For spectators at the 2015 USA Track and Field (USATF) Indoor Championships last month, there was nothing surprising about seeing the super-fit woman with a flower in her hair win the 600m finals, crossing the line in 1:26.59. But unlike everyone else on the track, that winner, Alysia Montaño, gave birth to a daughter just six months earlier. This was her first big race since then.
And while Montaño, 28, may be the most recent runner to come back blazing after having a baby, she is definitely not the first. In fact, not only have several big-name runners come back fast, they've returned stronger than before baby, leading some physiologists to speculate that hormonal changes after pregnancy let women train harder.
Marathoner Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months postpartum. Olympian Kara Goucher ran a PR of 2:24:52 at the 2011 Boston Marathon, seven months after the birth of her son. And runner Clara Horowitz Peterson, who is now pregnant with her fourth child, qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials just four months after delivering her second baby. Are they simply genetically blessed, or can regular runners also bounce back that fast?
There is no real research that shows exactly how long women should wait to exercise after giving birth. According to guidelines from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, physical activity can be "resumed as soon as physically and medically safe.”
Experts say the amount of time it takes to return to pre-pregnancy fitness is directly related to how active you were going into and during your pregnancy. That bodes well for athletes who regularly train for hours every day, and often up until they’re eight or nine months pregnant, says Aaron Baggish, M.D., associate director of the cardiovascular performance program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the co-medical director for the Boston Marathon.
“Most women should expect at least six months to get back to their pre-pregnancy fitness levels, if not a year,” says Baggish. “Some do it faster, but know that that’s not normal.”
Montaño had a uniquely speedy recovery. “This was my first pregnancy, but I know my body, and there’s no way I would’ve been able to come back and feel like myself again so quickly if I hadn’t been able to keep an active routine while I was pregnant,” she says. “I had a good base to start with, plus my legs were so much stronger after basically working out with a weight vest on for nine and a half months.”
One potential issue with starting postpartum training up too soon, Baggish says, is that hormones produced during pregnancy make muscles more lax, making joints hyper-mobil. This excessive flexibility can put you at risk for injuries. “The biggest thing in the beginning is that you’re looking for that rubber band effect when running, but your joints and ligaments feel loose and your hip flexors are not as snappy as they were before giving birth,” says Montaño.
Pregnancy can also wreak havoc on core-stabilizing muscles, says physical therapist Jill Thein-Nissenbaum, who has researched the effects of pregnancy on runners’ biomechanics. “You need to teach your core how to activate again, and minimize movement in your pelvis soon after giving birth to help minimize low back and hip pain,” she says.
Once Montaño received clearance from her doctor (about one week postpartum), the Indoor 600m American Record Holder (1:23.59) began performing a series of core-stabilizing exercises daily called Sahrmann exercises.
Two weeks in, she started to incorporate low-impact activities, like swimming and the ElliptiGo. Run/walks were introduced in weeks five and six, with a goal of completing up to 30 minutes (walk five minutes, run one minute; walk four minutes, run two minutes, etc.) three times a week, decreasing the amount of walking and increasing the amount of running every workout. By weeks seven and eight, Montaño was running 30 minutes every other day.
Moñtano kicked into official training mode about nine weeks after giving birth—fast by anyone’s standards, but not ill-advised given her pre-birth fitness levels; she raced the 800 meters at the USATF Outdoor Championships last June, when she was 8.5 months pregnant. (She finished last in 2:32.13.)
Still, that doesn't mean age groupers should compare themselves to Moñtano. In addition to physiological changes, you'll face a lack of sleep, breastfeeding (training hard can actually reduce your ability to produce enough milk), and stress as a new mom, so it's perfectly normal to take six months or more to get back in shape. “For best results," says Baggish, "wait until your body [and mind] feels fully recovered, then start back slowly, gradually.”