Boobs. It’s one of our favorite topics around here and, surprisingly, one of the top Google searches that leads readers to our site. Well, not readers like you; rather, dudes looking for women runners with bouncing boobs (true story!). Here’s the post they get. Anyway, this isn’t that kind of boob post. Today we’re talking about boobs doing their job. You know, breastfeeding.
Most research on breastfeeding and exercise focuses on the effect of exercise on the quality and quantity of milk. It’s really nice to know that moms who exercise generally produce the same quantity and quality of milk than our non-exercising counterparts – Hooray! However, little research has been done on breastfeeding’s effect on athletic performance and a woman’s ability to train at a high-level while nursing. As a result there are not a whole lot of useful running and breastfeeding resources for serious runners.
That is, until now!
First, let me tell you I am not a doctor, lactation consultant, healthcare professional of any kind or any kind of expert. This post is a combination of my personal experiences and information from my health care providers as interpreted by me. If you have any doubts about the impact of running on your own health or that of your child consult your doctor or lactation consultant! Also, if you think I’ve made a mistake, missed something or just want to share your own experience, the comment section is for you!
Anyway, as of this writing I have been pregnant and/or nursing continuously since March of 2008. Yes. That’s 5.5 years of nourishing the sweetest little parasites on earth. I love my kids and breastfeeding them is important to me. Even though in my experience it has impacted my ability to train and race, and even though my running is way important to me, running will never dictate how I feed my children. I breastfed my kids for two years to the extent I could and so far I have been able to continue even while pregnant with the subsequent kid, so I expect I’ll be able to do it this third time (because I am not ever going to be pregnant again! WOO!) Even so, this doesn’t make me an expert (see previous paragraph) but I do have quite a bit of experience training or attempting to train while being a nursing mom.
At first, nursing boobs are big and ouchy, but this gets better. Trust me!
First let’s discuss the stages of breastfeeding. Things are way different during month 1 than month 6, 7, 8 or 18. During that first month of breastfeeding, your boobs will be at their hugest, but luckily this corresponds with the weeks you’ll be recovering from birth anyway. Your milk will come in sometime between 24 and 72 hours after delivery and this is the absolute worst you will feel. Your boobs will be gigantic, full of milk and probably painful. I am not a big fan of this moment! But it doesn’t last long and your boobs will adjust to the demands of your baby quickly. Even so, they will still likely be a lot bigger than usual for a while and when you start back running you might consider “double-bagging,” or wearing 2 sports bras at the same time, for extra support.
Most breastfeeding moms these days feed their babies only breast milk for the first 6 months. Over this time, breastfeeding takes a lot out of you. As the baby gets bigger she eats more, which means your body needs to make more milk. The more milk you make, the more energy your body diverts from other things (like running) to making milk. After you start incorporating solid foods into baby’s diet, her demand for milk will slowly decrease as will milk production’s demands on your body. Your boobs will start shrinking back to normal size and still do a mighty good job of feeding her. It often shocks me what my little boobs can do!
Once my kids got to 12 months they started on cow’s milk and over this next year, I slowly cut back on nursing to where I only nursed before naps and bedtime by the last few months. I’ve never nursed the last few months without also being pregnant though, so I’m not sure how only nursing a couple of times a day impacts training. If anyone has that experience, please share!
You can train for a marathon while breastfeeding, but have reasonable expectations.
Especially when exclusively nursing for those first 6 months, your body knows its first job is to sustain your baby and second job is to sustain you. Running is extra. This is not the time to expect to train for and race big PRs. That’s not to say it’s not possible, because it certainly is! Several of my PRs were run while nursing my second child, but it’s not something any breastfeeding mom should expect to do. Be open-minded about breastfeeding’s demand on your body. You might feel ok, but hard training may impact your milk supply if you’re losing weight too quickly or become too lean. More often than not, if you are training too hard for your breastfeeding body, you will break down before your milk supply is affected as your body has a system to deal with your shenanigans to protect your milk supply.
Just in case though, there are red flag warning signs that hard training may be affecting your milk supply. If baby doesn’t seem like he’s satisfied after nursing or his wet diapers become less frequent it’s time consult your doctor, lactation consultant or pediatrician, and you may need to take the training down a notch. It’s important to keep an eye out for those warnings.
Personally, I found running about 80% of my normal training volume and no really hard workouts for the first few months worked fine and helped get me back into shape fairly quickly. By 6-9 months, after the introduction of solid foods, I have usually been good to go with training. However, this last time has not been so easy, which is likely more a cumulative effect from three pregnancies and nursing babies in a relatively short period of time. I’m almost 11 months postpartum, still nursing 6-7 times a day and still not ready to hit it hard yet. Soon though, we’ll be starting whole cow’s milk, so I suspect as I cut back on nursing sessions I’ll start feeling stronger.
Hydration: you don’t need to go nuts, but be sure to drink to thirst.
Breastmilk is made up mostly of water, so you need enough water in your body to make enough for baby. When we run, we sweat and lose water, so it’s extra important that we runners hydrate. But you don’t have to go crazy. Drink to thirst. This might mean you have to drink a little more than normal (on average nursing moms drink about a liter more than non-nursing women per day), but your body will give you cues for what you need. If you experience constipation or have dark urine, you’re definitely not drinking enough, whether nursing or not. I know I need to drink more when the tips of my fingers and palms feel dry. I try to drink a glass of water after nursing and two after running. This works well for me.
Even after super hard runs, that milk is delicious!
Not that I know. After all this breastfeeding, I’ve never actually tasted it. Actually, never in my life since I was born in the formula-heavy mid-70’s. However, my kids slurp that stuff right up no matter what. I’ve jumped off the treadmill drenched in sweat to the point that I’ve soaked them and they haven’t blinked. I have one friend who said one of her kids refused to nurse unless she wiped the sweat of her boobs with a wash cloth after running, but even the scientific studies show there is no effect on the taste of your milk caused by exercise.
Recovery takes a back seat to churning out the milk.
Remember, when you’re nursing your body’s number one priority is not to turn itself into a world-class athlete, but to maintain its milk supply. This might mean that you do not recover from hard workouts and high mileage as fast as you would if you aren’t nursing. As for you, the demands of breastfeeding may mean it takes longer for your body to recover from hard workouts. With energy diverted to churning out the liquid gold, there’s less to go around for “extras” like fixing that tweaked hammie posthaste. I’ve definitely noticed a diminished capacity to recover this time around.
Relaxin turns you into injury-prone Elastigirl.
When you were pregnant, a hormone called relaxin loosened your ligaments so that the baby could pass through your pelvis. If you nurse, this hormone remains in your body after birth until you stop nursing, which means you might be more susceptible to injury. This might also impede your body’s ability to heal those little niggles we all get from hard training. Grrrreat.
You will never ever sleep again. (At least it will seem that way for a while.)
Breastfed babies tend to wake-up more during the night in their infancy, than non-breastfed babies. (The dark circles under my eyes can attest to that!) That means as a breastfeeding mom you are going to be tired from both lack of sleep and from the energy your body uses to keep up the milk supply. It’s definitely not an insurmountable problem and you will adjust to the broken sleep and the shorter spans of REM, but you still need to factor in the lower quality Zs when determining how hard to push your training. Not getting adequate sleep further inhibits recovery, so be sure to factor that in when determining how many hard workouts you want to squeeze in your training weeks.
The Booby Bonk.
I admittedly don’t have a ton of marathoning experience. I ran three before having babies and two since. I never ever had problems with bonking (running out of glycogen to burn) either in training or racing before I became a nursing mom, but I have many times since. I couldn’t find a study on this, but I can’t help but wonder if a nursing mom’s body is not real keen on burning fat for fuel to the extent necessary to train for and especially to race a marathon. This is pure speculation, but something to consider if you plan to race marathons while nursing.
Once again, I’m not a doctor, not a midwife, and not an expert on lactation, just a woman who’s breastfed three kids and kept running nearly the whole time. All this is my conjectures based on my experiences. But as someone who’s often wished there was more information out there, I’m excited to share my experiences with you and I’d love to hear about yours!
Got questions? Got advice for other breastfeeding running moms? Please share!