Birth is like a marathon race.
Not because it’s long, though it can be.
But because it requires endurance, no matter the length.
And it’s damn hard work.
Now, to be clear. It doesn’t have to be painful. It can be pain-free! Yet, hard work it remains.
Hard doesn’t mean impossible, and it doesn’t even mean gruelling.
But it does mean focus, resilience, grit, strength and surrender.
So, let’s get into it. There are a surprising number of parallels between marathon running and giving birth.
And in fact, even afterwards the similarities in recovery persist.
A renowned marathon running coach, Greg McMillian, has opened my eyes to these similarities.
McMillian has coached Olympians and won championships himself.
He knows intimately what athletes need to do to recover from a race.
Did you know elite runners always have recovery plans in place for after a marathon? Why? They know what amateurs often forget. If they can recover optimally, then they can get back into their next training cycle more quickly. Plus, the quality of their future training will also be higher!
The quality of your initial motherhood experience is shaped by your birth recovery.
Firstly, in this article, I will share how you can prepare wisely for your birth.
Then, I will share with you a step-by-step 14 Day Recovery Plan (based on McMillan’s marathon recovery principles) so you can enjoy your newborn sooner.
Side note: It’s awe-inspiring how many marathon recovery tactics can benefit new mothers! Everything is connected.
Okay, so before we look at the 14-Day Recovery Plan, let’s take a brief look at how you can prepare wisely for your birth.
Preparation is useful.
Before a race, runners reduce the volume of their activities. This is called a “taper” (pronounced “tape-err”). Runners will start lessening their load 2-3 weeks before their race.
This reduced load is the capstone to all their training. It’s not an optional extra, it’s absolutely crucial.
It’s been shown to improve race performance.
Likewise, in the lead-up to birth, most women naturally decrease the intensity of their activities and spend more time “nesting”.
It is essential for all of that race preparation to come together in your body and mind, McMillian tells runners. It allows your mind to be rested and excited for the race.
As it is with birth, I believe letting yourself unwind before birth is absolutely essential. And it pays off in labour—frazzled is not ideal for the labour process.
Mindset is crucial.
In the early part of a race, from the beginning through to about the halfway mark, it shouldn’t feel too fast, McMillan says. It’s about keeping your breathing under control, looking around, and taking the sights in. This is akin to early labour. As McMillan says, “You just sort of run.”
Then, in the second half, you have to engage mentally more. You raise your focus, boost your intensity, and raise your attention to what you’re doing, McMillan explains. At the end of the race, you have to raise your intensity significantly. This is similar to active labour. Active labour takes more of you—more attention, more focus, more calm, more surrender, more breathing, more trust, more intensity.
At the end of a marathon, however, you have to raise your intensity just to keep the pace you have been moving at, McMillian says. You really have to focus. At this point in the marathon, it’s tempting to have pity parties. It’s common to have a lot of negative thoughts coming your way. You have to combat that with eagerness to excitedly cross that finish line. Oh, the similarities with labour! This is akin to transition, where mamas usually start saying, “I can’t do this anymore.” Knowing transition is coming, in other words, anticipating it, is a great way to thwart any “transition blues”.
Lastly, nutrition is vital.
In running, they have a crazy word. And it’s completely normal for them. The first time I heard it on a podcast, I thought I had misheard it.
It’s called “bonking”.
It’s a term to describe the experience of sudden onset of fatigue. This unexpected loss of energy is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscle.
McMillian says that “you’ve got to practice nutrition in your training, so you don’t bonk in the race.”
Likewise, with labour, you need to think about ways to “fuel up” in the weeks leading up to labour—not just in the hour or two beforehand.
McMillian continues that all runners need to drink and have some calories during a marathon. The decision is not about whether to have something to boost your glucose, but what will you choose.
“You shouldn’t bonk in the race—we know enough about race fuelling that you shouldn’t bonk,” McMillian says.
Eating and drinking in labour are necessary too.
It can be the difference between labour stopping and a baby being born, as my podcast episode “What If Your Baby Just Cam Right Out?” indicates.
Okay, so now we’re getting closer to the 14-Day recovery plan. Stick with me a little bit more.
Running coach, McMillian, knows that recovery is critical after a race. Athletes that recover well get back to feeling like themselves sooner after the “big day”. In his mind, it’s not about rushing athletes to “get back to normal”—quite the opposite.
We need to be super realistic about recovery so we feel permission to “rest hard” early on. This is smart long term.
I still remember what my wise, local cafe owner told me. “Rest when they’re a baby because once they can walk, there’ll be no slowing down.”
After all, only amateurs return to training a few days after a marathon!
Just as elite runners reduce their training in the lead up to a race, they do the same afterwards.
Seasoned runners ease back into their regular training routine.
I have infused it with my research about postpartum bodily healing.
Note: This plan is based on recovery times for a vaginal birth.
Last and not least, if you’re still not convicted that you need to hardcore rest after giving birth, here’s one more reason.
Research indicates that the muscle stress from running a marathon can last up to two weeks, and longer for non-runners.
Studies also demonstrate that soreness (or the lack thereof) is not a good indicator of healing.
In other words, just because you aren’t sore anymore doesn’t mean that you are fully healed.
This is the danger for marathon runners and new mothers alike: acute soreness fades after a few days, but submicroscopic stress within the muscle cells may remain.
If you return to your “normal life” too soon—doing more and faster than the tissues are ready for—you risk delaying full recovery and the chance to feel energised in the following months.
To avoid this, I recommend a “reverse taper”.
Light movement is gradually increased over the weeks after birth. By the fourth, fifth or sixth week, your regular level of activity is approached. You can use this opportunity to celebrate your success and recharge your systems.
14-Day Recovery Plan
|You gave birth||Birth the placenta. Rinse off and try to pee.|
Let your baby do a breast crawl, and watch them instinctively seek out your nipple.
Jump back into bed and snooze with your baby.
|Congratulations! Welcome to the tribe of women who have gone before and made it to the other side: motherhood.|
Many types of days ahead, but for now, enjoy the sweetness of your baby and the overwhelm of emotions just below the surface of your heart…wow, you did it!
|Day 1 / Rest||Everything is brought to you. |
Only get up for the toilet, to change a pad or for a quick shower, if you want one.
Sleep, snuggles and baby-staring are your core activities.
Eat well and stay hydrated to support poop #1.
|Normal bleeding soaks one maternity pad every few hours. |
Try to do one thing for yourself today—shower, listen to a favourite playlist, request food you love, drink yummy tea etc.
Roll to your side to get up (not via a ‘crunch’).
|Day 2 / Rest||Repeat Day 1.||The first poop back is often very awkward so go slow. |
Drinking lots of water and eating a plant-based diet can make this process easy peasy.
Bleeding continues but is lesser and darker in colour (7-12cm stain on maternity pad).
|Day 3 / Rest||Repeat Day 1.||Emotions run wild today—teary, often sleep-deprived and the pain of breastfeeding can be a lot. Milk is starting to come in. |
Get support from a midwife, doula or lactation consultant for your breastfeeding latch—it shouldn’t hurt. It will begin hurting (pain 8/10) but should (within 30 seconds on latching) reduce to 4/10 pain and then down to 0/10.
Don’t give up! Alternative using nipple shields if you’re chaffed.
Don’t forget to enjoy the accomplishment of your birth.
|Day 4 / Slow & Easy||Try and organise for all food to be prepared without your input. |
Sleep, snuggles and baby-staring are your core activities.
Eat well and stay hydrated to facilitate recovery.
|You may like to have a few visitors over for a short 45 – 60 minute visit. |
You may like to lay down (they visit you in your bedroom while you’re lying in bed), or you might be keen to sit in your living room.
Ask them to kindly bring whatever you need—extra wipes, nappies, bread to share, etc.
|Day 5 / Rest||Repeat Day 4. |
You may enjoy sitting or lying in a different room today.
Find some sunshine today, if possible.
|Soreness should be subsiding, but strenuous activity will lead to more bleeding and pain the next day. |
Keep taking it easy—try to stretch yourself to rest harder and more thoroughly than ever before. Seriously, I believe in you.
|Day 6 / Slow & Easy||Repeat Day 4.||You may like to have a few visitors over for a short 45 – 60 minute visit. |
Again, ask them kindly to bring food to share or perhaps they can bring groceries or peg out the washing.
|Day 7 / Slow & Easy||Repeat Day 4. |
Gentle walking for 2-10 minutes outside, in the sunshine, if possible.
|Bleeding is a lighter flow, with less than a 7cm stain on your pads.|
|Day 8 / Slow & Easy||You may enjoy making yourself simple food today. |
Gentle walking for 2-10 minutes outside, in the sunshine, if possible is an excellent idea.
|Hydrating snack platters are great for any time during the day.|
For example Medjool dates, sliced cucumber, in-season berries, banana, apple, celery,
Your baby can sleep in their bed while you do this, or be held by dad (or someone else).
Or maybe you’ll want them snuggled up, held to your chest, in a soft wrap.
|Day 9 / Rest||You may enjoy sitting or lying in a different room today. Ideally, food is still prepared for you. |
Sleep, snuggles and baby-staring are your core activities.
|Soreness should be subsiding. |
You may enjoy writing your birth story today to reflect on the past week.
|Day 10 / Take It Easy||Repeat Day 8.||Soreness should be mostly gone and you are finding your stride again. |
Overcoming tiredness and getting patches of restorative sleep are a priority.
If you had some tearing, this may still be tender and healing.
|Day 11 / Take It Easy||Repeat Day 8.||Depending on how your body feels, you should notice your pace increasing and your body returning to its rhythm. |
Encourage yourself to still, and rest harder than you expect to. Your brain may still be getting used to your new level of normal and you may non consciously push yourself harder than your season can support.
This leads to mastitis and other painful consequences that your author wishes she knew about before experiencing!
|Day 12 / Rest||Repeat Day 9.||Take things slower than you think. Try having a shower today, and get someone to wash the sheets—they’re probably milk stained many times over by now. |
Time to feel fresh! There’s nothing better than climbing, tired, into clean sheets and a freshly made bed.
|Day 13 / Take It Easy||You may enjoy making yourself simple food today. |
Gentle walking for up to 10 minutes outside, in the sunshine, if possible is an excellent idea.
You may be ready to start getting back to simple daily tasks like pegging washing out.
|Take things slower than you think. |
Try to do three things for yourself today—a cup of tea, shower, wash your hair, cafe coffee, eat your favourite snack, watch something you love etc.
Start giving yourself permission to be a separate person from your perfect little human—you matter too.
You deserve time to yourself to rest and recharge—breastfeeding is a full-time job, literally, let alone changing nappies, and all the other household tasks you may normally do.
|Day 14 / Take It Easy||Repeat Day 13.||You should start to feel a bit more like yourself again. |
Over the next month, gradually increase your daily activity volume toward your normal level, while expecting your new normal to be a slower overall pace than your pre-baby lifestyle.
Lighter flow, you may have some maternity pads that are hardly stained.
So, I hope this 14-day plan gives you some ideas for structuring your time directly after giving birth.
As everyone seems to say (but it’s true!), these early newborn days seem to just fly past. And for me, that’s bittersweet.
Yet, I truly believe preparing (like I’ve explained above) will help you soak up the goodness of those irreplaceable moments with your new baby.
Let’s all learn to rest harder, ladies. We are damn worth it!
Stephanie Renee Cluff