| Women Outside, Fall 1998|
The three rules of exercise after childbirth: You leak. You tire easily. Then you leak some more.
No one, of course, expects an easy comeback from nine months of weight gain, diminishing muscle mass, punishing exhaustion, and a sudden and extraordinary inflation in one's chest size. but then again, no one told me much of anything about what to expect, even in this era of You're Expecting, What to Expect the First Year, What to Expect in Years One to Five, yadda, yadda, yadda. I'd been spoiled (as every pregnant woman should be, thank you very much) by my prenatal routine, with a doctor constantly charting my weight, monitoring my blood pressure, and guiding my exercise. "Do what you've always done," she told me. "Just do it more slowly and" — with a significant glance at my sports-scarred knees — "less clumsily." So I mountain-biked during the first four months of my pregnancy and ran for almost eight weeks after that. Then I pedaled a stationary bike, hiked mountain trails, and thrilled to the sight of my booming belly. I felt strong and resolute and, as it turned out, fatally smug.
Because regaining fitness after giving birth is generally much harder than sustaining it beforehand. Junior in utero is considerably easier to manage than Junior in a baby backpack; in the former state, he can't complain. Meanwhile, you've also become sole proprietor of Mom's 24-Hour-A-Day-All-You-Can-Eat Cafe. Still, in the year since my son pummeled his way into the world, I've returned to my pre-pregancy weight and an approximation of my pre-pregancy fitness.
When you're ready to hit the trails again post-birth (check with your doctor first, obviously; the usual medical advice is to wait at least four to five weeks), I recommended breaking out the jogging stroller, which you of course demanded as a shower gift. Let the kid be your guide. An infant is delighted for you to run long and slow (think 10-minute miles). As your endurance and the baby grow, his or her patience plummets. Six months later, if that stroller drops below eight minutes per mile, chumley will squall to wake the dead. Your pace, I guarantee, will zoom.
Then, lift your child. Set him down. At his insistence, lift him again. Repeat until exhaustion sets in. This works the triceps, biceps, deltoids, trapezius, lastimus dorsi, infraspinous ... aw, hell, it works your entire upper body. This is why the ranks of world-class paddlers are rife with mothers.
When the baby becomes a toddler, join a gym. You'll be ready for both the physical challenges and and the adult company. Your child can romp in the nursery. And the weights won't wriggle like eels from your grasp.
I've also learned a few things about equipment along the way. Layer those running bras — the more the better. Until someone develops high-performance postpartum undergarments of Gore-Tex and tempered steel, this is the only effective way to corral that new bosom. As for the racing-bike seat — or even the mountain-bike seat — that once so perfectly molded to your derriere, stash them both away for a few months and buy one of those old-lady saddles. Yes, the puffy kind. This may hurt your pride, and it will look ridiculous atop your otherwise sleek bike, but it will also greatly pamper your now-tender parts.
My most indelible lesson, however, came after months of juggling sweat and son. One evening, I skipped a group bike ride to rock him to sleep. As he shifted and sighed and nestled deep against my chest, I began to feel his heartbeat gently thrumming above my own, a flutter so strong and so fragile that tears welled in my eyes. Life, I suddenly understood, is its own interval workout; some moments are given to us as a respite between sprints. I rocked with my softly breathing boy a long time that night, knowing that my heart required no stronger regimen than this.