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Postpartum Endurance Training

Rebuilding Your Endurance
-- By Sara Hambidge, Physical Therapist and Nicole Nichols, Certified Postpartum Fitness Instructor

Congratulations on making it through the most challenging marathon of your life-childbirth! After that feat of strength and endurance-one that many women describe as more grueling than any athletic pursuit -- the 26.2 mile race or cycling event you've always wanted to complete might seem like a piece of cake!

Most women who trained for competitive or recreational endurance events before pregnancy have a strong desire to return to their sports as soon as they're given the green light. They want the euphoria of reaching a challenging goal and the high that competitive exercise brings. But now you have that beautiful bundle of joy, you might wonder if you'll be able to train the way you did before baby. How will you know when your body is ready and what can you expect?

First and foremost, the return to your pre-pregnancy level of fitness can take time. If you continued to exercise at a moderate level throughout your pregnancy, your endurance will return much faster than if you didn't exercise or were on bed rest, for example. Some postpartum fitness research even shows that women who exercise up to delivery can become more efficient athletes and see a lot of improvement. Take Sonia O'Sullivan for example, one of Ireland's best runners. She ran throughout both her pregnancies and returned only three months after the birth of her daughter to help win the bronze metal in the 2002 World Cross Country Championships. Ingrid Kristiansen, a former world record holder, returned a year after the birth of her first child to set a marathon course record. Now it is not proven that you will return after a baby and set records wherever you go, but these stories are inspiring to all women who want to return to an endurance sport.

Your return to training will be limited by your delivery type and its possible complications. If you had an episiotomy, for example, then returning to cycling would be out of the question early on. However, if your delivery was uncomplicated and you maintained a moderate level of exercise through pregnancy (and trained for endurance events prior to pregnancy), then your health care provider will likely find no reason that you cannot resume a gradual return to training postpartum.

Typically, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) and most health care providers will advise you to wait six weeks (after a vaginal delivery) to eight weeks (after a Cesarean or complicated delivery) before returning to a moderate level of exercise. However, this does not mean you cannot begin low level exercise before those weeks are up. In fact, gentle exercise is usually encouraged! As long as your doctor allows, it's important for you to start exercises like Kegels and pelvic tilts right away, and light activity like walking as soon as you feel ready. Light lower body and upper body exercises can be started soon after delivery too. Dr. James Clapp, one of the foremost experts on pregnancy and postpartum exercise and author of "Exercising Through Your Pregnancy," suggests these fitness tips for the first six weeks after delivery:
  • Exercise three or more times per week
  • Exercising should feel good and enhance feelings of well-being
  • There should be no exercise-associated pain or heavy bleeding
  • Personal well-being should be self-assessed every two or three days
  • Fluid intake should be high
  • Adequate rest is a MUST
  • Infant weight gain should be normal
Only after your health care provider has given you permission to begin a higher level of exercise should you think about resuming training for sports and endurance events. After clearance, a lack of time and energy will be huge barriers to your ability to train, and your performance will initially reflect this early on. But qualities like motivation, desire, and patience will help you regain fitness and see results in the long run. Use the following tips to improve your postpartum endurance training:
  • Never sacrifice sleep for exercise. Adequate rest will result in better performance and overall mood.
  • If you are breastfeeding, expect surges of sleepiness with every milk letdown in the first few weeks. Nursing moms usually benefit from feeding their babies before exercising to avoid engorgement and discomfort.
  • Wear a high-quality sports bra-or two. This helps decrease discomfort and leakage.
  • Stay hydrated, especially if you're breastfeeding. Bring water with you at all times. Drink plenty before, during and after each workout.
  • Find a friend to train with you for extra motivation.
  • Keep a positive attitude. Remember that it will get easier.
  • Allow for adequate recovery. You won't be able to resume your pre-pregnancy mileage right away -- gradually work up to it.
  • Properly warm up and cool down.
  • Eat plenty of quality calories and nutrients. Strict dieting will not give you the fuel you need to train -- especially when breastfeeding. Your body needs protein, carbs and healthy fats in the right amounts to fuel your training and your muscle recovery.
  • Do not resume running if you experience urinary incontinence problems, for they will most likely only get worse. This is why it's important to resume Kegels so soon after delivery.
  • Exercise should be stress-relieving, not stress-provoking. A proper balance of training and adequate rest can reduce your risk of problems like postpartum depression.
  • Follow a familiar training program. Use one that you've been successful with in the past for best results.
  • Set realistic expectations and goals.
According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the amount of physical activity that one can handle postpartum varies considerably from woman to woman. But there are no published studies to indicate that (in the absence of medical complications) rapid resumption of training will result in adverse effects. This is good news for all new moms who have the desire to return to competitive racing or endurance training. Above all, baby and family should come first after delivery. But with time and patience, you can be competition-ready again in less time than it took to carry your beautiful baby!

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Member Comments About this Article
"I am 36 weeks today and just released from bed rest. I'm motivated to start retraining for a triathlon as I found out after doing my first sprint tri last summer that I was one month pregnant while doing it! This encourages me that I can get back on track but need to also be safe about it in the process. If I can't compete this fall, then I'll really be ready for the 2012 triathlon year & maybe even do an Olympic one." -- TRIADRENALINE
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About The Author
Sara Hambidge
Sara, a graduate of Saint Louis University's Physical Therapy Program, practices at a sports medicine clinic in Cincinnati. A certified prenatal and postpartum exercise instructor, Sara is also a proud mother of one.
Sara Hambidge

 


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