How to manage running while breastfeeding is a feat that is literally unknown to man (really, he will never know the struggle!). However, the fact you’re here searching for mom-to-mom, runner-to-runner input on running and breastfeeding is what makes you the champion who is capable of creating life for this world, then going for a run.
Nursing moms who itch for exercise while their body is still producing a hearty milk supply face obstacles in addition to sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and postpartum healing. Running while breastfeeding is a journey that is uncomfortable, draining, and requires a degree in logistics management, but mastering it restores your being in more ways than one.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about navigating training runs as a nursing mother from those who know what it’s like to be near-to-bursting at the finish line.
Can I Train for a Marathon while Breastfeeding?
Yes! You absolutely can train for a marathon while breastfeeding! You can even run a marathon while breastfeeding, as ultra runner Stephanie Northway proved when she ran the Cal Crusher Marathon while pushing her 3-month-old daughter in her running stroller.
“About every 3 miles, I would stop and feed her,” says Northway. “There were a few times I would be running—very slowly—or walking while breastfeeding during the marathon.”
Northway finished the Cal Crusher with her well-fed baby in tow and a new, personal “speed” record.
“It was definitely my slowest marathon!” she laughs. “But that’s okay, I was proud to be out there again. It can absolutely be done!”
Still, there’s no denying running while nursing is an extra hurdle on the rockslide of challenges that is motherhood.
Why Running while Breastfeeding is Tricky
- Training windows are cut short by frequent feedings.
- Baby’s irregular eating and napping schedules makes it hard to keep a routine.
- Baby won’t take a bottle and requires your physical presence to eat.
- Overproduction of breast milk.
- Breasts become agonizingly full after a couple hours.
- Stuff just hurts!
There were more than a few times I had to forfeit opportunities to run because my daughter shifted her feeding window by a mere 15 minutes. The days she wouldn’t take her anticipated naps were the hardest schedules to adjust because all I felt was yet another missed opportunity to get some miles beneath my feet.
A few times, these curveballs would force me into noble adaption; like running while my daughter caught up on sleep in the jogging stroller. Most times, the well-intended exercise plans diminished to being bound to my couch, shirtless, while baby drifted between feeding and sleeping for the next several hours.
You need to grace your efforts with maximum flexibility and tinker around until you find what works for you and your baby.
Northway urges, “Throw away the schedule! Things do not go according to a plan.”
Breastfeeding in Public
Even though public breastfeeding is legal in all 50 states, it’s not entirely comfortable going bare-chested for all to see. Feeding or pumping out in the open takes creativity and the grit to say, “Mind your damn business!” to anyone who dares to take issue with breastfeeding on the run.
It’s worth applauding society has come a long way in normalizing public breastfeeding. Northway’s personal experiences between breastfeeding her firstborn in public, 11 years ago, and breastfeeding her newborn during a half marathon a little over 1 year ago is evidence of the shift.
“When my son was a baby, I got a lot of nasty stares and I was told not to breastfeed in public,” she recounts. “With my daughter, it has been the opposite…During the Millennium Meadows Half Marathon, when I was feeding my daughter, another runner stopped, thanked me for breastfeeding in public, and shook my hand.”
How to Breastfeed En Route
The biggest setback we face as nursing mothers is emptying our milk balloons during a run or long distance race. Going too long without pumping or nursing risks engorgement, clogged ducts, and inconsolably hangry babies.
Of course you know to pump/nurse before and after running, but when you’re heading out to run for hours at a time, it’s essential to figure out how to empty on the run:
Get a nursing sports bra
Read our article on best nursing sports bras for runners.
Pack a nursing cover or blanket
Pack one in your jogger’s undercarriage for nursing breaks on your route.
Use a portable electric breast pump
Northway slowed her pace during the Flying Pig Half Marathon so she could use her portable electric pump while she ran.
Use a manual breast pump
It’s as easy to hold as a water bottle and small enough to maneuver under a baggy t-shirt.
How to Train for a Marathon while Breastfeeding
Timing your runs around when baby eats and when your breasts become uncomfortably full is the first step to balancing breastfeeding and marathon training.
Arrange your runs without baby to occur immediately after a feeding, when your breasts are empty and you can hand baby off to a trusted caretaker. This will give you the most time to conquer some miles before your flowing milk supply lets you know it’s time to nurse again.
When running with a jogging stroller, map a route that has places where you’re comfortable taking a break to breastfeed. These nursing coves can be as simple as a stump along the trail. I ducked into a rocky brush of trees to nurse my 1-year-old while hiking in Yosemite National Park.
These strategies don’t eliminate the days your schedule is incinerated by irregular eating patterns, extreme fatigue, painful breasts, nap defiance, and whatever else your baby throws into mix. Finding a way to harmonize exercise and breastfeeding is a challenge, and you’re doing a great job!
What to Know About Exercising and Breastfeeding
- It’s easier to get back into long distances if you’ve done them before.
- Your fitness is going to be different because your body is different.
- Hydration and nutrition are extra important when breastfeeding and running.
- Your workout windows depend on how long you have between feedings before you’re full.
An Ultra Runner’s 5 Tips on Running and Breastfeeding (by Stephanie Northway)
1. Rest, Rest, Rest!
If you’re feeling extra sleep deprived one day, it’s okay to skip your run. Your body needs it. With proper rest, you’ll feel better when you do finally get around to that run.
2. Hydrate Often
Breastfeeding can make you feel thirsty, so it’s important to drink a lot of water—about 30 oz (5 cups) in addition of your daily average intake (which should be around 11.5 cups).
Treat yourself to a refreshing glass of water after each feeding to ensure you’re meeting your hydration needs.
3. Eat Often
Because breastfeeding burns about 250-500 calories per day, it’s important to make sure you are eating enough and often. Little snacks throughout the day help.
4. Be Flexible
Follow your baby’s lead. If my daughter needs to eat, we stop or I feed her while walking/slow running. I work around her needs and sometimes she needs to eat all the time, so that run or walk will be shorter or disrupted a bit.
5. Go Easy on Your Pace (and Yourself!)
It’s okay if your run looks different. It’s okay if you’re a little slower and can’t find the time to speed train. Your pace will come back! Cut yourself some slack. You’re doing amazing!
Myths About Exercise and Breastfeeding
First off, running does not affect your breast milk in production, taste, or nutritional value.
Running moms and medical professionals have done a lot of work separating myth from fact since the times women were discouraged from running too much because “your uterus might fall out!” (Yes, that was a real thing people said to women who wanted to run marathons in the 1960s).
Here are the other common myths associated with exercising while breastfeeding:
Running Decreases Milk Supply
Exercise—including long-distance runs—has never resulted in a decreased milk supply. Stress, improper diet, poor hydration, and low demand are more likely the reasons behind a decrease in milk production.
Running while Nursing Causes Mastitis
Mastitis is caused by trapped milk or bacteria invading your milk ducts—not by running while breastfeeding.
Women have suspected the tightness of sports bras and movement of exercise to contribute to mastitis, but this is not the case. What does play a critical part in preventing this excruciating phenomenon is the right sports bra. Make sure your sports bra is not too tight, and wear it only when exercising.
Running while Breastfeeding Causes Blocked Milk Ducts
Running does not cause blocked milk ducts, but going too long without pumping or feeding does. If you are running for more than 2-3 hours, you have to figure out how to express milk en route.
Training for a marathon while breastfeeding is doable and there are several ways to approach it. As the running world wakes up and enhances accommodations to nursing mothers at racing events, the limitations that used to accompany breastfeeding are falling behind.
Every mother is different when it comes to running and breastfeeding. While Northway was doing 13.1 miles with her 6-week-old daughter, I was barely managing a fraction of that distance. Don’t compare yourself to others while authoring your own breastfeeding and running story.
After all, what you learn is going to help another mother someday.