“Giving birth is like a Marathon” is something you would hear frequently from non-marathon running people. Yes, both are tough, exhausting workouts, with a great reward at the end and a long, painful recovery. So when I ran 12 Marathons for charity in 2018 and got pregnant after Marathon no. 9, I thought I was overly prepared for childbirth and labor. I thought I would easily go through that painful process and have a speedy recovery because of my fitness and mental toughness. And I can say that this was at least partially true.
How Marathon running has helped me prepare for childbirth and labor
Everybody knows that you need to be fit and physically prepared to run a Marathon. Giving birth is not that different. It is a physical workout. Luckily your body will automatically train for birth. Your uterus will go through some “practice” contractions, also called Braxton Hicks contractions, before actual labor starts. This will prepare your uterus, which is in the end just a muscle, for real contractions.
In addition to my natural uterus contractions I tried to maintain my fitness throughout my pregnancy with moderate running, indoor cycling, and strength training. This helped avoiding back pain and excessive weight gain. And my arms and upper body were much stronger to carry my baby afterwards (which you have to do constantly as a mom). Here you can read my blog post on benefits and risks of exercising during pregnancy.
If you have ever run a Marathon you know that nutrition can heavily influence your race. It is recommended to eat a light and easily digestible breakfast low in fiber, and to take in easily digestible carbohydrates throughout your race. In addition you should stay hydrated. So I basically followed the same strategy when giving birth. I still had a light dinner when I was admitted to the hospital (while I had light contractions), and later during labor I fueled my body with a special sports drink that contained easily digestible sugars and electrolytes. I only changed my fueling strategy later when I had to get an IV.
After the race you should try to refuel properly with carbohydrates and protein. And this is also what you should do after giving birth. In my case I chose the healthy, fiber rich options from my hospital menu. The additional fiber was especially helpful to ease up my stool to avoid pain after my episiotomy.
Every Marathon runner knows: training and nutrition are important, but so is having the right gear on race day. And birth is similar in a lot of ways. You want to be equipped with the right tools to give you the birth you want. This could be a birth stool, a big gymnastics ball, a CD player or bluetooth speaker, a chair, a bath tub, massage oil or even just a baby toy to squeeze during contractions. You want to wear something that you feel comfortable in, but that can also get dirty. And just like in a Marathon: Don’t forget that hairband! Because you don’t want your sweaty hair all over your face.
If you remember your first Marathon you also remember the recovery afterwards. It is really hard. You were probably not able to walk for days, and you felt exhausted for a few weeks. Maybe you were in pain, and you could not properly sleep because of all the adrenaline. Giving birth is similar, no matter if naturally or via cesarean. Recovery will take a while, so don’t rush it. Stay in bed for as long as you want and need. Try to get good sleep and eat nutritious and healthy foods. Be proud of what you have accomplished. Soak up that feeling as much as possible. Soon you will be back feeling stronger than before.
Having a good support crew is important for your Marathon. You want people to take your anxiety away before the race, cheer you on during the race when you are feeling low and celebrate with you afterwards. Also for birth you need a support crew. This could of course be your doctor, your midwife, your doula etc. Bust most importantly it is your (birth) partner. You want to work together as a team in this very important workout. Ideally your birth partner should support you with whatever you need and lift your spirits when you are feeling low. Because running and giving birth is really a team challenge.
Nowadays mental training is considered a cornerstone of how professional Marathon runners and other athletes prepare for competitions. Maybe you have seen a professional skier on TV who imagines skiing the race and also moves the body accordingly. And it has been proven that their various strategies of how to visualize themselves in a competition before the event can increase the physical performance. And even though I am not a professional runner, I believe that the right mindset and mental training can improve not only your results but also your experience on race day.
And this is also true when it comes to labor and giving birth. There are a lot of visualization techniques that you can practice before your actual due date. Some techniques are quite simple like imagining a blooming flower or waves in the ocean. Others are marketed with fancy names like Hypnobirthing. I personally read a few books and picked the things that I liked. And I think that it has helped me at least a little bit during my extensive labor.
How Marathon running could not prepare me for birth
I will not lie about it: giving birth is way more painful than running a Marathon. There is no way to describe the feelings if you have never experienced it before. It probably is the MOST PAINFUL WORKOUT you will ever do in your life. But even if it is really painful, there is nothing to worry about. As a woman you will develop female superpowers and will find strengths that you never knew you had. Trust me, you’ve got this.
A Marathon has a fixed distance of 42.195 km. You probably know your pace, and know you can finish it in around x hours. With giving birth it is not the case. If you are giving birth naturally you don’t know when it will start, when it will end and how long it will take. It could be two hours or two days.
For me this was a bit worrying. My baby was already overdue and I was scared to have an induction. Even when it came naturally I did not know how long it would still be until I would be finally be done with all the pain (see point above). I did not know if I still had enough gas left in my tank, especially because I had never done it before. In the end, my labor lasted nearly 24 hours. Even if I have done longer races than a full Marathon and even one 24 hour race, I was completely unprepared for this.
When you finish a Marathon you are happy. Happy that you are done, happy that you have accomplished your goal, happy about the medal you get. But all the joys of Marathon running are so small compared to the feeling you have when holding your baby for the first time. When you hear your baby scream for the first time. And when you smell that precious baby scent for the first time. That feeling of joy is beyond everything you can ever imagine. And it is definitely worth all the long hours of pain and complications you might have gone through to get there.