Returning to the Trails After Pregnancy

Jessica Green August 27th, 2014

Tips and strengthening exercises for new moms

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Photo by Meaghin Kennedy.

Are you eager to hit the trails after having your child? Before you re-enter running, take a deep breath and learn how to get ready. After carrying a child for over nine months, then going through labor, your body has changed.

Frances Darnell, founder of Dynamic Core Wellness and expert in postpartum rehabilitation, explains that over the term of your pregnancy, “The postural muscles of your body shift to support a new center of balance.” After your baby is born, “Postural muscles that were supporting you in a particular position are still tight in certain areas and won’t necessarily return to their original position on their own.”

“Women need to take time to recalibrate,” says Darnell. The following advice will help you safely get back out on the trails.

1 – Wait at least six weeks to start running again

Some doctors clear women for running as early as two weeks postpartum. But, says Darnell, “Running is one of the most dynamic and high-impact sports. There is no way that the pelvic floor muscles are ready to support that type of activity that soon.”

A good general rule is to wait at least six weeks. During that time, focus on fast-paced, hilly walks, and rebuilding leg and core strength (see sidebar).

2- Get a checkup

During their pregnancies, some women experience complications such as lower back or pelvic pain. For these women, Erica Meloe, a physical therapist and co-founder of Velocity Physio in New York City, recommends getting a postpartum checkup with an expert, such as a physical therapist specializing in post-natal rehab and pelvic-floor health, to make sure your body is ready to take on the impact of running again.

Additionally, have your doctor check you for diastasis rectus abdominis, which is the abnormal splitting of the left and right abdominal walls. If diagnosed with this, Meloe says, “See a specialist and avoid running altogether until you are able to control the condition.”

3 – Start with run/walk intervals

On your first run post-pregnancy, don’t try to run for 30 minutes continuously. Instead, incorporate walk intervals into your first few runs. How often? A good place to start is five minutes running, one minute walking the first week—then, if that felt good, 10 minutes running, one minute walking the second week. Or, try running the flats and walking up and down hills.

4 – Aim for three times a week

The term “sleeps like a baby” does not mean “sleeps through the night.” No matter how helpful a partner you may have, it’s often still you, Mom, who gets up in the middle of the night to feed and soothe your baby. Lack of quality sleep or enough total sleep is a huge barrier to returning to your regular running self.
Don’t get discouraged by lack of motivation due to exhaustion in the beginning months. Instead, commit to running three days a week. During this time it’s OK to turn your run into a walk or only go for 20 minutes.

5 – Strengthen with specificity

Runners need full support of their torso to negotiate the dynamic terrain of the trails. Postpartum core muscles are weak and sometimes misaligned.

“If you have weak internal core muscles, the larger, external muscles such as the gluteal muscles, hamstrings and quadriceps take over,” explains Darnell.

This can lead to pain in places like the feet, knees, lower back and hips. Darnell recommends a prescribed progression (see sidebar) to strengthen the trunk and pelvic-floor muscles, as well as reacquaint the body with the running motion. You can start doing this exercise set as soon as a doctor clears you.

6 – If you’re breastfeeding, hydrate well

Breast-feeding mothers need twice the hydration. Drink before and after your runs. Dehydration will cause muscle cramps, reduce milk production, increase fatigue and hinder recovery. Drink up, moms!
The good news is that, often, “Mothers find themselves stronger than they were pre-pregnancy after a year of focusing on themselves,” says Darnell.

Postpartum Exercises

1. Gentle Stretching

In the first few weeks, focus on the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

2. Pelvic-Floor Exercise

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Photo by Meaghin Kennedy.

Roll up a running sock and sit on top of it so the sock presses against your perineum. Sit so that your hip sockets are higher than your knees. First, relax and let go of any tension. Next, engage your pelvic floor muscles to try to lift up the sock within you. Hold the contraction for 10 seconds and then slowly release.

3. Knee Folds

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Maintain a neutral pelvis (no tipping side to side or tilting forward/back) as you raise one knee up above your hip toward your chest and lower it back down. Repeat 10 times on each side.

4. Bridges

Lie on your back, bend your knees and bring your feet up toward your butt, hips-width apart. Slowly raise and lower your pelvis, keeping your abdominals active. To activate your quadriceps, place a pillow between your knees.

5. Bridges with Knee Folds

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Photo by Meaghin Kennedy.

While raised in bridge, alternate knee folds lifting one knee up and down similar to a running motion.

6. Squats

With feet slightly wider than hips width apart, hinge at the hips and lower down as if you are sitting back in a chair. Keep all of your weight in your heels and keep your knees aligned with your ankles.

7.  Single-Leg Squats

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Photo by Meaghin Kennedy.

Do the same as above, just one leg at a time. Hold onto a chair for support.

8.  Around-the-Clock Lunges

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Photo by Meaghin Kennedy.

To lunge, take a large step with one leg, bend that knee and lower to the ground, keeping your front shin perpendicular to the floor. Pretend that you are standing in the center of a clock and lunge with your right leg to 12, 3, 6—then reach behind across to 7 o’clock on one side. Do the reverse sequence on the left side.

* Avoid crunches and full prone planks for the first few months, especially if you experience abdominal-wall separation.

Jessica Green jessica@hotbirdrunning.com is a certified running coach, personal trainer and co-founder of Hot Bird Running, a fitness-focused running company. She recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in Portland, Oregon.

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

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