Jo Wilkinson is an England & GB international and finished 6th in the Commonwealth Games 10000m in 2002. Now a coach and still training and competing regularly Jo talks about getting back into running after having a baby.
Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce celebrating her gold medal with her two-year-old son in her arms is inspiring proof that you can successfully return to running, even top-level elite athletics, after having a baby.
I achieved my Great Britain debut 18 months after giving birth, so I know first-hand some of the physiological, emotional and practical challenges of getting back to running. Here, from a very personal perspective, are my top three things it’s useful to know.
Manage your expectations
This is the first piece of advice I give any runner who asks about training during and after pregnancy. We all think we’ll be running again within a week or two. So it’s important to manage your expectations from the start.
The harsh reality is it mostly depends on your birth experience. Being fit and healthy significantly reduces the risks of complications in birth but there are no guarantees.
Like Fraser-Pryce I had an emergency caesarean section. As an athlete I was used to making huge physical demands of my body which it usually met, with the few minor exceptions of a hamstring strain or similar. The experience was an emotional and physical shock. Literally overnight I went from someone who six days beforehand (albeit heavily pregnant) could run/walk three miles to someone who could only painfully shuffle three metres.
So manage your expectations until after you’ve had the baby. But also be reassured even if it all goes horribly wrong you can still get back to running – it might just take longer than you expected.
Nine months there and nine months back
Nine months there and nine months back sums up nicely how long it can take for your body to fully return to its pre-pregnancy state – sometimes longer. Some changes are well-known such as the continued effects of the relaxin hormone (which can last up to 5 months).
However, there are some physiological and practical changes, particularly in the short term, you might not have considered. This is where it gets a bit yucky, messy and embarrassing so if you are of a sensitive nature then look away now but knowing what to expect can help you prepare.
Firstly, your body is not the same shape it was pre-pregnancy. Your stomach doesn’t magically disappear, your centre of gravity will have changed again, your core control will be non-existent and running often feels strange.
Then there’s the really yucky stuff – post-birth you bleed for up to six weeks and it can be heavy and prolonged at first. You need to be aware that exercise can make bleeding heavier and be mindful of the risk of anaemia.
On a practical note – due to the nature of pregnancy and birth you cannot use internal sanitary products upon which you might have previously relied whilst running during menstruation. Then there’s the potential issue of bladder control whilst running. Pelvic floor exercises are essential from the start. Say no more.
Focus on nutrition
And finally breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is a personal choice but don’t be put off either running or feeding by people telling you that you cannot do both because it affects milk production. Ultra-runner Jasmin Paris demonstrated its more than possible to successfully do both and I breastfed for 12 months whilst getting back to serious training.
However, you must manage your nutrition and calorie intake to ensure you have sufficient energy and nutrients to stay healthy. Be warned there’s some potentially embarrassing practical considerations too. For the first few months your breasts are going to be bigger and possibly swollen and painful.
You probably need to invest in some significantly larger and more supportive sports bras. And the feel-good hormones from running can have an unwanted effect on milk production whilst you are running. Let’s just say breast pads are essential.
These aren’t reasons to stop running but they are key to help you understand that your body has changed. It’s all part of managing your expectations and being realistic about when and how much running you can do in the first few months.
A support team
This sounds so blindingly obvious but it’s the one has the biggest day-to-day practical implications and takes the biggest change of mindset. Suddenly your training timetable is totally reliant on the availability of childcare. Whether it’s your partner, family, friends – coach even! – or paid-for childcare, sort out a range of options to make sure you can go running. And make the most of every opportunity to run.
My track sessions were planned to the minute to fit in with my son’s nursery sessions. Drop child at nursery, run to track (saves precious time instead of driving and gets warm up done) do session, run back to nursery to cool down, pick up child. You have to be flexible, creative and prepared to compromise. You also need to accept that your training plans won’t always work out as you hoped.
Managing the fatigue
Training is only half the story. You also need to find time for rest and recovery. You might be prepared for lack of sleep but your waking hours are also filled with endless, tiring childcare activities. Whilst training for the London Marathon in 2010 I devised a cunning solution to ensure I got the much-needed rest after long runs.
Every Sunday afternoon I took my young son to the cinema. He thought this was a great treat (especially with sweets and popcorn). I got two uninterrupted hours to sit down and usually even managed to get a quick nap in the dark too. Whilst I had to watch a lot of dreadful, mind-numbing children’s films, it was worth it to be able to recover properly.
The first few months as a new parent will be the most daunting, exhausting and rewarding time in your life. It takes time to adjust. When it comes to getting back to running don’t be afraid to take your time or ask for help. Most of all remember the smiling picture of Fraser-Pryce with her gold medal doesn’t tell the whole story.
There are no medals for how soon you get back to running and everyone’s experience is different. Whoever you are, it takes hard work and determination. So be patient, be realistic, be positive and be flexible and you can get back to running and potentially even running stronger and faster than you did before.
Jo is a former GB marathon runner and now fully qualified British Athletics coach. To find out more about her coaching or see what running she’s still doing you can visit her website here or follow her on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.