A new study has confirmed what many moms have already discovered: Running just ain’t the same postpartum as it was before pregnancy. The study, which is fairly small in scale and was published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, showed precisely what happened to some runners’ bodies during and after pregnancy. To summarize: Because the abdominal muscles stretch to accommodate the baby, the pelvis can tilt and move much more postpartum, which causes lower back and hip pain when you run. In some women—especially women who have big babies, multiples, or are on their second or third kid—the parallel bands of muscles that meet in the middle of your abdomen can even separate completely. This condition is called diastasis recti.
In her write-up of the findings, New York Times fitness reporter Gretchen Reynolds suggests a series of ab exercises to help knit together your poor postpartum tummy. As someone who has recently lived this experience, I have some other suggestions to go along with the helpful advice to do planks and bridges. With my doctor’s blessing, I started running again two weeks after giving birth to a nine-pounder. I know that sounds kind of nuts, but I felt like such garbage during my pregnancy I just wanted to be normal again afterward. I stepped on the treadmill for 30 minutes and tried to run for five. Not only did my hips and lower back feel wobbly, but my milk-filled chest could not be contained by my old sports bra and my episiotomy-scarred vagina felt like it was going to fall out of my butt. After that inauspicious start, I found the following things were extremely helpful:
1. Get a really hardcore bra. The Enell sports bra is not pretty—it looks like a boob straight jacket—but it will strap you in and keep you bounce-free. As I just learned from Amanda Hess’s article about pro athletes and their breasts in ESPN the Magazine, “when they get moving, the nipples on a C- or D-cup breast can accelerate up to 45 mph in one second—faster than a Ferrari.” When you’re still sensitive postpartum, you would prefer your boobs move more like an old Pinto.
2. Roll your hips out with a foam roller. Before I had a kid, I was running 15-20 miles a week and barely stretched. That’s just not an option anymore. For the particular postpartum tightness I get in my hips now, I do exercises like the ones this physical therapist suggests.
3. Do intervals. I started increasing the amount I ran by a few minutes each time. But instead of running straight through at a moderate pace like I used to, I would do intervals of sprinting and walking. This somehow put less pressure on my still-healing junk than running for a long period of time without breaks to walk.
It’s worth noting that I had a vaginal delivery. I don’t know the best methods to start running again when you’ve had a cesarean section. Also I’m not a doctor, so make sure to check with yours before you start exercising. Seven months postpartum I am back to running regularly. It’s more like 10 miles a week instead of 15 or 20, but that’s because I’m tired and I have a lot less time. My ab muscles, after dedicated weekly exercises like the ones suggested by the Times, are back to a reasonable facsimile of what they used to be. And that’s really all you can ask for.