Melissa Bishop is Canada’s top 800-metre runner. The 30 year-old from Eganville, Ont., just missed the podium at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, putting her at the forefront of female runners on the international stage.
Lately Bishop has been getting her workouts not just on the track, but at home looking after her seven-month- old daughter, Corinne, who arrived in July of 2018. Bishop is used to putting her body through its paces, but was unprepared for the physical toll of pregnancy.
“I naively thought I would be able to run through it,” said Bishop who gave up running at 20 weeks due to pain from varicose veins and replaced it with swimming, cycling and the elliptical trainer.
Even the most active moms-to-be naturally gravitate toward less intense, low impact workouts as their pregnancy progresses. And for those like Bishop who want to run for as long as possible during their pregnancy, there are exercise guidelines designed to keep an active mom and baby healthy.
But once the baby is a few weeks old and the body starts bouncing back, the guidelines for a progressive return to running aren’t as clear.
As tempting as it is to test the limits of a postpartum body, the physiological changes experienced during pregnancy take more than a few weeks to dissipate. Weight, posture, joint laxity, pelvic floor health and hormonal levels are still in flux for a year or more after giving birth. And lack of sleep and the struggle to establish a schedule can make those physical challenges even more difficult to manage.
Too much running too soon can cause setbacks not just on the return to training, but also on your responsibilities as a new mom.
So how do runners get back into running shape after having a baby?
Kate Mihevc Edwards, an orthopedic specialist from Atlanta, Ga., addressed the concerns for postpartum runners in a recent article published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. Acknowledging that exercise helps women recover quicker both physically and psychologically after giving birth, Edwards also advised runners to ease back into it.
“Many women return to running within the first four to eight weeks postpartum with minimal to no guidance from health-care or other professionals,” she said. “However lingering biomechanical and physiological changes that occur during pregnancy and remain postpartum may be a potential for injury risk.”
Indeed issues with exercise-related incontinence, changes in strength and posture that can affect stride and ongoing fatigue can make the return to running more challenging than just getting back into shape.
Edwards recommends runners talk to the their doctors before putting together a training schedule. She also advises consulting with a pelvic floor specialist, having gait and posture evaluated by a running coach and undertaking a strength training routine designed to build strength back up to pre-pregnancy levels.
Bishop knew she needed to take her time getting back in running shape. But she also wanted to be back on the starting line within a year of giving birth. She started taking brisk walks four to six weeks postpartum which gradually turned into run/walk intervals.
Yet, despite this slow introduction, it felt like her whole pelvic floor was “falling out” during those first few runs.
Bishop credits Mommy Berries, a website devoted to postpartum recovery for the pelvic floor, for assisting in a successful return. She also relies on Pilates to rebuild core and pelvic floor strength.
As for her training program, Bishop works closely with her coach, Trent Stellingwerff, who in addition to being an exercise physiologist with the Canadian Sport Institute, Pacific, is married to 1500 metre runner Hilary Stellingwerff, who returned to competitive running after giving birth to a son.
“They’ve lived it,” said Bishop of the postpartum challenges associated with getting back into competitive shape.
She admits to a few hiccups on the road back, mostly related to joint pain, which is why she’s committed to cross training. That includes spending time in the pool (running and swimming laps), elliptical training and cycling. She also has a treadmill in the garage, which allows her to get in mileage while the baby is sleeping.
Edwards says there’s no single recipe for managing the return to running after giving birth, a statement that Bishop echoes.
“There’s not a lot of research about what you can and can’t do,” she said.
Most women don’t have the support team that Bishop has to help get back into competitive form, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find your own network of professionals to guide your progress. Check in regularly with your favourite physiotherapist or any other manual therapist, find a professional to design a strength training program to improve posture and boost core strength, and consult with a pelvic floor specialist if you have any issues with incontinence while running.
And above all, listen to your body and take a step back if you experience any pain. Take a cue from Bishop and find other ways to kick your heart rate into high gear, be it in the pool or on a bike. Take heed that she’s giving herself a full year to let her body find its way back to her running form of old — something even recreational runners should allow themselves to do.