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 a World Cross Country Championship bronze medal. 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
- 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.