I don’t think there’s a single topic that I’ve gotten as many questions about as I have about the pregnancy journey and postpartum recovery related to running and the return to it. Therefore, I’ve had it brewing in the back of my head for months that I’d like to put together a proper blog post dedicated to it – and finally, it’s here! I’m now almost 19 months post partum and consider myself well out on the other side, even though I’m still breastfeeding. There are some physical changes and differences from the time before pregnancy, naturally (and I’ll get into those), but overall, I feel back to my “old” self in a very positive way.
I won’t be delivering all the answers – if any, even – but will focus on sharing my personal experience and what I felt worked and didn’t work for me along the way. Whether you’re expecting, already a mother or wants children in the future, I hope you’ll find some inspiration and guidance in here while making sure you listen to your gut and tune in with your own body. It may feel easier said than done at times, but will be the wisest call of all in the long run (hehe).
Mike and I ran Ultravasan 90 (90k trail race) on August 17, 2019, and had a fantastic day out there. We’d had a great summer of both training and racing and it all culminated that very day, as it was our A race that season and we felt like we lived up to our expectations. We knew we wanted to start trying for a baby right after, but neither one of us had expected things to move so quickly – I took a test only 5 weeks later and was pregnant! At that point, we had raced another quite challenging race (Höga Kusten Trail 42k) but without knowing I was pregnant, and we were going up north to participate in Åre Trail Tour only a few days after I’d taken the test. At this point, I couldn’t tell anything was different in any way – I felt in really good form, had a great weekend of racing (three races altogether) and just couldn’t quite grasp we were going to BECOME PARENTS. Then we woke up the day we were leaving Åre and I was like WHAT IS WRONG I AM SO NAUSEOUS. That was around 6 weeks, and I remained very nauseous until week 15. It was challenging but doable, I’d say.
About 10 days after Åre, something very unexpected happened that came to define more than half of my pregnancy: I sustained a stress fracture in my left foot. I couldn’t believe it – refused to believe it, even – and admittedly spent quite some weeks feeling disproportionately angry and bitter. You’re more than welcome to read my stress fracture story in full, but for the sake of this post, I’ll leave all but a few details out.
My stress fracture resulted in an orthotic boot and crutches for about 12 weeks – well past my first trimester and almost halfway into the second – and it took a whopping 17 weeks between my last run before the injury until I tried a gentle jog again. And a post fracture foot wasn’t all that was new to me on that run – I was also 23 weeks pregnant. Woah.
In short, my first trimester went something like this: unaware of pregnancy for the first few weeks followed by a week or two of no discomforts at all. Then, I dove headfirst into the nausea from hell one day and broke my foot a week later. Add to that a generous helping of hormonal havoc and you can understand I wasn’t always the cheeriest of people to be around.
With my foot in an orthotic boot, I got my “training” in by going for rather brisk, sweat-inducing, upper body-strengthening daily crutch walks. They weren’t great, I’ll admit that, but they were something. I also did some strength training at home, and repeated to myself every day that a few weeks (turned months) away from running wouldn’t erase all the work I’d put in – and that actually proved to be true, eventually.
The beginning of my second trimester saw a few big shifts for the positive – my nausea subsided, we bought a stationary spin bike for me to rehab/cross train on and I could start taking off the boot when just carefully walking around in the house. Things were now finally improving foot wise, and I’ll never forget the first real session I did on the bike – it was the most amazing thing EVER to sweat and breathe hard again! I also started biking outside, and ended up pairing longer rides outside (30-60k) with a bunch of shorter more intense workouts indoors for a decent period of training from weeks 20-30. I was a little careful with lactic acid buildup as some science recommends that, but definitely allowed my heart rate to go up a bit and for my breathing to get really heavy at times.
“I’ll never forget the first real session I did on the bike – it was the most amazing thing EVER to sweat and breathe hard again!”
I generally felt very good here – I didn’t experience any pregnancy related aches, pains or discomforts besides nausea throughout the 9 months and very much felt like I could go about most business as usual. As previously mentioned, I did my first jog post-fracture at 23 weeks, and even though I had a relatively small belly and experienced very minor weight gain, it felt so different! There hadn’t been the gradual transition into it that I had counted on (due to the foot) and I remember arriving home feeling a little down. Not that I thought running at 23 weeks pregnant would feel like running non-pregnant, but I still had a “crap I felt heavy and slow”-feeling. Looking back, it seems totally ridiculous – yet at the time, it felt valid.
I then continued jogging a few times a week, slowly and carefully adding on kilometers so as to be gentle with the foot, until week 30. Then I didn’t at all enjoy it any longer. I didn’t like the way my belly bounced and tugged at the ligaments and it just felt kind of awkward. We also went up north to go cross country skiing for a week when I hit 30 weeks, so I ended up sticking with both jogging and rather intense spin bike sessions until then – and when we came home, I just didn’t feel like doing either anymore.
If I could point to one trimester and say it was my favorite, it would be the third. When we came home from the mountains (that week was completely amazing and it felt so wonderful to ski, belly and all!), I had finally reached the point of feeling okey about cutting myself some slack. Yes, it took me about 30 weeks to get there! I did some gentle yoga every so often, went for nice, long walks every day and overall just felt really good. My belly stayed very small until the end – so small I had to have a few extra ultrasounds but it was all good in there – so I felt very mobile and able to do whatever I wanted. I never entered the phase (some say exist) where you feel so beautiful though – I was in love with my child but felt a little uncomfortable with my belly from a more superficial perspective.
My water very promptly broke on my due date, and I had felt so good for the last few months that I never entered the restless, get-this-baby-out countdown feeling. I had had a feeling T would arrive early and was surprised when we reached May 18th, but I wasn’t one bit stressed.
Labor to 8 Weeks Post Partum
T arrived on a warm, sunny day in May 2020 after a 38 hr long labor. It was pretty intense to say the least, but I was completely amazed by the transition from most painful state I’ve ever experienced to not really painful at all once he was out. The female body is indeed remarkable! I got a second degree tear and had to be stitched up a bit afterwards, and those stitches were what hurt for the next 5-6 days or so. Other than that, I wasn’t really in any pain at all, besides some vaginal soreness/swelling for a couple of days. T got the full hang of nursing about 24 hrs after labor, and, well, he still breastfeeds 19 months later.
“How quickly you get back to running says very little about your fitness level and talent for it.”
I’d told myself I wouldn’t worry one bit about exercising, training or running for the first 6 weeks, and that I would then check in with myself to see how things felt. I’d picked up such different stories from experienced runners around me – some that ran up until labor and were back to it a few days after giving birth and some that didn’t run at all during pregnancy and allowed for months and months to go by before they tried out jogging again. In other words, how quickly you get back to running says very little about your fitness level and talent for it. It’s much more a reflection of the unique set of circumstances each and everyone of us ends up with – some beyond our control and some within.
The first week post partum, we mostly hung out at home and on our property. T wasn’t too crazy about slings, carriers or strollers and instead just wanted to be held in our arms. When he started enjoying the sling/carrier after a week or two, I started taking long daily walks with him in there. It was magical. I loved moving my body, loved having him sleep away so close to me, loved being able to spend so much time outside with him right from the start. I had felt a bit antsy, not being able to really move or leave the property, so that was a game changer for me and allowed for a whole new state of harmony to settle in me.
And even though I wasn’t running or doing anything you could consider “real” training, I could tell that I was feeling relatively strong muscle and endurance wise – I felt pretty confident from the start that I wouldn’t be light years and more away from my “normal” fitness level when I got back into the swing of things. Where I could tell I was weak was my core. With T out and the baby belly (almost) gone, I felt as if someone had ripped open and removed the shield that normally would encapsulate and protect my entire middle body. The thought of running fast in technical terrain felt totally wild – I remember thinking “but how do maintain your balance?!” and to this day, I think that thought in itself is so fascinating. It gives me a sense of joy, as it indicates how I was rather in tune with my body and its (then) limitations, and it shows what a massive physiological change it means to undergo pregnancy and labor. But fear not: your core strength can be regained!
“But fear not: your core strength can be regained!”
The first few weeks post partum, I will admit to not being super diligent about daily core and pelvic floor exercises. I was just so absorbed by our new roles as parents and our precious little boy that days just went by. But after two or so weeks, we kicked off a morning routine of Mike hanging out with T on the coach while drinking his coffee (don’t worry, he used a to go-mug with a cap) and me taking 20-30 minutes to do pelvic floor exercises, gentle core work, soft stretching and some balance board stuff. (I LOVE our balance board and think every runner – mother or not – should use one at least a couple of times a week.)
Around 6 weeks post partum, I tried out running for the first time. I did some gentle uphill-only jogging, but experienced minor bleeding afterwards. I repeated the same easy uphill jogging a few more times with the same minor bleeding happening after each, which was enough evidence for me to back off and conclude I wasn’t healed up enough just yet. I didn’t think that was disappointing or hard at all, to be honest – in fact, I almost thought it was nice. This way, I could continue with my walks and continue to feel no pressure at all to do anything else without a sense of guilt. So that’s what I did.
2 to 6 Months Post Partum
At about 8 weeks post partum, I got back on the (spin bike) horse again. We moved it outside so I could enjoy the summer weather while sweating away and it felt SO GOOD to work out again. I felt confident I was ready to get going for real, so I quickly got into 3-4 workouts a week, albeit only 30-60 min long.
I then did a second attempt at running again at around 10 weeks, and this time around, I didn’t experience any issues at all! I had promised myself beforehand – definitely spurred on by the stress fracture and not wanting to go through something like that ever again – to take things slowly and not rush at all, and if there’s one thing I actually feel like I’ve stayed true to all the way until now, it’s that. I stuck with my uphill jogging bouts for a good while, relentlessly worked through the pelvic floor and core exercises, sweated on the spin bike for months and balanced on the balance board to really try to set myself up for success, and so when I started going for “real” runs, I felt ready. I’m actually very proud I let it take time, as that’s something quite non-me to do, and ascribe the absence of setbacks and steady return back to it to that slow and steady approach.
When T was about 4 months old, I was running 3 times a week, somewhere between 8 and 10 kilometers per run. Two months later, that was more like 5 runs a week, 10-15k per run, and I had started to incorporate speed work again.
Besides the very specific training aspect of things, I’d like to mention two other things here: I found – and still find – it very valuable to consider my sleep situation when I set out on a run or plan my training. Shooting for a tough workout after a night of very little sleep isn’t a wise idea (especially not if done repeatedly) and I’ve tried to be flexible and really remember the golden rule of golden rules: body knows overall stress, not miles.
“I’ve overcome my fear of saying “I’m hungry” and I’ve found myself stronger in every aspect of life.”
The other thing I think some of you might be curious about is the breastfeeding part of everything. T loves breastfeeding and has his entire life. I have nursed more or less entirely based on when he’s wanted to (and that’s still the case), but it has also worked out well to go for shorter runs from around 4 months (as previously explained) and longer (up to 3 hrs) from around 8 months. We have not bottle fed him. My milk supply has overall been unaffected by training as long as I’ve made sure to eat enough, and the only times I’ve noticed less milk have been right after longer efforts (3 hrs or more), before I’ve had a chance to refuel. An incredible valuable learning for me overall has been the importance of eating enough – not that I didn’t know that was important before, but my hunger has been so intense the past 19 months that I’ve had no choice but to “give in” and listen to my body (something that hasn’t exactly been my forte previously). I’ve eaten more since T was born than I ever have, I’ve overcome my fear of saying “I’m hungry” and I’ve found myself stronger in every aspect of life – in my role as a runner, mother, wife etc. Food, you guys. And enough of it. It freakin’ matters.
6 to 12 Months Post Partum
From about 6 months, I felt more or less back to my normal self with one exception – I wasn’t yet doing any longer runs simply because I couldn’t stand being away from T and we weren’t using the running stroller yet, so I had to assume my long run endurance wasn’t quite there. I did feel really quite strong though, especially given the very moderate volume and intensity I was doing, and felt so very happy to be back to running and not struggling with anything in particular.
At about 8 months, a big shift happened as this is when we felt comfortable starting to bring T in the running stroller. From doing separate runs every morning to being able to go together for one of T’s (then) two naps was a total game changer! We had forgotten how amazing we think it is to run together and all the awesome talking opportunities that come as part of the package and all in all felt ecstatic about reclaiming such a big part of our lives. We made it our new habit to run for T’s morning nap, and ended up doing about 12-15k per run. This is also when I started doing long runs again, which we’ve done in many different ways – for example that one of us does 15k on their own first and then comes back to do 15k stroller running together, and the person who didn’t go first will go their own 15k after. My volume saw a jump here, going from 60k per week to about 80k.
“As I was approaching 12 months post partum, I felt stronger and faster than ever before.”
As I was approaching 12 months post partum, I felt stronger and faster than ever before. Now, I haven’t been racing or done any formal time trials so of course I could be totally off, but based on my feeling and my effort in relation to times and paces, I’d never felt this fast before. And the best part might have been this: I’d only had some minor aches and pains in my calf in the early spring (T turned one in May) that cued me to take a few days off just to be safe, but other than that, it’d been such smooth sailing. We’d been staying true to our golden rule of incorporating a recovery week into each and every training block and I wasn’t the only one feeling strong and very injury free – Mike did too.
12 to 18 Months Post Partum
The past 6 months have felt very much like before pregnancy and labor. There are no real differences that I notice, besides the very welcome progression that I’m surprised and of course very happy about. Given our current volume of 80-100k per week – which is a sweet spot for us, as we’re not training for anything in particular right now, want to have lots of family time and have a bunch of exciting work projects going on – I feel as though a stellar performance over a longer race distance (let’s say 60-100k) would need some higher volume blocks and some specific tune ups, but my base feels very solid and I’ve gained strength in two areas particularly: speed over the 10-30k distances and speed in technical terrain.
I try to do core work and some exercises for my lower back, neck and hips (that all take a toll from carrying T a lot and breastfeeding often, including in bed at night) but I’m the first to admit it’s not a daily priority any longer – I wish it was though! I’m happy if I can carve out time for it about 3 times a week, and my best time to get it done is early mornings when Mike and T are still asleep.
A Few Words to Wrap Up
Wow. That’s my story, and I’m happy you hung in there all the way down to here! I hope you found some helpful perspectives and a pinch of guidance in there, and above all, I hope you feel anchored in that you know yourself best. When it comes to pregnancy and postpartum recovery, the best advice is to not listen to any – a worn out phrase perhaps, but nonetheless true.
Why did I feel the urge to write this then? Because I think many women look for, need and benefit from a hand to hold. Not a stack of books saying so and so, not a set of rules dictating this or that, but a hand to hold. And while this might not be the ideal hand to hold for everyone, I think I know our readers well enough to say I think it’ll be good for many. Whoever you are and whatever your situation, I wish you all the best – and know that I’m always happy to answer questions and come with input, should it be wanted. Take care!