Running and breastfeeding are compatible activities that I have had the opportunity to enjoy with two babies. Each time I’ve learned something different, especially given that I did not start running regularly until my daughter was almost one, but I went back to running only a few weeks after giving birth to my son. In both cases, I learned how to keep the balance of logging miles and making milk for babies at different stages in their development and nutritional needs. I thought I would share a few insights in case it might be useful to a fellow mama runner (or friend/partner of one) in the future.
In the first six weeks of life, a newborn’s stomach is very small and breastmilk is metabolized quickly. Furthermore, so much of nursing fulfills needs far beyond nourishment. Hormones catalyzed during nursing sessions accomplish tasks ranging from bonding to shrinking the uterus and helping internal organs shift back into place. Skin-to-skin contact is important, the mother and baby should really smell one another in the holistic sense to keep these biochemical changes progressing. There are very few people who could jump up and go for a long run right after giving birth anyway (most of us are still in our adult diapers scarfing lukewarm meals one handed while crying over everything), but, needless to say, I think this is a time when breastfeeding should really take priority over any type of routine exercise.
During the fourth trimester, the first three months of a baby’s life, breastfeeding begins to hit a more routine stride. With my son, I started to really pursue running once he was about 2 months old. At this point, I could tank him up with milk before a nap, leave him snuggled with his dad, and enjoy 3 miles around the neighborhood without worrying. I planned to go back to work with both kids, so I began pumping pretty early on. As the months progressed, I felt confident going out for longer runs knowing that my partner could always give the baby a bottle if I wasn’t there.
In my experience, by about 7 or 8 months, a baby is getting nourishment from some solids/table foods in addition to breastmilk, although breastmilk comprises the majority of the diet. This is when I felt like I could really enjoy longer runs without the pangs of worry about missing a nursing session. The challenge during this period for me with both babies was maintaining ample milk supply in the context of working and pumping. So I was pretty intentional about nursing both before leaving for a run and when coming back to keep my body in that routine (breastfeeding is, at a simplistic level, supply and demand). For longer race days, I’ve found that a small hand pump and cooler bag stashed in my gear bag has provided relief and or peace of mind when I need it. By the way, I have seen many nursing mothers pump before the start of races (you start to see it when you’ve done it!).
With babies and toddlers one and older, daytime nursing becomes more infrequent. I stopped pumping at one year with my daughter, and plan a similar schedule with my son, with the commitment to nurse at night/when I am home as long as we are both enjoying it. As a runner, I look forward to this chapter of the nursing journey because I inevitably earn back a lot of bodily autonomy and the logistics of pumping and nursing become nearly inconsequential. Keeping up good hydration and nutrition is the key to maintaining a milk supply for as long as is desired.
Breastfeeding eats up about 500 calories a day, and quite a bit of fluid. I find it is much easier to become dehydrated when training and breastfeeding, so drinking a lot of water is really important. I start the morning by drinking 16 ounces minimum, right off the bat, before any coffee or other beverages. I also eat a lot of nourishing calories frequently through the day. Protein is often elevated to star status when we talk about diets for athletes, but carbohydrates and fats are foundational for both the glycogen stores one requires for regular running (especially distance running) and the ability for a body to make and sustain milk supply. Some of my staples in addition to complete meals are homemade banana bread with peanut butter on it, Greek yogurt with granola, hummus and pita, avocado and corn chips… you get the idea. I am constantly snacking, especially at night before I inevitably spend a few of my wake-ups nursing.
There is anecdotal data out there about how running changes the taste of milk, or how one should shower before nursing because the smell/taste of sweat is somehow a barrier to the baby nursing, but I’ve never experienced any issues. Supportive and comfortable sports bras are always important, but especially for a lactating runner as underwire or constriction can cause clogged ducts and other minor (albeit obnoxious) complications. Most of my running shirts already have a quarter zip at the neck, so nursing in my gear is usually simple. By the time a baby is approaching toddlerhood, they are usually too busy to demand nursing right away, anyway. Lately, I have enjoyed that transition as I now come home from my runs and cherish, with gratitude, the fact that I can take a hot shower uninterrupted before doing anything else.
Running has made many things, including motherhood, so much healthier and more enjoyable for me. There is no reason why breastfeeding should be a barrier to maintaining a running practice; in fact, best practices for proactive self-care when nursing perform quite a bit of double duty for keeping a runner healthy and happy, as well.