Key things I learnt when returning to running after having a baby
Updated: Jan 11
This time last year, I was five months postpartum and had just run the 20km Bare Creek Trail run and was starting to build up for Six Foot Track.
As we all know, things didn’t pan out how I thought they would. It’s been an interesting year to say the least. But I still managed to do quite a bit of running.
I got almost all of my Six Foot training in before it was cancelled two weeks out. Then I spent a lot of the middle part of the year training for and racing 10km time trials. And two weeks ago, I finally got a marathon in. Now I’m sort of back where I started, thinking about entering Six Foot.
There have been times I found it really hard, and other times more recently I got a lot of quality running in. The when and where of my sessions has changed multiple times as I moved through different stages of being mum. And there have been a lot of things I learned along the way.
I wrote a post about this time last year about some of my thoughts on the first few months of running after having a baby. The things I talk about in that post definitely helped me work out how to include running in my life after the big shift of becoming a mum.
I also wrote a post with some of the things that stood out to me when I reached the one year mark of running after having a baby.
There are definitely some common themes in these. With a few more months to reflect on it (and finally having got a marathon in), there are a few things I haven't mentioned yet that have been a key part of returning to running after giving birth.
Focus on fitness not losing weight
I put on quite a bit of weight when I was pregnant. I wasn’t too concerned about it because I knew it was part of the process. But I also knew it would have to come back off if I was going to run fast times again.
To avoid dwelling on it, I decided to focus on improving my fitness instead of watching the scales. I knew that if my fitness improved, the weight would come off sooner or later.
It worked well, because I don’t specifically remember when I ended up back at my pre-baby weight. I was up about 10kg when I started running again after giving birth. But somewhere between then and now I realised I was back down the where I was when I fell pregnant.
I still have weight that I haven't lost on my hips and stomach, so I’ve obviously lost it from other parts of my body. It's not a surprise that my body has changed after carrying a baby! I'm still a bit self conscious about my mum tum, but I'm happy with my weight. I'm also quite fit at the moment, which is really the most important thing!
It's okay to want things to move quickly
One thing I heard a lot when I started back running after I gave birth was to take it slowly, let myself heal and be kind to myself. After all, I had just grown a human! And giving birth can be hard on the body.
It's definitely valid that you need to take care of yourself after having a baby, and there doesn't have to be a rush to return to exercise. The people who gave me that advice weren't trying to be negative.
But if you do want to get back into it quickly, you aren't alone! For a lot of women, participation in sport and trying to start or grow a family happen at the same time. For me personally, I was the fittest I had ever been and ran the fastest I ever have in the year before I fell pregnant. I knew I wanted to have a baby and it would mean a break from running, but I also knew there were still things I wanted to achieve.
It was hard to take a step back when I still had goals to tick off. I wouldn't change it because without it I wouldn't have my daughter. But I couldn't help feeling impatient at times when I was coming back and was so far off the times I did previously.
Anyone who has had time off for an injury would know the feeling. A break can often increase your motivation and desire to get back out there. But it can also be a slow process to build back up, which can be frustrating.
My fitness did improve, not quite to the level of my pre-pregnancy year, but enough that I'm happy with how I'm running. It feels good to be back into it and feel like I can still get faster. It is important to make sure you pay attention to your wellbeing when exercising after pregnancy. But if you have seen your doctor or physio, are getting some decent sleep and want to do it, then I say go for it. I'm glad that I did.
Set realistic expectations
While you might be ready to get back into it, one big thing I learnt is that it's best to be realistic with what you expect from yourself.
It will take time to rebuild your fitness, and it will happen at a different rate for everyone.
I wanted to run a marathon in the first year after my daughter was born because my last one was in 2017 (Amsterdam). Improving my marathon time is my biggest remaining running goal. I knew that I was planning to take a break after Amsterdam. When I finished that race feeling like it hadn't been a perfect day, there was the nagging thought in the back of my mind of unfinished business. I wanted to do one this year to keep my progress ticking along before I attempted to run a faster one in the future.
I didn’t know how much running I’d be able to do, how I would adjust to being a mum or if I’d want to try to have a second baby. So I knew it was unlikely that I’d be in a position to chase a PB for the marathon straight away. I tried to mix it up by doing a trail event first to get some fitness back without the pressure of previous times to compare to.
I thought I might have a shot at a 10km PB, which isn’t as strong as my other distances. But that was a side goal and my focus was the marathon.
Even though I had no idea how hard I would find things, I had the right idea on not shooting for a PB. I was really up and down at the end of last year and start of this year, with some periods where I found things really tough. I did wonder if it would have been better if I had stuck to the shorter distances to begin with and waited a bit longer to attempt the marathon.
Ultimately that was sort of how it worked out anyway. I did do a marathon distance time trial in April when everything was cancelled. But it was well off the time I was aiming for. After that, I shifted my focus to a series of 10km time trials, and ran two small (unofficial) PBs. Then last month, I finally got to race a marathon and came in under 3 hours on the back of some better training. Looking back, I doubt I would have run that fast in April.
There is one main lesson I’ve taken from all this, which is to think carefully about if what you are trying to achieve is realistic in that moment. And if it's not, there is nothing wrong with changing your goals.
As much as I wanted to be out there and as glad as I was to be racing again, if I’m in the position again, I'll probably start smaller until I have a better idea how I'm responding to disrupted sleep, feeding patterns and hormones being all over the place. Because It's much easier to stay motivated in any situation when things are feeling good.
Do what feels right for you
This should be the case for running in general, but is even more important when returning after having a baby. When you decide to start rebuilding your fitness, it's important to focus on what will work for you.
In the last point, I mentioned why I wanted to run a marathon after my daughter was born. At least part of the reason I thought it was possible was because I’d seen other women do similar things.
One of the great things about an increase in discussion around exercise and pregnancy, is that there are more examples out there of what women can achieve. There are some inspiring stories out there.
But everyone will still have their own experience. Everyone is at their own place in their running life, and no two situations will be the same.
I’m in two minds about if I tried to do too much initially after I gave birth. It probably doesn’t help that I’ll never know for sure how it would have played out if Six Foot Track had gone ahead. I’m sure I would have got through it, given that it I managed to do a marathon distance time trial a few weeks after it was supposed to be on. But I’m also sure that whatever time I ran would have been slower than if I do it next year.
So does that make it worth it? Was it worth sacrificing sleep during a time of massive life change to get through it in a good time but not a great one? Or is something like that better to do when I can run it to my full potential?
I don't think there is a right answer for everyone. Some people will be in a position to target PBs earlier than I did. Some will take longer. Some will run more volume and longer distances than I ever have. Some will wait until they are completely finished having kids until they start running again.
I was still breastfeeding and getting up overnight when I switched my focus to 10km in the middle of this year. It was a lot easier to manage the lack of sleep without 3 hour training runs. But those long runs probably helped my overall endurance when I finally did do a marathon this month. So ultimately it probably did pay off, even if I might take a different approach next time.
One thing I am sure about though, is that whatever approach you take should be based on what feels right for you. Not what anyone else has done.