People tell you that having a baby changes everything, but you can’t fully comprehend those sentiments until that sweet bundle makes his or her entrance into the world. As a longtime runner, when I was pregnant with our first baby I thought a lot about how being a mom might affect my running life.
While I was fortunate to start some easy running a month after having our daughter (now 18 months) and have since gotten back into a more regular routine, I’ve discovered both unexpected and welcome changes to my long-held running regimen.
In the early months, things like sleep deprivation and the feeding schedule affected my ability to maintain any regular mileage, but more recently, my approach to running has changed in other more satisfying ways. I now look at my daily run as not just something I do to reach an arbitrary goal, but rather, to help me remain of sound body and mind so I can be the best mom possible. This has aided me in rediscovering what I love most about running—the simple act of movement and immersion in the outdoors. Best of all, whether my daughter joins me in the stroller or is waiting for me when I get home, running allows me the opportunity to model a healthy lifestyle for her.
READ MORE: What It Means to be a Female Runner Today
Since I am still early in my mom journey, I reached out to other running moms, in all stages of motherhood, to get their advice on what they’ve learned over the months and years. Some offered more logistical tips, like how to run with a jogging stroller or fit in a workout when your teenagers are involved in countless extracurriculars. Others provided a more philosophical take on life balance and the importance of self-care for moms. Hopefully you will find their advice as useful as I have.
1. Approach your running comeback with patience
It’s hard to know where you’ll be physically and emotionally during the postpartum period. That’s why patience during this time is so vital. Professional runner Sarah Brown, who has a 2-year-old daughter, shared with me that she thought that after running through pregnancy, she’d feel light and bouncy as soon as she hit the road after giving birth. “It was the total opposite,” she says. “My form was off and I basically still ran like a pregnant woman, just without a belly.”
She emphasized the importance of baby steps. “Take it one day at a time, and be happy with what you can accomplish,” she says. “If something isn’t going right, readjust. Consider every day progress—no matter how big or small.”
Erin Taylor, mother of a 2-year-old and founder of Jasyoga, as well as author of the new book Work In: The Athlete’s Plan for Real Recovery and Winning Results, urges new moms to remember one very important fact, “You just made a human being and so it will take time to get back into the running shape and rhythm you’re used to. It takes a minimum of 18-months for your body—specifically your internal organs—to return to pre-pregnancy state. Plus the early days of motherhood well into the toddler years and beyond are full of new demands, so be fluid in your approach to postpartum running and fitness.”
Jennifer Faraone, a coach, author of The Athletic Mom To-Be, and mother of kids ages 8 and 11, offers similar advice, saying that having compassion for yourself at this time is key. “It’s so easy to judge and compare ourselves to what we were doing in the past and how many hours a week we were training compared to now—this only de-motivates and discourages us,” she says. “What if we were to start congratulating ourselves for what we are doing? The actual amount of exercise is not what’s important right now, what’s important is that you’re doing something. It’s a great start and will only get better as time moves forward.”
2. Set reasonable expectations
Whether your kids are in the infant, toddler, tween or teen years, be sure to look at the larger landscape of your life when setting running goals. “It’s important to take the long view and realize that life has many stages,” advises Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion, who has two kids, ages 16 and 20. “If you’re a new parent or adjusting to going back to work while juggling parenting, then it’s probably not the best time to train for a PR at a goal race.”
When her kids were 2 and 5 and she went back to work, she deferred her running goals for six months and began to look at running as a stress reliever, rather than let training adding to her stress load. “That way I didn’t feel badly about reducing my training volume; instead, I savored each run even though it was shorter than I’d like, and I kept the faith that I’d return to higher-intensity training the following year after adjusting to the new job,” she says.
So how can you determine what goals might be reasonable? That can be challenging particularly in the postpartum period. “Women often assume they will return to a certain pace or endurance before their bodies, and their new lifestyle, are truly ready,” Rachel McHale, program manager for FIT4MOM Run Club and mother of a 16-, 13- and 5-year-old told me. “We suggest setting short term goals that allow mom to acknowledge this amazing stage of life she and her baby are in, while also encouraging progress. And allow space in goal setting her baby’s growth spurts or other unplanned events that may impact a mom’s routine.”
3. Sleep when you can
This piece of advice has been echoed in the pages of every parenting book ever written: sleep when the baby sleeps. But seriously, what about all the other things you need to get done? Especially in the early days with a baby, professional ultrarunner Liza Howard, mother of a 4-year-old and a 10-year-old, says to just forget about that stuff. “Being sleep deprived is so hard to avoid as a mom, in part because it’s impossible to accomplish the things you need to do when your kids are awake, so you end up filling the hours when they’re asleep with ‘to dos’ instead of going to bed yourself,” she says.
While your kitchen may be clean and the laundry folded, sleep deprivation is a sure way to derail training goals. “When you consistently get eight hours of sleep you’ll have the motivation to get out for runs and you’ll be able to run harder when you’re out there,” Howard says. “You’re also less likely to get injured and more likely to lose any postpartum weight that you don’t want.”
4. Ease into stroller running
Many new moms who are runners have ambitions to run with their baby in the stroller. While this can be a great bonding activity and make running more likely to happen, it’s no walk in the park. “As if running without a stroller weren’t already hard enough, pushing 15, 30, 50 or more pounds makes maintaining solid form super challenging,” Taylor says. “It’s kind of like running with a full shopping cart.”
She advises warming up the core, glutes, and upper back prior to a run. Check out her awesome stroller running warm up here and be sure to ease into doing any significant mileage with your little one in tow.
READ MORE: Running While Pregnant
5. Get into a routine with breastfeeding
Many moms find exercise challenging and uncomfortable when they are in the thick of breastfeeding. Even still, Faraone says, “There’s no reason why you can’t train and breastfeed at the same time.”
Here are her tips to make it easier:
-Breastfeed before exercising. This will make your breasts feel considerably less heavy and more comfortable while exercising.
-Try pumping. If you are concerned about missing a feeding while exercising for a long period of time, try expressing your milk with a pump and storing it in the fridge before heading out the door.
-Relax. If your child seems to fuss while breastfeeding immediately after your workout, wait a few minutes then try again.
-Invest in a supportive sports bra. This is key to being comfortable. Ensure that the bra is not too tight, as this could lead to blocked ducts and mastitis.
-Remove your wet, sweaty bra right away. Hanging out in your sweaty clothes, where bacteria likes to grow, can also lead to mastitis. If you can’t remove your bra right away, wipe your breasts with a washcloth or wipe.
6. Strike a balance in your fitness routine
As Taylor says, “Momming is the ultimate endurance event.” That includes not only giving birth, but also everything that comes along with parenting. As a result, it’s important not to neglect some of the supplemental work that will keep you up and running long term.
“Really focus on the small things,” says Brown. “Do core strengthening exercises specifically geared toward postpartum rebuilding. You can start these exercises even before you hit the roads again.”
Taylor also recommends balancing your running routine with a yoga practice. “Yoga is a great way to optimize your performance and wellbeing if you approach it as a tool to maintain balance amid the physical, mental and emotional challenges of motherhood, rather than just another way to push your body,” she said. “Embrace doing what you can, when you can, even if that means meditating while your baby sleeps on you or stretching your hips while your toddler plays with Legos next to you.”
7. Get creative with getting in workouts
Fitting in training can be quite a balancing act for moms. It’s all about getting organized and adjusting when necessary. “Your new training regime may look completely different than it did prior to having kids, and that’s okay,” said Faraone. “For some couples, it involves sitting down with their partner every week and planning workouts around your child’s activities and your respective work schedules and for others, it’s about focusing on the things that matter most and letting go of some of the more mundane activities.”
As kids get older, many moms told me that sports games and practices provide the perfect opportunity to move. “Because I do so much more driving now, being able to get out of the car helps me physically and mentally—I am much less resentful about being the hired driver if I can get my workout in,” says Kara Thom, author of Hot Sweaty Mamas and mother to two kids, ages 9 and 14. “Usually I have an hour or hour-and-a-half slot during a softball practice, diving lesson or basketball camp to do my own thing, so I become familiar with the nearby trails every place my kids go.”
READ MORE: Are You Tough Enough to Race Like a Mom
“When my son was heavily involved with baseball in middle school, I often arranged for him to get a ride with another family so that I could run to and from his games,” adds Lavender Smith. “Or, if I was the carpool driver, then I’d spend the first half of the game running around nearby and only watch the second half of the game.”
8. Reframe guilt
Getting motivated to get out the door for a run is often hard enough; add to that the feelings of guilt many moms experience for taking time away from their kids to train. “It took me a few conversations with my own mother about this, as I was thinking that I was being selfish by doing something for myself when I should be with my children,” says Andrea Duke a 2:41 marathoner and mother to a 9- and 6- year old. “What she told me stuck: To be a good mom, I need to be happy. And if working out makes me happy, then I should do it. And what better way to show your kids how to work for a goal, push yourself, take chances and never give up?”
Meredith Atwood, mother of a 9- and 10-year-old, as well as an Ironman triathlete, the brains behind Swim Bike Mom blog, and author of Triathlon for Every Woman, shares similar sentiments saying, “I learned early on in my triathlon journey to take time for myself, recognizing that if my children didn’t have a happy mom, I would not be a good mom to them. As they’ve gotten older, however, setting a healthy example for my kids is what continues to get me out of bed in the morning to run.”
Sara Hall, a professional runner and mother of four girls ages 17, 14, 10, and 7 years old, says that for her, the key to pushing back on the guilt factor is to emphasize quality over quantity when it comes to connecting with her children. “I try to make sure that every day each child gets at least 15 minutes of my undivided attention alone, away from other family members,” she explained. “Of course I am with them a lot more than that each day, but I make sure there is a period where I am loving them in their ‘love language,’ whether that is having fun playing a game just the two of us, cuddling on the couch, or listening to them process their day.”
9. Recruit kids to join
There are countless ways to involve children of all ages in the sport that you love. “We encourage moms to check out local events to participate in, many places host family run events,” says McHale. “Or ditch the car and run, skate or ride to the neighborhood playground.”
With that said, Lavender Smith emphasizes that kids shouldn’t be pressured to participate. “It’s fine to invite them to run a 5K with you, just be prepared for them to say ‘no,’ and act totally OK with their decision, even if inwardly you feel disappointed,” she advises. “Encourage your kids to be healthy and outdoorsy by the example you set, but let them explore and discover sports according to their own interests.”
READ MORE: How to Get (and Keep) Your Family Fit
Simply role modeling the running life for your kids—even if they don’t run themselves—can pay off in big ways. “Running has been a great way for me to teach my kids life skills,” Hall says. “They have had to see me persevere through some big disappointments, and I’ve invited them into the process to see what it looks like to go after something hard and how to not fear failure. I also show them how to pick yourself back up after defeat and hope and believe again, and how your victories that follow are that much more meaningful.”