Can Women Come Back Faster After Pregnancy?

Kara Goucher (second from left) and Paula Radcliffe (right) have both come back from pregnancy to run well. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Many women report making strength and speed gains after giving birth. 

When Alex Allred was four-and-a-half months pregnant, she became the 1994 U.S. National Bobsledding Champion and made the Olympic team. The woman who took second, she said, was three months pregnant.

That may not be normal for a time when many women feel like curling up on the couch. But, elite female athletes have long shared stories about the mythical bounce in performance post-pregnancy – a bounce a growing body of evidence suggests may not be a myth.

“You come back so much stronger,” said Allred.

The number of famous runners coming back faster post-baby has been on the rise and in the news. Kara Goucher ran a PR of 2:24:52 at the 2011 Boston Marathon seven months after giving birth. Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon less than ten months after having a kid. And, Deena Kastor came back after a difficult pregnancy to take sixth at the 2012 U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials in January of 2012.

RELATED: Exercise Dos and Don’ts For Expecting Mothers

After Clara Peterson had her first kid, she took a year off from serious training. Just seven weeks after she finally started to get back in shape, she found out she was pregnant again. That second pregnancy, then, she trained throughout – lowering her intensity but running 40-50 miles/week.

She came back faster than ever, taking 16th at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (her first marathon) less than six months after having her daughter, with some of the “crazy mom strength people talk about,” she said.

Dr. Karen Nordahl, an obgyn at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver and the author of Fit to Deliver, said that often women who continue exercise throughout their pregnancy experience some strength increases, in part as a result of working out with additional weight. But, because intensity generally has to be drastically decreased and even the most hardcore athletes rest some post-pregnancy, it can take a couple months to get back in aerobic shape.

“I actually think they do come out stronger, not necessarily fitter,” said Nordahl.

Pregnancy also results in increases in blood flow and oxygen-carrying capacity, as well as increased levels of growth hormone. One study, which followed pregnant and non-pregnant athletes over 15 months at similar levels of exercise, even showed a small increase in VO2 max in the pregnant athletes.

Many of the hormonal changes go away six to 12 months after pregnancy, but some can have long-lasting effects.

“You’re actually able to maintain physiological effects for up to a year,” said Nordahl.

The performance benefits from a pregnancy were so hyped at one point that in 1988 “abortion doping” became the topic of a world conference on anti-doping. Then-International Olympic Committee vice president Prince Alexandre de Merode, of Belgium, reported he knew of several Eastern European athletes (and at least one Swiss doctor to perform the procedure) who would induce pregnancy for the performance benefits and then get an abortion. No rumors exist that this happens currently.

“Women have told me they performed better after pregnancy,” said Jim Pivarnik, the director of the Human Energy Research Lab and the Center for Physical Activity and Health and Michigan State University. But, Pivarnik cautioned that much of the evidence is anecdotal and that very few concrete studies have been done on performance changes in high-level athletes post-pregnancy.

RELATED: The Role Of Hormones In Running

Many athletes, he said, also suggest that the performance increases may be from greater mental strength.

But, for all the benefits there can be, there are plenty of obvious and non-obvious drawbacks to serious training after pregnancy.

“Sometimes, other things are holding them back,” said Nordahl, who works with a number of high-level female athletes. One issue lots of women have, she said, but don’t want to talk about, is incontinence after giving birth.

There are also physical challenges, such as recovery if the pregnancy wasn’t easy, and an increased risk of certain kinds of injuries. Bone density can be lower, something Radcliffe learned the hard way after injuring herself from returning to training too quickly. And, ligaments and tendons are often stretched out and overly-flexible.

Additionally, said Joanna Hayes, 2004 Olympic Gold Medalist in the 100m hurdles, the biggest problem can be a time and stress problem.

“When you’re a mom, you’re a mom,” said Hayes.

RELATED: New Mom Carrie Tollefson Runs Her First Marathon

Hayes retired in 2008, had her daughter, and then decided to make a comeback. But, trying to balance work, training, and nursing her daughter was exhausting. Most importantly, she didn’t want her daughter to get short-changed. “You can’t put track and field first,” she said.

Training through a pregnancy may also be more straight-forward for distance runners, who can simply decrease their volume and intensity. For some track athletes, it becomes impossible to hurdle or long jump. That technique can be more difficult to recover after months off.

While most recreational runners aren’t making decisions about having kids based on their potential athletic performance, multiple studies have shown that moderate exercise (relative to whatever was your baseline) throughout the pregnancy can result in a “happier, healthier” pregnancy and mom, said Allred.

And, as an added bonus, you could get faster too.

“I’m doing stuff I never thought I could do,” said Peterson.

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About The Author:

Kelly Dunleavy O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and former professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. You can read more about her at www.sunnyrunning.com.

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