Baby steps: postnatal running and mental health

There are many standout memories from the first few weeks of my son’s life: the first walk in the sunshine, the first time he met his grandparents, my first Mother’s Day card. But one thing I won’t forget is sobbing hysterically whilst trying to sterilise and assemble a breast pump, terrified that touching it with my hands would contaminate it.

There was another incident, around the same time, where I was trying to catch up on sleep one afternoon but (again) couldn’t stop crying. My eyes refused to close despite the exhaustion, and I realised I now hated my bedroom, once a peaceful and comfortable sanctuary but now strewn with screwed-up muslin cloths, half-drunk glasses of water, and piles of stuff that I couldn’t imagine finding the time to put away.

Remember when there wasn’t stuff everywhere

The baby blues come on suddenly and pass after a few days, says every book and website, and it’s a normal response to hormones. But it went on and on, up and down, some days wonderful and other days an absolute pit of despair and regret where I ignored my friends, snapped at my mother and resented everything. I felt stupid, incompetent and ungrateful, and even more so at 4am when alone with my thoughts. Social media was no relief, full of people’s achievements, or their hobbies, holidays and tidy houses. Night after night I sat on the sofa, wondering if I’d ever sleep again, and then deriding my own problems as petty nonsense, scrolling news websites reporting the rise of a new virus sweeping the world.

Time moves on and everyone’s lives have changed. My son has spent half his life in lockdown, seeing his extended family on a phone screen and being primarily entertained by me hanging up the washing. There are benefits, of course – everything is still new to him, so it doesn’t matter that we read the same books and walk in the same park every day. Zoom and FaceTime catch-ups with pals can be muted if he starts to cry, which wouldn’t happen in the pub. And my partner now works from home most of the time, which has good for us all and has been key to helping me return to running quickly and consistently.

I exercised throughout pregnancy and was lucky to have a straightforward birth with no complications. After a couple of weeks I was feeling physically good when walking several miles and was convinced that getting back to exercise would improve my mental state. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but circumstances aligned – enough sleep, feeling physically ready, and decent enough weather – to get me out for a run 5 weeks after giving birth. Buoyed by cheering on Glasgow Frontrunners‘ Couch to 5km graduation run a few days earlier, I’d set no expectations, heading out on a 5km loop near my house that I’ve run at least weekly for the past few years, with enough hills to challenge me and enough traffic lights to allow a brief rest if needed. No longer sure of my physical capabilities, I was apprehensive, but I (slowly) ran the whole distance. For the first time in months, I felt like myself again; like all the extraordinary, irreversible changes in my life hadn’t altered my sense of self so much that running didn’t feel the same. There was still that freedom, that wonderful way that the brain fog clears with every stride.

Cuddles after that first run

It took a week or so before I was recovered enough or well-rested enough to try again, but each time got easier and I’m now running multiple times a week and working on increasing distance as well as pace. I’d entered a few summer 10k races which have all since been cancelled and although it’s disappointing, it would possibly have been too soon for racing and I would have been frustrated at my slower times. But with nearly three months of no running, and a stone and a half heavier than when I was marathon training, it’s going to take a while to get back to where I was. Talking to other Jog Leaders about their experiences and getting their advice has been very useful, and Jog Scotland’s facilitation of a Zoom chat as part of Maternal Mental Health Week was a great way to share stories and talk about the ways in which running has changed for us all recently.

Chatting to women who’ve been there and done that, or who were going through the same things I was, was useful to hear. In some ways, the current situation has made it easier for me – I can run when it suits me and the baby, no longer having to fit in with my partner’s work hours. Likewise when I return to work in a few weeks, I’ll be working from home, and making time to head for a lunchtime run as often as possible.

My mental health is still changeable; I can’t unravel the postnatal hormones from the stress of lockdown and that’s probably not unusual. I haven’t been diagnosed with PND or PNA, but my GP check-up and ongoing health visitor support have both been cut back significantly due to Coronavirus, like a lot of community health services, so for now I’m generally OK. Almost everyone is struggling a bit at the moment, and I am so lucky to have what I do and be in the situation I’m in. Most of all, I am grateful to be back to running, even if it’s slow and there’s no training plan or upcoming races, as it so clearly helps me. Getting out in the fresh air has always been a great mood booster and it’s even more important to make time for that now, whilst staying safe and appreciating the little things in life.

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