Marathons vs birth: a (slightly) scientific discussion

“She’s run a couple of marathons, I think”

Even with a gas & air pipe clamped between my teeth, I was able to correct my birth partner’s inaccurate knowledge of my running achievements & earned some further approving noises from the midwife in between the general encouragement. I also told her the story of how I found out and how I had kept fit & active during pregnancy. She & the other midwives were impressed, & assured me that I would be absolutely fine to do this if I was a marathon finisher. I was less convinced.

The last calm moment

There’s a lot been written comparing pregnancy, birth and exercise, from the funny listicles to the fairly well-executed science analysing the effect on the body. Basically, marathons and childbirth are both difficult, painful, physically and mentally taxing, and require a decent period of recovery afterwards. This blog analyses it all quite well from a runner’s perspective, & gives a good comparison between tapering/late pregancy and the second wind at mile 25/second stage labour. Getting your breathing under control is key for both activities; struggling with this has let me down both in running and in labour. But visualisation and mantras have helped me for both too.

On balance – based on acute pain experienced & the ability to pack the whole thing in if required – I would much rather run a marathon than give birth. There were plenty of similarities:

  • Copious amounts of Lucozade consumed (& then Lucozade-induced nausea)
  • Sore muscles everywhere the day afterwards
  • A fair amount of self-doubt, although marathon doubt is quite introspective, and like many labouring women I was quite vocal about wanting to give up IMMEDIATELY and go home
  • Jelly babies & fruit pastilles that seem appetising beforehand but are THE ABSOLUTE FUCKING WORST when trying to chew and swallow them during the event
  • Lots of affirmations & positivity from spectators who aren’t the ones putting the effort in
  • Needing to pee but not wanting to take the time to do so
  • When it’s finished, there is such relief you no longer have to keep going

On the other hand, there’s no medal at the end of birth (I did get some balloons), no post-event pub visit (there is tea), and it took a bit longer to recover from. I’ve heard of people being unable to walk properly for several days following a marathon but I’ve always been OK, with just minor to moderate DOMS. Five days after the birth, I walked a slow mile and had to rest afterwards. I’d been used to that gradual slowdown in late pregnancy but it still gave me the fear that I would never, ever recover properly from this.

Happily, each day got easier and despite the awful Glasgow weather, I have walked as much as possible. I now feel close to normal and am looking forward to starting a full postnatal exercise plan very soon.

walking is awesome

However, the obvious difference between childbirth and marathons is that in spite of encouragement and mental strength, if you want to stop running a marathon half way through because it’s too difficult or painful, then you absolutely can.

I had a normal, uncomplicated delivery. This is what medical professionals keep calling it; I am fine with uncomplicated but it was not normal for me. It was scary and painful and at many points I did not feel at all in control of what was happening, despite all of the positive birth books and yoga breathing & other stuff I had done or read in the weeks leading up to it. I was praised for not showing up at the hospital until things were well under way, and that I must have a strong pain threshold. As I’ve been lucky enough to never have had a serious injury or illness, I have no idea what my pain threshold is. For now, it’s birth. I am no longer scared of anything, after the final few minutes of childbirth.

Honestly the best thing about this is how I had neatly placed my trainers in the corner of the room several hours earlier

Despite the pain and fear, I am pleased that everything went OK and that all the science and data about good physical fitness leading to a quick and easy birth was the case for me. Active labour lasted about 6 hours, and the second stage was extremely short and took the midwives by surprise, who were both still getting their gloves on when the baby appeared. I had been determined to keep active and upright for as long as I could, which turned out well as when I did have to lie down for an examination, the overwhelming tiredness kicked in from being awake all night and I would have definitely stayed on the bed if no one had encouraged me to get up again. I didn’t react well to the encouragement but that’s quite normal, apparently, and things progressed very quickly from that point onward.

Obviously I kept my Garmin on throughout in order to record some good data. This is my 24 hour heart rate on the day:

It doesn’t look like I thought it would. The first 10 hours of this (including the lack of movement where the software thinks I was asleep) is labour, clearly showing my heart rate dropping and stabilising when I stopped wandering around the ward and got into the birthing pool (5:30am) and then a slight peak at 9am when the baby was born. The red peaks are caused by having a shower and walking to get dinner, which were the activities that increased my heart rate most as my physical fitness is now ruined.

This, for contrast, is the London Marathon 2019:

Aside from how I am too old to have a peak heart rate of 185, the physical effort looks greater and more consistent for a marathon, and I’d still rather run one.

Garmin data was backed up by the many vital signs checks that we both received over the next 24 hours. After a night in hospital, we were able to come home and a new normal is under construction. At this stage I can just about see how hobbies and interests can be pursued again at some point, and running seems easier than the gym at the moment so I’ll definitely start with that. My small collection of kettlebells and weights that are stashed in a corner of the baby’s room will also be put to use. At the moment, I have to eat and sleep when the baby sleeps, but fingers crossed that a few more weeks gives me the time and space to come back properly. I’m sticking to walks and healthy eating for now, but I have some summer race entries that will need a training plan…

Data is beautiful

Sundays are strange now. Even if it wasn’t a long run day, I would usually go to running club and brunch afterwards. More recently it’s been a gym day. Today it’s been neither, & although I was awake before 8, the dull skies and rain made it very easy to take a cup of tea & breakfast back to bed.

Running has taken a back seat recently due to dark evenings and busy weekends, but I’m aware that every week I don’t run, the more likely I am to not get back to it. There has been plenty of walking, which is apparently just as good for keeping up cardio fitness. A few months ago I was sceptical of this, but these days the data proves it.

This graph shows my heart rate getting consistently up to around 140bpm with a day of nothing but intervals of steady walking. Fair enough it was a busy day of doing things, but usually I would get to about 100bpm with a very brisk and uphill walk, and this is off the scale. Resting heart rate has increased from 45-50bpm to around 70bpm and I’ve never felt so unfit in my life. Keeping an eye on data & metrics does attract eye-rolls from certain people, but it has been useful for me to see the slow decline and keep an eye on my fitness in this temporary weird state.

In the past few weeks I have felt physically out of breath from periods of walking too, as the space available for my lungs & diaphragm keeps decreasing. I went on an 8km hike around my favourite loch last week and was pretty tired by the end of it, & very glad that I’d changed course from the planned 20km hike due to snow & poor weather.

still amazing, though

Next week I’m planning a couple of steady treadmill running sessions, to keep out of the rain & so that I can keep an eye on speed & heart rate a bit better. Lifting still feels good, but my big lift loadings are now around 50% of my 1RM and I aim for 30-50 reps over 3 or 4 sets. My muscle tone is holding up fairly well, and although my abs are still just about holding it together, the next few weeks will be the challenge to that. Will be making an effort to cat/cow every day, not just on yoga day…