Postpartum Exercise: Running Tips from a Breastfeeding Mom*

Crossing the Finish Line.RealGuest blog by: Stephanie Harad

I’ve always hated running and I’ve never thought of myself as athletic but after becoming a mom I decided to train for and run a half marathon. Becoming a mom was a huge identity shift for me and I lost my focus on pretty much everything else. After a while I felt like I needed to re-ground myself a little bit.

I began jogging with the stroller once or twice a week when my daughter was about 3 months old. I found that leaning on the stroller actually helped with the discomfort of running with heavy, milk-full breasts because it minimized the bouncing up and down motion. I also hiked a lot as long as my baby was willing to sleep in a carrier. As time went on she became less and less interested in being in a carrier for more than a few minutes and I simultaneously felt more and more healed from the birth and wanted to exercise a little more vigorously, so I started to increase my running. Though it was difficult, I found that I really cherished those times that I was really in my body, using it to get fit and take care of myself after spending the rest of my time dedicated to my baby’s needs.

So why running? It seemed like a realistic form of exercise for me as a nursing mom. I love the bicycle but it took way too long to get a good workout on a bicycle and my toddler will not happily sit in a bicycle seat for hours. Swimming or going to the gym was out of the question for me because driving took an impossible amount of time. Running is something I could do with a stroller if necessary and I could do it right out of my front door. I could have used exercise machines and DVD’s at home of course but leaving the house was a very important mental health component of my exercise choice.

Eventually, I needed a goal that was going to be hard to achieve but possible, that was completely about me and something I’ve always kind of wanted to be able to do but never thought I could. I happened to hear that there was going to be a half marathon in my town in the fall and it felt like the perfect thing to try. There were many things that appealed to me about racing (though I had never done it before) but the social component was a huge factor. Being a new mom has been such an intense experience for me, figuring out so much on my own because no other baby is exactly the same as mine– it can be isolating. Running a race, however is an incredible feeling because there are hundreds or thousands of you all undertaking the same challenge in the same way and so many people cheering for you and supporting you along the way and after. And if you’re lucky you can even find a buddy to train with, though I did not regularly train with anyone because I wanted to make sure I was going to go slowly enough to avoid injury – more on that below.

When I started training, I was still breastfeeding on demand around the clock, about 6-8 times in a 24-hour period. I was concerned about the impact that increasing mileage would have on my body because I still hadn’t gotten my period so I wasn’t sure if I was already lacking something nutritionally and was going to further tax my body and thus deplete my milk supply. I was unable to find professionals to consult about this but I did know another breastfeeding mom who ran a great deal more than I would be running and I figured I would just try it and listen to my body. In terms of finding information about how to train for a run and what to do when injured, etc., I just used my social networks. I posted questions on Facebook and found that I had a lot of acquaintances who are experienced runners. I found them to be much more helpful resources than the local doctors I visited. For example, there are a lot of training plans out there and, after consulting my runner friends, I decided on the Hal Hidgon Novice program even though it is not geared specifically for mothers but it was the most reasonable for me.

Training for a distance race felt pretty rigorous as an inexperienced runner. Most training plans require you to run 4x a week and cross-train another day. If you are a nursing mom, that kind of time commitment can be really difficult to pull off but I also felt like it provided a very real and compelling reason for me to take a break from all my mom-related duties almost every day. I felt I couldn’t miss too many workouts or I wouldn’t be ready for the race so I was very motivated to carve out that time for myself in a way that I wasn’t when I was just running for fitness a few times a week.

Of course a nursing mom may not be the running-focused, shockingly unencumbered, fit and resilient male athlete who is the intended audience of running books and blogs. A nursing mom is full of bone- and ligament-softening hormones and is often getting very little sleep, not to mention giving most of her calcium and vitamin D away all day. So we are much, much more prone to injury and have to be a LOT more careful than most people. Running injuries are ubiquitous anyway and can be serious, sidelining athletes for 3-6 months or longer, which is also devastating on a mental health level. I sustained some minor injuries to my feet and knee always after running faster than I should have. Again my runner friends were incredibly helpful with advice on how to take care of myself when injured. While seeking professional help can be important, people who have a lot of experience running have usually dealt with a lot of injuries and can share what works and what doesn’t.

When you start training you will start to see how incredibly addictive running can become even if you used to hate it, even if you still hate it. The race itself was a party the whole time with people playing music and cheering all along the way. And that feeling when I crossed that finish line, achieving my goal is something I will remember forever. I’m grinning as I type this. I felt unstoppable, even as I choked on the watermelon Gatorade that I foolishly drank at mile 12.5. And my baby saw all of this. She saw that I worked so hard to do something that I used to dismiss as impossible. (Also, babies and toddlers really like race packets. My daughter still asks me regularly if we can go get a race packet.) Now I’m thinking of training for a full marathon next year. My breast milk supply was not affected and I’m still breastfeeding on demand. I am so glad I took on this life-changing challenge and was able to model this for my baby. I highly recommend it or something like it!

And if this is something you are considering, here is some advice to help you stay healthy:

  1. Don’t let the time commitment to train scare you off! You can totally adjust as needed! I went on vacation towards the end of my training and didn’t run for a week and I didn’t lose my fitness. An important thing that I was advised though, is that when you do miss workouts don’t try to make up the miles because that may lead to injury. Just skip it if you skip it.
  1. If you nurse right before running, wait until the fuzzy, gooey, gummy-boned feeling goes away before you run or stretch too much. That feeling happens as a result of a hormone surge and it increases your likelihood of injury because the hormones are softening your ligaments and tissues and bones. For me, it takes about 45 min to go away but it’s different for everyone. To protect those bones and ligaments and muscles further, I was advised to take calcium and Vitamin D supplements if you are not already.
  1. Go slow and don’t do speed work. Most of us with little time want to get the biggest bang for our buck when we exercise and are used to working out very hard. Training for long races is all about learning how to hold yourself back. It is hard in the beginning but so important to minimize the risk of injury and hopefully help you learn to run negative splits (not burning yourself out in the beginning of the race so you can run the second half of the race faster than the first half) . If this is your first long distance race a great goal is just to finish so you don’t have to worry about speed. Even if you do have a time goal remember that you generally go faster on race day than you do in training, especially in long distance races, so you don’t have to worry too much about speed in your training My race was mostly downhill but I ran about 2 minutes per mile faster in the race than when I trained.
  1. Hydrate! Breastfeeding mothers need a ton of hydration so hydrate more than you think you do. I’m all about sports drinks when running even though I know they’re gross.
  1. Always stretch after each run. Use a foam roller as often as possible at night before bed. I know as soon as you walk in the door you’re on baby duty and it’s very hard to stretch but some stretches you can do while nursing. Or stretch outside in front of your house before you walk in even if you feel ridiculous.
  1. And finally, make sure to eat healthy fats and carbs. Runners need increased amounts of fats and carbs and breastfeeding runners even more so. Pregnancy and the first year and a half or two after giving birth are such a special and intense time regarding your relationship with your body and the way that it changes. I know for me I was carrying around more weight than I ever had when I began running, and when I did introduce running I felt a not-even-totally-conscious desire to try to get my body back to my ideal of a totally fit/athletic body. But this really isn’t the time to do that and I had to work very hard to resist it. Your body is working so hard to provide fuel for you to breastfeed, to function on no sleep, and to do all this running. You need the carbs and fats that you are craving in order to stay healthy and keep making milk. (Wooden Spoon Wellness’s Pre- or Post-Workout Muscle-Builder Smoothie, for example, satisfies a lot of these needs, FYI.) Back in the thousands of years ago times, we used to live in tribes where there would be lots of lactating women who could feed each others’ babies in a pinch so evolutionarily your body is wired to keep your vitamins and minerals for yourself and stop producing milk if need be. You have to make sure your body feels like it has enough to go around. The positive side to this unique period of closeness with your body is that you are able to hear loud and clear what your body needs and it’s easier to listen to it.

Stephanie Harad is a social worker, mother to a very enthusiastic nurser, and an addicted runner. She lives in Santa Fe, NM with her wife and daughter and sometimes blogs at Dispatches from the Motherland.

*Health coach’s disclaimer: This post is not meant to provide medical advice. If you are considering taking up long-distance running, even if you ran at one point in your life, first check with a licensed medical professional to ensure that it is safe for your body. Once cleared, rock on with your bad self!

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