(As a breastfeeding runner this post may seem a little biased, but I promise I have done my research and these are my conclusions. I am, however, not a nutritionist, doctor, lactation consultant or health care professional, and this post is purely based on my own experience and what I found on websites I trust.)
After running successfully through pregnancy and a smooth delivery, I was determined to go back to running while also exclusively breastfeeding my baby. True, while many people commended my running regime when I was pregnant, I was somewhat anxious about the postpartum exercise challenges I would face and made a plan to overcome them even before my little girl arrived.
I decided to wait at least six weeks before going back to running, as I had heard about some problems women faced when trying to run too soon – especially pelvic floor issues and back and hip injuries. And when I told my midwife about my plan to wait six weeks, her reply was, “At least six weeks. Some women do not go back to running as long as they are breastfeeding.” Her concern: the relaxin hormone your body produces during pregnancy and for as long as you are nursing, which increases your chances of getting injured.
Although it was tempting to start running earlier than planned – as said, I had a smooth delivery and recovered quickly – I went on my first run nearly seven weeks postpartum and have continued running without major problems. Here is what I learned about running while breastfeeding and my tips to combine the two successfully.
When to start?
Every birth is different, and there is not really a consensus among healthcare professionals about when to resume strenuous exercise, including running, although it is recommended to wait at least until all bleeding has stopped. Generally, most women have a medical checkup at six weeks postpartum and wait for their doctor’s OK to start running again. Personally, I felt ready slightly earlier but decided to wait until my family left. I would also certainly advise breastfeeding moms to get comfortable breastfeeding before thinking again of running, which may take several weeks. I remember it took me four long weeks until I could finally feed my baby without pain and cracked nipples.
There is this myth that milk supply decreases if you start exercising. Fortunately for us exercising moms, this is not just a myth; some studies actually found the opposite – an increased milk supply! In my case, it is difficult to assess whether running boosts or diminishes my supply, as I have nothing to benchmark it to, but my observation is that running does not affect the amount of milk I have. As long as Maria is having enough I keep running the mileage I am doing now, which is about 50 to 60 km per week.
Taste of milk
Does running (or strenuous exercise in general) affect the taste of breastmilk? Some studies say it does. The lactic acid your body produces when you are exercising ends up in your milk and could change its taste, is the explanation. I have never tried my own milk, but I know that Maria doesn’t mind nursing right after I come back from a run, so I guess even if the taste is different it does not matter as long as your baby is feeding well. She doesn’t even seem to be bothered by my sweaty smell and salty boobs. According to the BabyCenter website, the findings of a 1992 study which concluded that exercise affected the taste of milk are now considered questionable, and they see no problem in (vigorous) exercise while breastfeeding.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
If there is one thing that does harm milk supply it is dehydration, so make sure you drink plenty of water. Breastfeeding moms already require some more hydration than other people, and if you exercise on top of that (especially if you sweat a lot) you will need to make an effort to stay hydrated. Carry a bottle of water with you wherever you go, and make sure you drink a large glass of water with every feed. As always, listening to your body is key.
My appetite has never been bigger than it is now that I am running regularly and nursing. Bad nutrition may not affect the quantity and quality of your breastmilk as much as dehydration – nature takes from your body’s reserves the nutrients your diet lacks to make sure baby gets enough – but if you don’t want to end up exhausted and with all kinds of deficiencies you better eat well. Guidelines for breastfeeding runners match those for breastfeeding moms in general: Eat a healthful diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains as well as a small amount of fat. In particular, make sure you get enough calcium, vitamin D and Omega 3 DHA. If you are worried about getting all the vitamins and minerals, consider continuing your prenatal multivitamin or taking a regular one. For more info see this article.
Plan your runs around your baby’s feeds
Planning your runs around your baby’s napping and feeding schedule can be a bit tricky, especially those first few months, when your baby doesn’t seem to follow any kind of routine yet. It makes sense to nurse your baby (or pump some milk) before you head out for a run to prevent leaky or engorged breasts besides a hungry, crying baby. My runs are usually in the late afternoon, when Ahmed is back home and can take care of Maria. I always make sure she has been fed. When I go for my long run (about two hours) on the weekend, I nurse Maria and put her to sleep right before I head out, which by the way is no guarantee she will stay asleep. If Ahmed is too busy to take care of her for two hours I run loops around the neighborhood, so I can come back when she wakes up. A few weeks ago I started expressing milk for those times Maria gets hungry when I am away, but we haven’t succeeded in getting her to drink from a bottle yet. Perhaps we waited too long, or maybe we need to try another teat.
Invest in a supportive bra
You may find that your good ol’ sports bra does not do the job anymore when you are breastfeeding. For your comfort, invest in a supportive sports bra, or try wearing a nursing bra. Some breastfeeding women like to wear two bras while running. See what works for you.
Running is great, but sleep is even more important, especially during those newborn months! Prioritize sleep over runs when your body tells you to rest. If your baby is going through a bad period of sleep, you may want to adjust your training schedule. If you haven’t had enough sleep for several nights, you may want to consider a daytime nap. Running is fun, but only when you are not sleep deprived, and training is counterproductive if it leaves you exhausted. One bad night may not significantly affect your ability to exercise, but be honest with yourself and assess whether you have the energy to do the workout you had planned. Now is probably not the time for PRs and ambitious training schedules, so be mild to yourself and see what you can do on a day to day basis.
Here are some more useful articles and blog posts about running and breastfeeding:
- Got Milk? Running and Breastfeeding (Saltyrunning)
- Nursing (NYC Running Mama)
- The breast-feeding runner (This Runner’s Trials)
- Exercise and Breastfeeding (KellyMom)
- Breastfeeding and running: Tips on how to make it work for new moms (Examiner)
- Running and breastfeeding: what you need to know (Walk Jog Run)