Which is harder: going through labor or racing a marathon? Why is this an age-old question? Maybe people compare them because they seem like similar events. Both require dedication, as well as physical and mental stamina. They take months of preparation and are an accomplishment to finish. Now that I have run over a dozen marathons and given birth to three kids, I realize there’s no comparison!
Birth is a pretty common occurrence and apparently, we humans were born to run. Billions of women around the world have delivered throughout time, it can’t be that hard, can it? My sister, who is not an athlete, delivered three large babies without pain medication. My dad, who has obviously never had a baby, is running ultras in his 70s. Both advised me labor wouldn’t be an issue compared to my running experiences.
Not everyone can run a marathon, and certainly not everyone can run a fast marathon. So that must be the harder physical event, right? Oh, I was so wrong!
Before my first child, I thought I knew the answer to whether labor or running a marathon was more difficult: the marathon all the way. I ran marathons well, so why would I need a birth plan? Why would I need an epidural? I’m tough! I’m a distance runner! I’ve trained 100 miles per week! I’ve run ultras with no training! Boy, was I up for a rude awakening.
Performance enhancing drugs?
As soon as the first contraction hit, I woke up my husband shouting, “Get me to the hospital, I need drugs!” Although it was a long 13 hours before I actually received an epidural, I never wavered on this decision. Getting an epidural definitely takes the edge off, but by no means makes labor easy. This might equate to popping ibuprofen and racing with a sore calf. It doesn’t cure your injury, but makes it tolerable and easier to get through.
Distance and intensity?
Length of the training, as well as the length of the event itself, don’t compare. Pregnancy is about 40 weeks. Most marathon training plans are somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks long. And there is a finite end point of a marathon training cycle; you know you are running 26.2 miles, no matter how long that takes. You can count off 26 mile markers. You know where the water stops are. You can prepare time and distance hacks to break it up.
With labor, the end point is a baby, but you have no idea how long or how many contractions it will take to get there. Labor times vary, but my first two were 20 and 15 hours. My slowest marathon is slightly over three hours. My last labor was faster than I will ever run a marathon, but more intense than anything I could imagine. Long and drawn out, or fast and furious, either route was harder than any race I’ve ever done.
Recovery itself also can’t compare. Rule of thumb is one day of recovery for every mile you race. So almost a month to fully recover from a marathon. It takes your body over nine months to build a baby, so you can expect it might take that long for your body to fully recover. For many women though, it never does go back to their pre-baby body.
Post-marathon might be a good time to go on a vacation, splurge on a few weeks of junk food eating, or catch up on sleep because you’re not getting up at dawn for long runs anymore. Post-baby, welcome to no sleep, constant hunger from feeding a human being with little time to feed yourself, and a never-ending cycle of diapers and laundry!
Another misconception: you can manage labor the same as you would manage a hard workout. I had one serious runner tell me to imagine running 400m intervals. Contractions last roughly the same time as running a 400m repeat, so try to envision going for a lap on the track, she suggested.
That didn’t work for me at all, mainly because I like to know what my workout is ahead of time. Am I running 12 x 400m with 60 second recovery? Or am I doing 20 x 400m with a 400m jog in between? The unevenly spaced, seemingly never-ending bouts of contractions made it difficult, if not impossible, for me to use this strategy.
I think that comparing labor and the marathon comes down to this: you have control over running, but once you go into labor, things are largely out of your hands. Yes, of course there are mental and even physical strategies to deal with labor. You can use visualization, change positions, have a support crew, use various breathing techniques, among others.
Ultimately, in running, if your pace is too much for you, you can slow down. Most of us, unless we have run ourselves completely into exhaustion and collapse at the finish line, do this to some degree unknowingly every time we run. You can’t stop labor. Once it starts, you can’t do anything about the frequency, duration, or intensity of your contractions. All you can do is bite your lip and get through them.
Of course, the trophy at the end doesn’t compare. While the process of running a marathon might be easier than going through labor, the pain of labor is completely worth it when you cross that finish line!
When comparing the difficulty of labor or running a marathon, where do you stand?