Updated: Mar 14
This is a long post. If you want the quick answers, drop to the bottom.
I'll start off by saying I hate the terms "comeback" and "snap back" in this context. You can't snap back to a pre-pregnancy body. It's not physiologically possible, and why would you want to? Your're a new woman. You CAN embrace a new body and continue moving forward with everything it has to offer you.
I will reluctantly use the unholy terms only for the sake of ease.
Before getting pregnant for the first time, I was a 'sub-elite' runner: fast enough to work out with elites, and a lap slower at the end of a race.
I had big dreams to break the 'elite' barrier, but none of my plans were working out.
Then I got pregnant.
I was as skeptical as anyone that I'd be able to make up enough ground to become an 'elite' in the months following a pregnancy.
All my life I'd understood pregnancy & motherhood to mean athletic suicide, but I figured I'd roll the dice.
I was lucky enough to lace up for a test run ten days after giving birth. What happened after that blew me away.
Runs and workouts came easier than I'd remembered them prior to pregnancy. I ran some very average workouts initially, but with less effort than previously. Then I started to brake personal records in those workouts.
I continued adding mileage and became more and more excited for my first race back.
It'd been 15 months and a whole baby since the last competition, but here's what happened: I shattered my old 5k personal best by 26 seconds.
Then I broke that 5k record by 11 seconds a few weeks later.
Then I destroyed my 10k record by 2 minutes and 51 seconds, which qualified me to the Olympic Trials.
Wings, Not Ankle Weights
Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that getting pregnant will magically make you 5-9% faster.
But I do want to tell you what I did during those nine months to give me (and potentially you) a better shot of making the following six months feel like I had wings rather than ankle weights.
First, let me share a study on what 42 elite runners did during their pregnancies and how they fared after to answer the question: can it be done?
The Study: Elite Pregnant runners
In August of this year (2022), researchers from the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal took 42 elite female runners - more than half were Olympians, or World-Championship contenders - and had them report their training before, during and after pregnancy.
They also looked at pre- and post-pregnancy race times.
This should encourage you runner-moms-to-be: there was no significant difference between race times, pre and post on average. Some women naturally got slower, but 46% of them got faster.
Breakdown By Trimester
Below are the subjects' average miles run per week versus the average cross-training minutes (bike, elliptical, swim, other non-running exercise) in each of the five time periods.
It should be noted that most ran 6 days per week in trimesters 1 and 2, and then dropped to 5 days per week in trimester 3.
High-intensity workouts also took a nose-dive, of course. It gets more and more uncomfortable to run fast while pregnant, and frankly, your body's internal governor won't allow it.
As you can see, running mileage is tough to maintain as the avocado in your belly grows to the mass of a dying star.
Most women in the study, however, look to have maintained their regular time spent exercising by shifting from majority running to majority cross training as their pregnancies progressed.
The comeback - Good for some
Here is a critical point in the story: it didn't work out for everyone.
46% of these elite runners immediately continued upward and onward, getting faster and faster. So if you've ever considered the decision between having a family and chasing your running dreams an either/or situation, think again.
At the same time, consider that half, yes, half of these women experienced postpartum injuries like tendon ruptures, stress fractures and sprains.
In the three years following the study, the women who avoided injury improved an average of 3.6% compared to pre-pregnancy race times. Those who were injured during those years got worse.
Like any good bet, there is both risk and reward involved. To be clear, I'm not talking about risk to the baby - most active pregnancies wind up healthier for baby than otherwise.
I wish I'd known about this study, because I would have fit squarely in it... except for the 'elite' part.
Below are my weekly mileage stats by trimester.
I wasn't educated enough during my first pregnancy to consider cross training worth a lot of my time, so I slogged through a lot of rough mileage, instead. Actually a lot of minutes - this was the first switch I made: ignoring miles, and running for a stretch of minutes instead.
It wasn't infrequent that I'd wind up just sitting down mid-run to call my mom. I'd cry to her for a while before convincing myself to walk home. Sometimes I'd hang up with mom, and call my husband to come get me.
The miles kept coming though, even if they were slower, and they paid off later.
Though the study didn't include nutrition, it's certainly pertinent to the discussion. I wish I knew what these women were eating during pregnancy.
A couple things I avoided all pregnancy long: sugar and dairy. No sugar was a fun New Year's Resolution I wanted to try with a friend, and dairy means runny noses and headaches for me, so I don't eat a lot of it.
First Trimester: I hated everything but Goldfish. There were two or three days where I ate a bowl of Goldfish like cereal for breakfast (minus milk, plus spoon and bowl). I ate very simply because I really didn't want anything but processed carbs. Lots of toast, crackers, cereal, and the occasional bowl of oatmeal. Any type of fat made me nauseous. I muscled some protein like chicken in there when I could, but it was difficult. I beat myself up a little bit about all the processed carbs but of course my body craved the densest version of glucose (the building blocks of life) while it built another body.
Second Trimester: I could finally stomach some vegetables and other animal proteins (mostly fish) - even a few fats like avocados and eggs - but cereals, pasta and other processed carbs were still primary staples.
Third Trimester: I really started honing the 2x/day vegetable thing, and focused on adding 'good' rather than avoiding 'bad.' I still ate a lot of processed carbs, but felt a more normal balance of processed to whole-food ratio. Rice and pasta were go-to's and other less-processed carbs began slowly taking the place of highly-processed ones. I continued with the same fats.
Admittedly, I think the less processed the food I could have eaten, the better off I would have been, but what can I say? I really didn't want that broccoli while I was nauseous.
Aaaaaand, when you are putting in a lot of work while trying to grow a baby, you crave denser sources of glucose. Maybe sometimes that's a good thing. A body fueled is a body with a lower risk of injury.
I started lifting in college, and had a great connection with my weight coach who promised a lot of rewards from sticking to it. By senior year I was lifting 3x per week, and I was addicted to the capability I gleaned from it. I'm not joking when I say I'm still reaping benefits from that base I built.
Lifting builds bone density, and strengthens otherwise lesser-used muscles, tendons and joints that are at threat of injury say... following pregnancy.
It also increases neuromuscular connections, which is great for turning on unused muscle potential (i.e. building strength without building mass).
In addition to running, I continued lifting through pregnancy, though not as much as I would have liked (#covid). I lifted 1-2x a week during the first trimester, turned to bands and body weight stuff by the second trimester, and got access to some lighter weights by the third trimester.
If I had to point to two things that helped me avoid injury, they'd be 1) eating what my body told me to eat while opting for as much "good" nutrition as possible and 2) building bone density, and ligament/tendon strength via weight lifting.
As I talk about in my full story, I trained with a very open mind, expecting every workout during pregnancy to be my last: I built up to 2-3x90 minute runs, which replaced my interval/tempo days, and 3x45-60 minute runs each week. 50-60 miles weekly, which I didn't notice, because I was only focused on running a certain amount of minutes.
I "used it when I had it," meaning I did a faster-paced, higher-intensity workout when my body let me, but those opportunities dwindled from 2x per week to 2-3x per month to very sporadic if at all. Late in the third trimester, they showed back up to about once a week. That's showbiz baby.
The faster efforts were encouraging when they showed up. They proved that even with less mileage, slower recovery runs and all the extra weight, I was still able to hit certain times and paces. This gave me a lot of confidence that maintenance was working.
My only running goal was to keep as much fitness as I could for as long as possible. I sometimes felt like it was trying to hold water in my cupped hands.
Wings, Not Ankle weights - the comeback
Still, the effort of maintenance paid huge dividends.
As I mentioned, I was ready to test the running waters within ten days of delivery day and - apart from the whole baby-coming-out-of-a-small-hole thing - I felt as though I'd just taken a nice little break from running, and was getting back to it with fresh eyes, and fresh legs. In reality, that's exactly what was happening.
I didn't feel sluggish or overly exhausted. I didn't have the same 'flat' feeling I sometimes have after taking a running break. I didn't scoff at my 7:30 pace (a pace I'd regularly deem slow for me personally) because it was already 1-2 minutes faster than what I'd been doing for the last five months!
I had a new running life, and the serotonin pulsed through my veins from a new baby. I was on cloud 9. On running days I woke up, pumped to get out, and I came home even more excited to spend time with baby.
I get asked this a lot:
"How do I get back to running after delivering a baby?"
To answer this shortly, my advice is to start training now.
Getting back to running and avoiding injury while doing so, is not like cramming for a test. You're not going to run 4 miles a week before pregnancy, halve that to 2 miles a week during, then expect to "snap back" to 30 miles per week after just because you stayed active during pregnancy. Not impossible, but the reality is, you're just behind.
Get fit before you're pregnant. Look at the graphs above: the Pre and Post mileage numbers are the same. If you want a comeback, you have to have something to come back to. If you want to avoid injury like half the subjects in the above study did not, you need a base.
If you're already pregnant, and don't have that base, know that your body is no less incredible than it's ever been. She adapts. She gets stronger and faster. Just know that it's also going to take you a bit longer, so be patient. Start with a mile now, a mile on Saturday. Soon you'll do 2...
My Bullet-Point Advice
If you're planning to get pregnant, and want a set of principles that may help you make decisions, dig for motivation during those 9 months, and help you get back to running the way you like to soon after delivering a baby, this is what I've come up with:
Pay attention to the needs of your body FIRST, and be ready to hold your ground with the person who cannot feel what your body is capable of, even if that person has an MD, and is playing to the weakest link in the healthcare system because he doesn't want to be sued
Prioritize sleep and recovery. You can only train as hard as you recover
Opt for nutrient-dense foods when your nausea isn't screaming in protest, and do not be afraid of processed carbs
Build now. While starting to run during pregnancy is also great, starting before is even better. You'll be shocked at the amount of fitness you retain
Switch mileage for minutes
Cut your mileage by 30-50%, but keep lifting weights
Pin down a post-pregnancy goal big enough to excite you even when the couch looks more attractive than your Asics do
Disbelieve the reality that people around you create because of different, (or in some cases, lesser) goals
By the way, you'll notice that in addressing the question, "how do I snap back after pregnancy" I didn't advise on anything postpartum. That's because the hard work should be done pre pregnancy and during. Then after, most these 👆🏼 points just continue. Exceptions:
now do your best to avoid processed carbs if possible, and opt even more for nutrient-dense, God-given carbs
side note: I found that my daughter's "colic" went away when I stuck to super basic, non-processed foods while breastfeeding, and I think my body really loved it, too
slowly ramp back up to full mileage, don't just dive right in. +10-30 minutes per week
Your belly's big, and your dreams are bigger. Keep running ma.