This month, Liza Howard ran the Umstead 100-mile race in North Carolina in just over 15 hours, setting a new course record for women.
She did it just six months after giving birth. And she stopped three times during the race to breast pump.
“It was my best race performance,” Howard said. “I was surprised.”
While most new mothers are simply struggling to keep their eyes open all day, Howard and a select group of athletes come back stronger than ever. Numerous anecdotes exist on recent moms turning in top race performances. Ten months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon. Seven months after having her son, Kara Goucher ran a personal best at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
Some mother-athletes say they feel fitter than ever after giving birth. Goucher said her legs felt stronger post-pregnancy because she’d become accustomed to running with extra weight. She also found her breathing was more controlled, and wonders if that could be a result of increased blood volume during pregnancy.f
“I just felt really good aerobically,” Goucher said.
Howard speculates that the forced distance running break she took during pregnancy actually helped her post-partum. Due to her training and racing volume, she often feels small twinges or muscle aches in normal years, but this time around she felt rested.
“I was not over-trained,” Howard said.
But despite anecdotal evidence from women such as Howard and Goucher, no real research has been conducted that can point to any physical advantages for female athletes after pregnancy. James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, has studied the exercise responses of women during pregnancy.
“You won’t find any studies because there aren’t any,” Pivarnik said. “Only a lot of very amazing anecdotes.”
For those select women who do set athletic records quickly after giving birth, Pivarnik can only speculate about whether pregnancy could have provided some physical edge. He’s studied blood volume before and after pregnancy and doesn’t believe the increase would last long enough after giving birth to give female athletes much of an edge. But the extra strain of carrying a baby during pregnancy might lead to strength gains after birth.
“There’s also the feeling of ‘If I can deliver a baby, I can do anything,’ or other psychological reasons,” Pivarnik said.
And while Goucher, Radcliffe, Howard, and other elites make headlines with post-partum race performances, Pivarnik said that they are decidedly rare. Far more women struggle to bounce back athletically, Pivarnik said, but those individuals don’t make the news.
For Howard, her recent success at Umstead 100 came as a total surprise. She thought she’d aim for a time of around 18 to 20 hours, but ended up finishing in 15 hours and seven minutes. Howard’s 100-mile triumph comes after a moderately active pregnancy. She kept running short distances up until she was six months pregnant, and then switched to hiking on a treadmill due to lower back pain.
After the October birth, however, Howard didn’t waste any time strapping her running shoes back on. Her doctor instructed her to do absolutely no power walking for four weeks. So instead, Howard joined a 100-mile relay race and jogged her 25-mile leg. Her husband met her with the baby at the halfway point so she could stop and nurse.
“It was a slow jog, but it was jogging,” Howard said. “I felt no pressure or expectations. It was awesome.”
By January, Howard felt ready to race the Bandera 100K. She was so tired from being up all night with her baby, she took a 15 minute nap mid-race at an aid station. Even with the snooze break, Howard claimed second place for women.
During Umstead, Howard stopped and used her breast pump for 10 minutes three separate times during the race. Though the breaks could be seen as a disadvantage, Howard figures it wasn’t a bad thing for a run that long, as it forced her to stop running and sit down for a bit.
Howard isn’t sure if the benefits of pregnancy outweigh the challenges of giving birth and coming back to athletic form. She’s still heavier than she was before the baby, and she often struggles with getting enough sleep.
But she feels more durable now than she did before giving birth. In addition, since she’s usually caring for a baby and her six-year-old, racing seems more like a break than it ever did before.
“When you have little kids, alone time is precious,” Howard said. “The fact that my race was pleasurable and enjoyable made such a difference.”