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Postpartum return to running: what it looked like for me

As I shared in an earlier post, I was fortunate to have a pretty smooth experience with running during pregnancy. I expected a fairly easy return postpartum as well, which did not exactly pan out…

Labor and delivery

I was almost at the 41 week mark when I went into labor, 24 hours before I was due to check in for an induction. Inducing had made me nervous, so I was relieved when I woke up at midnight to some ever increasing back cramps. The next morning my water broke, so my husband and I headed into the hospital. Once there, after getting some meds to stop my vomiting, my contractions seemed to ease up a bit. I eventually got an epidural and ended up delivering my daughter the following morning, on April 8, after roughly 32 hours of labor. Minimal tearing, some bleeding, a lot of pressure. Not terrible, I thought. While the whole experience felt very divorced from the real world, I felt fairly in control and confident throughout, as I had during pregnancy.

The first six weeks

Given my relatively smooth pregnancy and delivery, I expected recovery to be the same. I was a fit, healthy person. Aside from a wicked bout of food poisoning, I hadn’t spent a night in a hospital since my own birth. How could recovery be that hard? My first clue as to the extent of my fatigue came when I hobbled over for my first shower in the hospital. The nurse walked me there and put a towel on the seat in the shower so I could sit if I needed to. Why on Earth would I need to sit down during a shower? I thought as she left. Nothing had ever seemed so ridiculous. Approximately two minutes later, I sat. 

I left the hospital with a tiny baby in a massive car seat, some extra strength tylenol, and instructions not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk or drive for at least a week. I was not sure what the milk or driving thing was about, but didn’t want to stop for questions - I was sick of being trapped in the hospital and really wanted to go home. If it was so critical, surely my doctor would have talked to me about it at one of our many visits during pregnancy. Right?

I spent the next few days surrounded by loved ones, but feeling very far from my normal physical and emotional state. Once the first round of family had left and my husband went back to work, I took a solo outing with my daughter to a local botanical garden. When I got home, I felt tired and heavy in my pelvic floor. I took the next day really easy and felt a bit better. The following day I tried the garden again. Heaviness again. The day after that I went to the grocery store and when I came home, I knew with certainty that the outing had not been a good choice. I took a peek at how things were healing…and let’s just say that where things were once concave, they were now convex. Not. Good.

I got an appointment with my ob/gyn for a day or two later, where she told me I probably had stage 1 or 2 pelvic organ prolapse (my googling had already pointed me in that direction; this is also where the milk and driving instructions came in). As I cried, she made it seem like not that big of a deal (in direct opposition to what my huge emotions and the internet were telling me). I started to feel angry - at the lack of clear, preventative instructions from my doctor; at other moms for not telling me how hard recovery was; at my husband because it was me, the one who loved running, dealing with this instead of him (logic and reason were not huge parts of the thought process at this point). My doctor said, truthfully, that three weeks postpartum is very early in recovery and that physical therapy could do a lot to ameliorate prolapse. All I could feel was my future as an active and happy person being ripped away from me. 

I messaged the physical therapist I had seen during pregnancy, Rebecca Maidansky, and she got me in for an appointment really quickly. Because it was so early in my recovery, she focused on getting my core re-engaged and, honestly, providing me with some much needed pep talks. I have never cried so much or felt so seen and heard by a medical professional as I did during those visits. 

Once we hit the six week mark, near the end of May, we moved on to addressing my pelvic floor more directly. Strengthening is what it needed and I followed my exercises to a T. No one has ever completed their PT exercises as thoroughly as I did during those weeks! Throughout June and July, we continued to work on strengthening my pelvic floor and other supporting muscles. It was emotionally draining, but as I slowly had less and less heaviness in my pelvic floor, I could tell we were making progress. In July, we added something that scared me a lot - jumping. I was so hesitant and scared to undo our work or feel additional symptoms, but we made progress.

A woman walks and pushes a stroller on a trail along a lake
Introducing my kiddo to the Town Lake Trail was bittersweet when I wasn't yet able to run on it

 Throughout the summer, I was able to get back to no impact exercise. I rode my bike on a trainer and did a lot of aqua jogging with an injured running buddy (bless her heart). While it wasn’t running, these baby steps of activity helped me so much mentally. 

At one of our last sessions together, near the end of August, Becky came with me on my very first run postpartum. We went to a soft surface trail and did three by five minutes running, five minutes walking. The running sections were a good three-four minutes slower than my easy pace from the Before, but it was RUNNING. 

Return to Running: part one

A woman in running clothes and a hat jogs on a dirt path in a neighborhood park
A September run on the park trail

Becky told me to start on slow surfaces and slowly build up my run-walk endurance. I started going to a local park with a dirt walking trail twice a week and building up the number of minutes running. By the beginning of October, I could do 20 minutes continuously. By the beginning of November, I was up to five miles. I even got to go on some shorter runs with my friends again. I was making progress! It wasn’t perfectly linear - in particular, I noticed some symptoms when I ran with friends and the pace was a bit quicker than what I was doing on my own - but it felt like an upward trajectory.

Then, cold and flu season hit. Our daughter was now in daycare and she and I both spent most of November, December, and January sick. Disaster for the pelvic floor. Coughing and vomiting put a lot of pressure on it, and my progress seemed to go backwards. I wasn’t able to be consistent and there was so much stress on my pelvic floor. Finally, I decided that it was better to just take a break. It was too emotionally draining to try and fail, try and fail, to have a run without symptoms (for me, at that point, symptoms were heaviness in my pelvic floor and leaking urine). 

Return to Running: part two

For me, there were two components in turning things around and getting back to consistent, symptom-free running.

First, I went to the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, GA at the end of February. I had been looking forward to this trip with my girlfriends for over a year. All the months when I wasn’t running, or struggling to run, I looked forward to this trip, to feeling like I was part of the running community again. Watching the unprecedented number of women competing in the race, knowing that some of them were moms, made me feel like I would get there. I could do it, but maybe I just had to be more patient, to be better at listening to my body.

Second, the world as we all knew it stopped in mid-March 2020. COVID-19 shut down my in-person work and our daycare. Suddenly, we were physically healthy (no daycare) and I didn’t have to rush out the door in the morning (no office). I took this as my silver lining and started running again. I took the pace metric off the face of my running watch and turned off the beeps it makes each time you hit a mile. I needed to be listening only to my body, without external input. I traced out a loop around my neighborhood and slowly increased how much of it I ran, then how many times I ran it. I ran two, then three times a week throughout March and April. In May, I tried incorporating baby surges, for a touch of speed, into my runs for the first time. In June, I added a fourth run each week. I was BACK!

Now, it was not all rosy. I had some terrible runs during that build. On Mother’s Day, I went out for a long run, ran down a hill, and had some intense leakage. Honestly, I haven’t loved Mother’s Day since. I had to go back to PT at one point - a good reminder to keep up your strength work…for all your key muscles. But each small milestone of progress made me feel like I could get to the next one. As during pregnancy, my friends slowed down to run with me, even walked when I needed to walk. My husband encouraged me to get out the door and run when I wavered. And I will absolutely always be grateful to Becky for getting me back out there.

Running was such a large part of my identity before I had my kiddo that not being able to run for so long really did a number on me. I felt that I had lost something I’d never be able to get back, that there was a hole in my heart that would never be filled. It was a gray cloud over my experience of my daughter’s first year of life. The experience I had sucked, bottom line. But, with time, I could see that it had also taught me a lot. It reminded me that I was more than a runner and that working hard for something can deepen your appreciation for it. It showed me the supportive community I had around me and that I had so much resilience within me.

A woman in running clothes jobs next to a small child on a residential street
Running with my daughter in 2021


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