy that left her sedentary because her body would have none of it (running). She later exclaimed, I ran! It felt so uplifting to open up my stride and move forward again. Invigorating! For three miles … I felt light and liberated during the run as I reflected on how lucky I am to have a beautiful and healthy three-week-old daughter.  Welcome back!

Kara Goucher states, being a mom has helped me really let go of things, and chill out a bit…I still want all the things I wanted before. I just found something that I care about more.  She has not lost her passion for running just because she has a child.  In fact, she wants another one…when she can fit it into her career!

Jackie’s Tips for Successful Postpartum Running

  • Do not start running without your doctor’s release
  • If you are one of those who will start back before your 6-week appointment, make sure bleeding has ceased.
  • Work on core and overall strength training
  • Do kegel exercises several times a day for about five minutes at a time to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles (so you don’t pee your pants!)
  • Run with friends and even grab a coffee after
  • Ditch the watch for a while and just run
  • When you’re ready, begin to practice suffering by inserting a little intensity
  • Wear a really good bra to support those babies!
  • Hire a babysitter once or twice a week while you run: you deserve it!
  • Run in the morning before the family wakes up
  • Purchase a treadmill and a yard gate to surround it for child safety (I would never be able to run as much as I do without my treadmill – it’s well worth the expense and so convenient).
  • Purchase a jogging stroller and take baby with you (wait until baby is 4-6 months old and can control his or her neck muscles).

I hope, if anything my Runnababez friends will look back on this article  when it is their turn to experience this blessing life offers.  Of course, I know they will tell me its not happening anytime soon, someday it will, and I want them to have all the information they need to understand that  their running is not over just because they want to start a family.  In fact, it is only just beginning. All my personal bests, marathon course records, and Olympic trials experience came after I became a mom.

Happy Running mommies and mommies-to-be…Jackie Pirtle-Hall

Resources/References

o       Running and Pregnancy by Chris Lundgren

o       How Pregnancy Changes a Runner’s Body by Gretchen Reynolds

o       Kara Goucher: Losing the Baby Weight Was a Marathon in Itself by Jenny Sugar of Popsugar Fitness

o       Can Women Come Back Faster After Pregnancy? By Kelly O’Mara

o       Goucher Balances Motherhood, training as she Preps for London by Brian Cazeneuve of Sports Illustrated

o       Goucher Carrying On Post-Pregnancy by Shira Springer of Globe Staff

o       Kastor, After Pregnancy, Sees Trials as New Start by Jere Longman of The New York Times

o       Kara Goucher’s blog at competitor

o       Deena Kastor’s blog at competitor

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