Women's Fitness: Running Post-Partum, How Soon Is Too Soon?

Contributed by Michele Gonzalez, Author of NYC Running Mama
I ran 5 days after the birth of my first son – an easy 1 mile run on the treadmill and then slowly increased the mileage over the next few weeks.  By the time he was 5-6 weeks old, I was comfortably running 30-40 miles/week which included long runs of ~10 miles and some speed workouts.
I have roughly the same plan this time around.  I ran 2 miles last Tuesday (6 days postpartum) and 4 miles on Saturday (10 days postpartum).

Post 4-mile run
While most of the feedback I have gotten has been extremely positive, I have received some pushback and questions from friends / family / readers about my quick return to running.
But how soon is too soon?  
From my research, discussions with other females, doctor’s guidance, and previous experience, I can tell you that there is certainly not a black and white answer for this question.

Source: Mayo Clinic
I ran until the end of this pregnancy, had an uncomplicated natural delivery, and didn’t need any stitches post L&D – and I’ve been given the green light by my health care provider to begin physical activity.
But as I’ve already said – there are no set guidelines for all women to follow. There are a LOT of factors that go in to how soon each woman returns to running.  These are just a few that I have learned play a part in how soon you can consider returning to running:
  • Doctor’s Guidance – I would argue that this is the most important factor.  Each health care professional will give specific guidance to his/her patient after L&D. My first doctor didn’t give me a hard timeline – he told me to start walking when I felt up to it and then try to run when I felt up to it (basically to listen to my body).  However, I have heard of doctor’s restricting physical activity for 4-6 weeks postpartum.  One of my girlfriend’s emailed me over the weekend to find out how I was running already – her doula wants her to stay off her feet for the first two weeks after she delivers the baby to allow her uterus to return to its normal size.  At the end of the day, you should listen to  your doctor’s orders as they are taking into account your pregnancy, labor, delivery, etc.
  • Labor and Delivery – Did you have a C-section or natural birth?  Did you need stitches?  Did you have any complications?  These all play a factor in how soon you will likely be able to return to running.  Some require substantially longer recovery times.
  • Activity Level During Pregnancy – I ran until the very end of both pregnancies (day before my first son was born and two days before my second) so returning after a week off was not a huge change for me or my body.  There is so much going on with your body postpartum that you likely do not want to start a running regimen if it hadn’t already recently been part of your daily routine.
  • Cortisol Levels – “When you exercise, your adrenal glands pump out cortisol to increase your heart rate and breathing rate, and to increase blood flow to your muscles. Going out for a run two weeks after giving birth will draw on the tapped resources of your adrenals before they are ready, and this will knock your recovering body out of balance. If laboratory tests show that your cortisol levels are low, you should postpone all but the most mild exercise until those levels return to normal.” 
  • Listening to your body – As a runner, I feel that I am pretty in tune with my body.  In the 10 years I have been running, I have never had a running-related injury.  I know when something is too much for my body.  I ran 2 miles on Tuesday and despite feeling great during the run, wasn’t thrilled with how I woke up the next morning.  I felt a little sore in my hip flexors and generally achy in my hips/thighs so decided to give my body another few days of rest.   I went for an easy run on Saturday and woke up the next morning feeling 100% okay.  Just because you entered the window to begin exercising that your health care professional may have given you, you should still take the cues from your body.
At the end of the day, each woman has a different pregnancy, labor, delivery and recovery.  What works for me may or may not work for you…My advice would be to talk to your doctor for his/her guidance and take it one day at a time.  I have no training plan that I’m following – I base my run (or lack thereof) on how I feel each morning and have no intention of pushing myself in duration or intensity for at least another few weeks.  

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