The Return to Running Training Plan was designed by Malindi Elmore, an Olympian, Zwift Ambassador, Mother and Coach. She is a lifelong athlete and passionate about helping others reach their goals and to get them safely back to running.
Congratulations on the birth of your little new baby. The process of pregnancy, delivery of a baby and adapting to a 24/7 demanding newborn is life-altering. At some point, usually a few months postpartum, you will crave time for yourself again and look for ways to regain fitness and get back to running. As a professional middle distance runner and experienced run coach, I would love to help you on your journey with some tips from my experiences and from consulting with a highly qualified pelvic floor physio who specializes in pre and post-partum mothers (@mommyberrieshealth).
Almost seven years ago, I gave birth to my first child, Charlie. I adopted vague guidelines of “listening to my body” upon returning to running. However, in reality, I just did whatever I wanted to do. When Charlie was about 2 weeks old, I decided to join a few friends on the beach for a workout. We did all sorts of things that I later regretted – bounding, squats, and other high impact activities. You know, stuff a recovering new mother should definitely NOT be doing. Later that month, I started running and since I felt so great – the curse of a July baby - I joined more friends on the track one day for some “easy” 200-meter sprints. My energy level was high, and I was excited to get back to full activity. Within a month of increased activity I had pubis symphysis that was so painful that I could hardly walk and it would be another 6 months before I was able to run pain free again. Needless to say, I was much more cautious after my second son was born in 2018, and I actually took the time to rest and rehabilitate. As a result, I was able to run my first marathon seven months after my second son was born, in a time of 2:32 – something I never thought was even possible!
It turns out there is much more to post-partum than simply resting and doing Kegel exercises. It has helped me to reframe how I think about pregnancy and childbirth. Think of giving birth as a soft tissue injury;you would not tear your ACL and expect to bounce back after a period of time and resume your activities without intentional rehabilitation and gradual return to activity. Time alone for recovery is important to healing, but it is not enough.
Understanding That Your Body has Changed
It is important to understand that there are a number of significant changes to your body that need both healing and rehabilitation; first is from the pregnancy itself, and the second is from the actual delivery – regardless of whether it was a vaginal or cesarean birth. During the course of pregnancy, your body is rapidly changing shape and size. As your abdominal muscles lengthen in front to accommodate the growing baby, you lose access to your normal range of motion. Your ribs get stiffer, and your pelvic floor is constantly activated to hold the weight of the baby. Throw in some relaxant hormones meant to help your hips and pelvis loosen up to deliver a baby and suddenly your pelvis is different than it was pre-pregnancy and a perfect recipe for pain and injury if not adequately addressed. At the end of pregnancy is an acute event: delivery day. Whether you have a vaginal or surgical birth, you have to respect the healing process.
Before resuming an active lifestyle, you need a minimum of 8 weeks of progressing low impact activity to let the affected tissues recover, increase tensile force and re-loading stabilize and tendons. The consequences of neglecting the healing period can be detrimental and can include: incontinence, prolapse, issues with diastasis, pain and injury (SI joint, pubis symphysis, knee, foot, etc.), painful sex, etc.; all of which have a significant impact on both physical and mental health. The good news is that it does not have to be this way!
There are plenty of other things you can do to prepare your body to return to running while giving it the necessary time to heal. Consider an inside-out approach by focusing on the deepest core muscles that provide your body an anchor. This can be started very early and involves coordinating breath, the pelvic floor and transverse abdominis. These are arguably the muscles most affected during pregnancy and birth and play a huge role in everyday movement. And if possible - start during pregnancy! Be proactive in learning how to support your body as it changes so that you grow and recover with it instead of waiting until after your pregnancy.
- Find a physiotherapist with experience in post-partum recovery and pelvic floor health to give you individual feedback and guidelines.
- Incorporate your breath into daily activities – your body needs to re-learn how to relax the muscles which are guarded post-delivery, you can do this by practicing taking a long inhale in, and lone exhale out through your nose. As you progress your breathing , you can start to apply your breathing to your activities.
- Increasing your Range of Motion (ROM) lost during the course of pregnancy through gentle stretches and activations.
- Begin stability and balance exercises – the hormones helpful for pregnancy, delivery and breastfeeding can result in too much joint and ligament mobility. In fact, this is likely why I had so much trouble returning to sport after the birth of Charlie. Focus on isometric and single leg work and balance work.
Returning to Activity
Low impact activities such as hiking, swimming, cycling and elliptical can gradually be introduced as you work your way through the 8-12 week recovery period and it will help you to build your baseline endurance. As you progress, you should incorporate activations to be sure your muscles are “on and firing” to be able to handle an introduction to running. Some examples include glute work such as clam shells, side lying leg lifts, and band work as well as single leg exercises such as single leg stance, single leg squats and lunges. While doing this work, be sure to continue to incorporate conscious breathing with long inhales and exhales.
Assuming that you have worked your way successfully through all the steps above, you will be ready to start the Return to Running training plan on Zwift. It is purposefully created to start slow and incorporates several weeks of walk/run at low intensity before progressing. Your body needs this time to adapt to the force exerted through running, which is equivalent to several times your body weight. Your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons all need stress to become stronger (as do your heart and lungs!) and starting out too aggressively is counter-productive...trust me I know from experience.
By the end of 6 weeks of the program, you should be able to run 30 minutes at an easy pace *without pain*. The final two weeks of the program incorporates a bit of “speed” and challenges for both new and returning runners. It is important to note that any feelings of heaviness, leaking and pain in the pelvic area are signs that you have progressed too quickly and that you need to back off your progression.
Good luck on your postpartum recovery journey. Being a fit, active and healthy parent is the best gift you can give yourself and your child.
Inspired to get back to it? Log into Zwift and get started!
How Do I Find the Return to Running Plan?
You can access all 8 weeks of workouts after you connect your devices. Check the Training Folder in-game under WORKOUTS. Scroll down to find ‘Return To Running’ and click the dropdown menu to see each week's workouts.
Learn more about Malinidi Elmore on her website www.malindielmore.com and check out the Return to Running training plan to guide you safely back to running.