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New help for women returning to running after giving birth

​News | 28 September 2021

Researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University are the first to help women return to running following childbirth using recovery methods traditionally used in sport.

The team of academic and clinical experts at Cardiff School of Sport and Health Sciences joined forces with Swansea University to provide a unique understanding of how medical practitioners can best support women in returning to running following childbirth.

This pioneering research has resulted in the publication of a set of evidence-informed key messages to assist medical practitioners, such as GPs, midwives and physiotherapists, working with postpartum women.

The research team surveyed 881 postpartum women via an online questionnaire and found four main factors influencing a woman’s return to running journey:

Running during pregnancy positively influences the likelihood of returning to running following childbirth

Suffering from the sensation of vaginal heaviness reduced the likelihood of returning to running

A high ‘fear of movement’ reduced the likelihood of returning to running

A high running volume before pregnancy increased the odds of returning to pre-pregnancy running levels.

‘Fear of movement’ is seen widely across the sporting spectrum following major injuries – with athletes apprehensive to carry out certain movements in case it results in pain or compromises their recovery. This is the first time this concept has been applied to postpartum care.

The research, which has been published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, also suggests that fear of movement and vaginal heaviness can be addressed in clinical practice.

Reader in Human Movement and Sports Medicine at Cardiff Met, Dr Izzy Moore led the study and said: "Following childbirth, women may struggle to return to exercise which can significantly affect both maternal and child health.

"Our research is therefore important as it shows how the traditional concept of childbirth recovery simply being ‘natural’ requiring little support should be replaced with a sports recovery model. Furthermore, our research shows us that mothers should be supported to undertake active recoveries following childbirth.

"This new way of thinking benefits women because in essence, returning to an active lifestyle following childbirth can have long-term health benefits for both mother and child.

"Ultimately, our message is clear – health professionals should educate, support and empower women to remain physically active during pregnancies, where it is safe to do so."

Physiotherapist Gráinne Donnelly was clinical lead for the project and added: "The clinical-academic collaboration enabled us to make our research clinically relevant and meaningful. By ensuring elements consistently seen in clinical practice were considered, we were able to identify that fear of movement was present in the postpartum population and vaginal heaviness seems to influence return to running, rather than perineal traumas.

"Our findings are directly relevant and transferrable into clinical practice and reinforce the importance of evaluating each woman as an individual and crucially, considering physical and mental factors which influence their return to exercise following childbirth.

"Our research highlights the need for a proactive rather than reactive approach to postpartum care. We need to ensure all women are supported during and after pregnancy to lessen the risk of these modifiable experiences."

Steph Dunlop lives in Derry, Northern Ireland and worked with physiotherapist Gráinne Donnelly on her postpartum returning to running. Steph said: "I have two children – a three-year-old girl and an eleven-month-old boy and worked with Gráinne after both births. The return to running clinical guidelines were published in between my kids, so with my youngest I felt so much more prepared to return to running.

"After the birth of my youngest child, I set myself a goal to rehabilitate and lose a bit of weight with lower impact work but I found that coming up to six months postpartum I started having a heaviness type feeling and panicked about having a prolapse.

"I initially visited Gráinne for my postpartum check at about seven weeks where she set a programme of tummy exercises to regain strength and graded impact to get me ready for running. If I hadn’t seen Gráinne I think I would have been a lot more conservative and slower with my rehabilitation."

This research project is part of Cardiff Met’s Global Academy for Health and Human Performance and Centre for Health, Activity and Wellbeing Research (CAWR).