When Isaac was born, I totally bought into the stories I heard about women getting back to running shortly after they gave birth. One co-worker claimed his mom was back running the next day. I thought I should be able to get out there and run as soon as I could, especially since I had run throughout my pregnancy, up until I started having contractions. Partly, I admit, in an effort to get back to my pre-baby shape, and partly because it made me feel like “me” again. Of course the fresh air, endorphins and fitness were all important drivers too. There may have even been a competitive “badge of honor” aspect; I wanted to prove that I was tough and strong and committed to running. I was crushed when I tried to jog a week after giving birth, only to discover my groin was weak, my legs felt heavy, my middle was floppy, and my body didn’t respond the way I thought it should. I took what I thought was a slow rehab-style path to ease back into running, walking and gradually increasing my mileage over the following weeks.
Over the past four years I have kept running. I have run because I love it, not to race or PR or go after any particular distance or milestone. I know my abdominal muscles are much weaker than they were pre-baby, which affects my speed and my stamina over long distances. I also have the urge to pee more often when I run, which got much worse when I got pregnant the second time and found that I either had to stop every mile or two, and/or struggled with leaking, especially when I ran downhill. I realized that I love running enough that I would keep running even if I had to wear pads for every hard workout, but I also took it as a sign to get some help in strengthening my pelvic floor so I didn’t have to make that choice.
Fortunately, I found an excellent physical therapist who specializes in the pelvic floor, and approached treatment holistically. I also met her with a willingness to honestly answer questions about my bodily functions and sensations, and openness to go through the assessment process. Within about six weeks of starting the therapy work, I could run 3-4 miles immediately after emptying my bladder without issue. But I was also advised to take it easy and not put added strain on my pelvic floor, which was already stretching and trying to hold up 20 lbs of baby and accoutrements in my abdomen, by doing a lot of bouncing. I listened, and opted to run every other day or even just a couple times a week on flat soft surfaces. The PT also advised that I come back a month after birth, and not run during those four weeks. That seemed like a pretty long time to wait… and I admit I did go out for a few miles a couple times… but again I listened and didn’t start any major mileage or training between Ezra’s birth and my appointment.
At the postpartum PT visit, it was clear that my pelvic floor was weak and needed toning to return to its normal functioning. I was still surprised that my brain was sending the “contract” message but my muscles didn’t seem to be responding, although the PT said I was in excellent shape for being only 4 weeks postpartum. She gave me a “prescription” for three key exercises to do multiple times a day. I also happily agreed to do a few postpartum yoga sessions with one of the women who did pre-natal sessions with me, eager to get moving and also to enjoy some “me” time to relax. I discovered in resuming familiar postures and movements that some basic inner core exercises were quite challenging. I now have about 30 min of exercises to do each day; none of it involves my running shoes or hitting the trails. In fact, most of it is done laying down, or just standing – I even did one set holding Ezra. (For added challenge, gently bounce the baby to calm him while standing on one leg and lifting your other heel only an inch off the floor to engage your inner abdominal muscles. I can do this one at 3am after a feeding!)
Maybe it’s because I’ve read and learned more about physiological changes that happen before and after pregnancy and birth, and I now recognize that it takes months for even a healthy body to recover. Willing the process to go faster does not change the fact that a body has a certain elasticity, and that pregnancy and breastfeeding come with hormonal changes that exercise doesn’t alter. I still want to be able to fit into my “normal” clothes but I no longer believe there’s something wrong with me if I am five (or, I’ll be honest, 10) pounds heavier than my pre-baby weight by the time I go back to work. Maybe I’m more thoughtful and in tune with my body, so I know when I’m pushing it, even if it doesn’t seem like what I’m doing should be that tiring. I’m certainly inspired by an incredibly talented and dedicated friend who is running PRs in her mid-40s, so I believe that my best running could still be ahead of me, as well. All this leads to my decision not to be running right now. There’s no reason to rush back before my body is ready. As our amazing dentist (she’s done 12 Ironman triathlons and has logged well over 1800 racing miles!) reminds me, running will always be there. Instead I want to take this time to build a solid foundation of strength from my inner core and also work on my discipline – yes it actually takes discipline to focus on these subtle exercises, much harder than to crank out crunches or reps of bicep curls or go run 3 miles.
I hope that this decision and process will lead to better overall health, more enjoyment of the present, and ultimately better running through this decade and those to come. I still want to run the Indiana Trail 100, and I know I have a sub-3:30 marathon in me. I might even find myself doing a triathlon in the future. I’m in it for that dream of renting an RV to travel and do races around the country with Brian after retirement. These goals require a long view of health and fitness. So, because I love running and want to keep doing it for a very long time, I’ll walk out the door wearing a baby to take my son for a hike or bike ride. The running shoes can rest… for now.