Which is Harder: Labor or a Marathon?

imageWhich 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.

What recovery? 

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!

imageMental strategies?

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.

Bottom line.  

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?

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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23 comments

  1. This is amazing! I can totally relate. I thought I’d be this amazing birthing machine with no drugs. But after 2.5 days of labor, that went out the window. I had a “natural” birth with my second, but that was because it all went so fast and I didn’t have a choice. Marathons/running pain is something so completely different from birth, it’s hard to even compare!

    1. I completely agree. I wish someone would do a study on the pain tolerance of labor compared to pain tolerance in running. I think labor may actually be physically harder for runners, since your hip/glute/ab/etc. muscles are tighter and therefore make it harder for the baby to come out (completely my own assumption here not based on any science, probably trying to make myself feel less wimpy for how difficult I thought labor was!)

      1. That’s really interesting! I felt like a wimp for getting the drugs, but both of my long labors stalled out from my exhaustion. I kept wondering how the F non-athletes do it!

        1. Oh, I loved the drugs. I always ask people who question my choice to have an epidural if they get cavities filled without novocaine? Why not use modern medicine? Trust me… with the 3rd, my biggest concern was getting to the hospital too late to get an epidural, not the fact that we barely even made it for me to deliver there!

  2. Oh man, I’ve thought about this question a lot after having run 4 marathons and having birthed two kids. I might be prouder of my marathon PR (hangs head in shame, lol). Similar post-run/post-delivery endorphins for me! And, actually, my second birth took about the same time as running a marathon for me. I will say this: I only pooped during one of these events 🙂

    1. HAHA! I know some women experience much easier labors than others. Even my three were all very different. It’s one of those questions that has a different answer for everyone and I agree the post race/birth high is pretty darn close to being the same 🙂

      1. In a way, I feel like the post race high is better. I feel more of an accomplishment. As excited as I am to meet my babies, I don’t feel like giving birth to is as much of an accomplishment, since I had no choice in the matter. After my last one (which was out of control pain wise), when the nurse/my husband told me “good job, you did great!”, I completely didn’t feel that way. I was screaming so loud they could hear me all the way down the hall and begging for drugs/a c-section/anything they would give me to stop it at that point. I got through it, but only because there wasn’t another option! If I could have picked, I would have continued being pregnant instead of going through that!

        1. I had a nurse look me in the eye and tell me to shut up and stop wriggling or the doc would come down and not give me an epidural! It felt like a coach yelling at me–totally what I needed, lol.

          1. Man, that is a serious threat!! With my last one, the nurse said afterwards “great job team.” I about lost it. While in some way it was a team effort, I didn’t see anyone else doing anywhere close to the amount of work I was!

  3. I would rather run 100 marathons in 100 consecutive days then be pregnant and deliver my twins again! There is ZERO comparison!!! Love that you wrote this because women need to know the truth 🙂

    1. Men need to know the truth too, haha! There’s nothing they can ever go through physically that is as difficult as growing/delivering a baby!

  4. 25 hour labor, 5 hours of pushing, C-section, post C-section infection with emergency surgery 10 days later, went home with an open wound attached to a vacuum? I’d take running a marathon any day… if it meant I’d get a child instead of a medal at the finish line 😉 Marathon training & racing is easier but not nearly as rewarding for me!

  5. I asked a marathoner/mom this before my first marathon in 2014! Kids are not in the foreseeable future for me, but you may have convinced me to adopt. 😉 Childbirth is one of my worst fears.

    1. Trust me, there are multiple reasons why I waited until 33 to have my first kid. Being terrified of childbirth was one of them! But don’t worry- same with a marathon, you quickly forget how bad it is! Otherwise we wouldn’t keep signing up for more races or kids!

  6. Marathon? Ultra is more like it… contractions/ early labor for 3 days, 3 hours of pushing, did not eat nearly enough before they gave me the darn epidural, ran out of energy, finally pushed kid out after midwife made noises about calling dr for emergency C-section…

    I will say though – labor has better prizes. Although sometimes it feels like the end of labor is the start line of a brand new race. >.<