By Lisbeth Hoyt PT, DPT, CSCS
So you ran for some period of time throughout your pregnancy, had your baby and just got cleared to return to exercise at your 6 week follow up (ideally). Time to just throw on some shoes and head out for a run right? Wrong! Returning to running after pregnancy is exactly like coming back from an injury with a significantly longer timeline. To put it in perspective – your body just spent 10 months going through physical and hormonal changes. It’ll take at least 10 months after giving birth to get back to your baseline hormone levels, even longer if you’re breastfeeding. So to get back to running after pregnancy, there are a few steps you have to take and guidelines to follow to make this successful.
What should I start when returning to running after pregnancy?
First stop should be to make an appointment with a physical therapist (preferably one that specializes in running, pelvic health or both). I know, I know “my doctor already cleared me, isn’t that enough?” Your OBGYN specializes in providing care during pregnancy and delivering your baby. While they may have a personal exercise background, it’s not their specialty and they are clearing you based on the healing directly related to how you gave birth (either vaginally or C-Section). A physical therapist will assess your overall muscle strength and tolerance to load and create an individualized plan for your return to run. Personally, my OB cleared me for exercise at 6 weeks but my pelvic PT didn’t clear me until 8 weeks.
Now let’s talk about what “cleared for exercise means”. If you’ve ever been injured (who hasn’t been as a runner), you’ve probably been given specific strengthening exercises targeted to whatever you’ve injured. Think about pregnancy as a 10 month “injury” to your core and pelvis. All of your muscles, tendons and ligaments have just stretched over this time period to accommodate a growing baby. Before starting any high-impact exercise, you’ll need a strength program targeting your core, pelvic floor and hip muscles. Many OB GYN’s and physical therapists are now recommending waiting until 12 weeks postpartum before returning to run.
I know 12 weeks sounds long, especially when you’re itching to get back into your normal routine again. But you aren’t sitting around doing nothing waiting for the 12 week mark. Weeks 6-12 are focused on strengthening your muscles, pelvic and core stability and postural alignment in addition to building up your walking tolerance time. You’re also adapting to life with a tiny human to take care of!
After focusing on some strength, it’s time to run!
Again, slow and steady and patience is the key here. Your physical therapist will give you an individualized return to run plan which starts with shorter run/longer walk intervals for 20-30 minutes. Those first few runs will probably feel awkward and challenging (you’ll be thankful for the walk breaks). As your body adapts back into a running routine, you’ll be able to gradually increase running time and decrease your walk breaks. Since life with a new baby can be unpredictable, try not to get stuck on an exact return to run timeline. Some weeks you may be exhausted and sleep and recovery need to be your priority (and that’s ok).
A few other things to keep in mind as your return to running postpartum.
- Always listen to your body! You definitely don’t have the time to be injured so don’t ignore any warning signs your body is giving you. This includes joint and muscle pain, bleeding, leakage or pressure in your pelvic floor.
- Nutrition is important! If you’re breastfeeding make sure you’re eating enough calories, especially foods with calcium, as your baby is depleting you multiple times a day. Even if you aren’t nursing, you still need substantial nutrition to support your run and recovery.
- Sleep! I don’t really need to talk about why this is STILL important do I?
- Supportive running clothes: if you’re breastfeeding, had a C-section or just trying to fix into your pre-pregnancy running clothes, let’s face it, they may not fit just yet. Which is completely normal and ok! But you want to be comfortable when running and it’s not worth squeezing into old clothes.
- Leave the jogging stroller at home. If your baby is under 6 months, they’re probably too small to go in there anyway! Take this initial time to get back into running alone before trying to learn how to run with a stroller. Stroller runs require different running mechanics and strength (stay tuned for a blog on this later)!
- For those breastfeeding mamas: time your runs after a feed or pump session, you’ll thank me later.
Regardless of if this is baby number 1 or 4, everyone’s return to run will look different. Be patient, listen to your body and avoid playing the comparison game. As always, we’re here to help you through the process, you don’t have to do it alone!
By Lisbeth Hoyt PT, DPT, CSCS