6 things I wish I knew about breastfeeding and exercise

Scheduling workouts around nap time, nursing, and pumping sessions is not easy, but it's doable. (Pro tip: invest in a good sports bra—you won't regret it.)

Jennifer with her son Isaac, who was five months old when she was started racing in triathlons. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski
Jennifer with her son Isaac, who was five months old when she started racing in triathlons again. Photo: Jennifer Pinarski

Before my son, Isaac, was born, I was a very active runner and triathlete, continuing to work out during my pregnancy. Naturally, I thought that I’d be able to get back to my exercise routine easily after my baby was born—but I was wrong. Balancing breastfeeding and a workout schedule was challenging and I made a lot of mistakes (with a painful case of mastitis to go along with the finisher’s medal from my first postpartum triathlon). Here’s what I wished someone had told me about breastfeeding and exercise.

1. Keep your calories—and your water bottle—topped up
On the surface, running and breastfeeding might look like the magic solution to losing the baby weight. Nursing burns 500 calories a day and a 5-kilometer run burns another 500 calories, so it would be easy to conclude you’re on the fast track to your old skinny jeans. But don’t cut back on your food intake too much. I found that I needed to replace the calories I burned on a run just to keep my milk supply stable. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

2. Invest in a good sports bra
If you think your breasts change during pregnancy, it’s nothing compared to the changes you’ll experience during breastfeeding! My pre-pregnancy A-cup bras were laughable compared to the E-cup bras I needed after my children were born. A supportive sports bra with lots of compression is the most important item of exercise equipment you’ll need. Look for one with adjustable straps to accommodate your changing breasts and, ideally, with nursing clasps or easy-access openings. Most importantly, take off your sports bra as soon as you finish working out to prevent plugged ducts and mastitis.

3. Time your workouts with nursing and naps
If your baby naps regularly, and someone else can stay home with her, fitting in a workout while she dozes is a breeze. If possible, nurse your baby from both breasts before heading out. For me, it provided peace of mind that my baby had a full tummy, and my boobs didn’t feel as heavy or uncomfortably tight during my workouts.

4. Get your baby used to a bottle
Even if you plan on exclusively breastfeeding, introducing your baby to the occasional bottle of pumped milk allows for more freedom and flexibility as to when—and for how long—you can exercise, because someone other than you can feed her. My second baby barely slept, so I couldn’t schedule my workouts to coincide with predictable nap times. If I wanted to go for a run, it meant someone else had to have a bottle at the ready, and my baby had to be OK with that.

5. Pack your pump
True story: when my son was four months old, I ran in a 10K race. Expecting to be away for just three hours, I pumped a few bottles of milk for him and drove to the race. Everything was going perfectly until I got to the 7K-mark, and all of a sudden my breasts started leaking. They continued to leak for the rest of the run (and all the way home), which made for some very embarrassing finish-line photos! The lesson learned: if you’re a nursing mom who’s planning to be away from your baby for a period during which you’d normally do at least one feeding session, bring a breast pump (and definitely wear some absorbent breast pads). If your baby is coming with you to your race, nurse before the start. During longer events, you can even nurse during the race (like Liza Howard did during her ultra-running events).

6. Be kind to your body and your ego
Admittedly, this has less to do with breastfeeding than it does about managing your expectations about exercising postpartum. Ease back into an exercise routine slowly, paying close attention to how your body feels and acknowledge that it will take time to work up to the same speeds and distances you used to run, or the amount of weight you can lift. Know that by exercising—no matter how how out of shape or slow you feel—you’re setting a positive example for your new baby.

Read more:
Postpartum exercise and workouts for the first 6 weeks after baby
Breastfeeding and pumping primer
How to find the right nursing bra for you 

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