Contrary to Shalane Flanagan’s cookbook title, my advice for women returning to running after having a baby is to Eat Fast and Run Slow.
Multiple Salty moms have given advice about returning to running after having a baby. I’d like to offer an additional perspective, framed in the context of a loose training plan. Loose because after having a baby your body will literally be loose! But, more seriously, loose, because as with all aspects of running and postpartum recovering, there is no one-size-fits-all plan.
The thing with us is, that while we know we have to be flexible during the postpartum period in consideration of both our body’s and family’s demands, many of us crave the structure that brings along the hope that we’ll be as fit as we once were. That’s the purpose of my Eat Fast/ Run Slow plan: to provide a general framework for developing your own training strategy, while maintaining the flexibility postpartum life demands.
Babies seem to be born with an innate sense of when it’s dinnertime. No matter when or where you sit down to eat, baby will start crying, meaning your meal will have to wait. And as a sleep deprived, busy mom taking care of a newborn, you may forget to take care of yourself. So eat while you can, and eat quickly or you may not get a chance again until hours later! Especially if you breastfeed your baby, you might find yourself ravenous when running and nursing. Fuel yourself so you can fuel baby.
But seriously, now for the running part.
While you may be anxious to get back out there, take your time. For nine months (give or take) your body built a baby. Parts you never expected to, shifted and changed. When you get the go-ahead from your doctor that you’re ready to ease back into training, your ligaments will likely still be loose and your body still recovering long after that. Your fitness will return to you, my friends. Do not get impatient with yourself and the process.
I know many women who have become injured during their return to running after pregnancy. It may not happen immediately, often it’s even six to nine months down the road. But if you do not take the time to rebuild your strength and fitness, if you rush into more miles and more intensity than your body is ready for, you will be highly susceptible to injury. It’s particularly important to restrengthen your abdominal, other core muscles, and pelvic stabilizing muscles and to seek the help of a professional, like a physical therapist, if necessary.
After my second child, who was large at eight pounds, twelve ounces, I had a bad case of separated abdominal muscles called diastasis recti. Since I planned on having a third child, I never seriously attempted to correct it, figuring why fix something that was just going to get broken again. And with limited time to exercise, all I did was my favorite activity: run. That was a mistake. While I luckily never got injured during that time, I never felt very fit. I got back into it and ran some decent times, but overall, felt my fitness was lacking. Caraway described this feeling well in her Pilates post.
This time around, I’m making a dedicated effort towards regaining overall fitness and strength, fixing my core, and doing more aerobic cross-training instead of just running. I know this will make me a better runner in the long term, and limit my likelihood of injury. While your heart might just want to run, your body needs more than that. Your legs didn’t build the baby, so you need to repair and restore everything else that did.
The Eat Fast/Run Slow Postpartum Training “Plan”
Regardless of when you start to run after delivering your baby, divide the next few months into training phases with building focuses. I set mine at six weeks, but extend them if you need more time. No need to rush it. Stay flexible, forgiving, and patient. You have your whole life to run and only a short precious time with a newborn!
PHASE 1 – Fit In What You Can
Weeks one to six of running after baby
Running: Ease back into running easy. By run easy I mean do not worry about time or distance. Walk or mix in walk breaks if you need to. Don’t stress how much you can or can’t run or how often you make it out there.
Extras: Incorporate base core work such as lunges and planks, and weight bearing strength exercises such as dips and pushups. These are easy to fit in throughout the day instead of having to do in one solid chunk. Example: Changing a diaper? Drop and do 10 pushups first! Those will add up quickly throughout the day!
Stay Flexible: While it will likely make you feel better to get outside and get an endorphin boost from exercise, it might also make you feel better to mop the three day old food off the kitchen floor. You’re adjusting to sleepless life with a newborn, as well as recovering from the physical trauma of childbirth. So anything you can do exercise-wise at this point is a bonus. Even if you set out to run four miles but only make it one, or end up walking instead of running, it’s doing what you can.
PHASE 2 – Rebuild Your Base
Weeks seven to twelve of running after baby
Running: Start gradually building both your distance and your pace. Add strides to your routine two to three times a week (ease into them!). You can also try finishing some runs at a faster pace.
Extras: Step up your core work to add weights or find a yoga or Pilates workout or class that you like. Consider subbing one easy run a week with the elliptical or other lower impact aerobic exercise. Consider incorporating running drills to begin working on agility.
Stay Flexible: While it’s fine to go ahead and plan to do a progression run or throw in some strides, it’s ok to skip it if not feeling up to the added intensity or to speed up on an easy day because you feel like it. Remember to make sure you give yourself at least a day or two break between harder efforts, no matter what you end up doing.
PHASE 3 – Think About Training
Weeks thirteen to eighteen of running after baby
Running: Head to the track for a mild track workout. I always like to start with a few 200s. It feels incredibly hard and exhilarating to sprint all out, but they’re short enough to be fun and not depress you about your lack of speed! Run your first post-baby race during this phase, but don’t worry so much about your time. Just go bust the rust and see where you are. Speed work and racing might feel like a shock to your system, but it will return quickly. Muscle memory goes a long way, and your body remembers.
Extras: Continue doing your core work, cross training, drills and keep up with any sore areas with the foam roller, stretching, etc.
Stay Flexible: As with the other phases continue to be patient and take the extra rest if you need it. You still might not be sleeping well or are otherwise able to take care of yourself like you used to. If you’re nursing, you likely still have relaxin in your body making things feel a little out of whack. This phase is about enjoying a little training and racing again. If it’s not fun, back off. It’ll come back eventually. It’s not worth pushing it.
As for me, now all I have to do is follow my own advice!
If you’ve had a baby how was your return to training?