Elite Distance Runners and Breastfeeding: What You Need to Know

woman running on a road in red tights
December 11th, 2018 0 Comments

Hunter Bennett

Over the last few years we have seen a huge increase in the popularity of female sports. With this has come rise in female sport participation, and an associated increase in the funding that female athletes receive on year by year basis. The result?

A massive jump in the performance capabilities of female athletes. Now while this is indeed a very good thing, there are a few key areas that we still need to catch up on – with specific emphasis on health-related research surrounding elite athlete mothers.

This unique population requires a huge amount of attention to detail. Without it, they may struggle to adequately maintain an elite level of performance while also ensuring their own health – and obviously, the health of their newly born child.

Building on this notion a little further, one area that is of significant interest revolves around elite endurance athletes and breastfeeding.

Related Article: Pregnancy & Running By Trimester

How can I ease back into running postpartum?

It is commonly accepted that the physical effects of pregnancy on the human body may persist for around 4-6 weeks postpartum (ACOG, 2002).

Despite this, many endurance athletes have been shown to recommence regular running training during the first month of the postpartum period without any incidence of injury or associated musculoskeletal complications (Tenforde, 2015). So, what’s the deal?

In short, elite endurance athletes tend to have a number of years training under their belt. Moreover, they also keep up some sort of training throughout the entire pregnancy, which in turn makes it much easier to recommence exercise after childbirth.

Now if you are wondering what you can do to ease back into running postpartum, the key is to keep exercising. Throughout your pregnancy, there is merit in continuing running during each trimester.

Woman holding child on the beach

In fact, research would suggest that as long as you don’t exceed the amount of work that you were doing before you got pregnant, both you and your unborn child will be perfectly fine (Mottola, 2002).

Know Your Limits

It is important to note that you should only perform as much exercise as you feel comfortable doing. You know your limits, and what feels good and what doesn’t – so listen to your body.

In conjunction with this, it is also in your best interest to include some hip and core strengthening exercises throughout the duration of your pregnancy, as well as early into your postpartum period. Exercises such as glute bridges, clams, bird dogs, and side planks are your best bets here (Brumitt, 2009).

This will not only ensure that you maintain strength in the key muscle groups essential for running performance, but also facilitate the recovery process associated with giving birth, fast-tracking your return to running in the process.

Taking all of this into consideration, it is important to note that you still need to ease into it.

Start your return to running by keeping both your pace and distance relatively low – this will limit your risk of injury and allow you to gradually progress to your prenatal running levels.

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How does breastfeeding affect running performance?

Breastfeeding is absolutely essential for the optimal growth, development, and overall health of your newborn baby – so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) have gone as far as to suggest that, if possible, infants should be exclusively breastfed for their first 6 months on this planet (Gartner, 2005).

But what is not often considered is the impact that breastfeeding may have on running performance.

Now, it is important to note that the physical act of producing milk does not appear to have a physiological impact on running performance or aerobic fitness capabilities.

However, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that it can impact it in other ways. You see, breastfeeding itself has been shown to act as a barrier to training.

The fact of the matter is, when you are breastfeeding, you are working entirely to another individuals schedule – an individual who does not care for your training schedule, your personal goals, or your competing priorities.

An individual who only cares about their own needs… not that we can blame them of course.

And although pumping breast milk does offer a means to avoid the likelihood of you needing to breastfeed during both training and competition, it isn’t always going to be a hundred percent available to you.

Moreover, the lack of sleep associated with the breastfeeding period can also inhibit on your ability to recover from training sessions – which can have obvious and negative implications for your performance capabilities.

As a result, breastfeeding can have a negative effect on your ability to compete through these two mechanisms (Giles, 2016).

How do elite endurance athletes deal with breastfeeding?

While we certainly need more research within this growing area, there is a small amount of evidence demonstrating how elite endurance athletes cope with the rigours of training for competition, and the need to keep breastfeeding, simultaneously.

One key method used to mitigate the effect that breastfeeding can have on performance, which is pumping.

In fact, a number of elite endurance athletes have reported using breast milk pumps to pump milk in order to store it for a later date. This breastmilk was then used to help them maintain their sleeping, training, and competition schedules (Giles, 2016).

While this obviously requires a significant other to assist in the physical act of feeding the child breastmilk, it appears to provide an excellent way to limit the effect that breastfeeding can have on routine performance training.

In terms of sleep, the most appropriate way to maximize sleep quality during the breastfeeding period appears to revolve around implementing a sleep routine, and using naps when you have the time available.

This should allow adequate recovery throughout the day, irrespective of the amount of sleep you obtain during the nighttime hours (Nedelec, 2018).

Does running lower milk production?

A common query that comes up with people looking to get back into running during the postpartum periods revolves around the suggestion that it can have a negative impact on the quality and quantity of their breast milk.

However, research has shown that this isn’t a concern at all. In fact, research has clearly shown that exercise will not impact the volume of milk produced, or the macronutrient profile of the milk produced in any way, shape, or form (McCrory, 1999).

Additionally, it has also been shown to have no impact on the mineral composition of breast milk (Fly, 1998).

This ultimately means that even if you are exercising a lot, your breastmilk it is still going to be full to the brim with all the required essential vitamins and minerals, and is also going to be produced in adequate quantities.

Which is obviously a very positive thing!

Do the nutrition guidelines differ for runners who are breastfeeding?

Unfortunately, there are currently no set nutrition guidelines for lactating athletes. There are some broad recommendations that can be drawn from the research.

In a general setting, women who breastfeed require around 500 additional calories per day, beyond their normal recommended daily energy intake (Kominiarek, 2016).

This increase in energy intake essentially ensures that your body is able to produce the amount of milk that your child requires on a daily basis.

Related Article: Maternal Nutritional Requirements for Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

While this recommendation will not change in athletic and exercising populations, they do need to ensure that they account for the energy they expend during exercise, and then add their 500 calories on top of that.

This will obviously be a touch more than 500 calories above than their normal daily energy expenditure.

Additionally, typical breastfeeding guidelines suggest that you need to consume around 1.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. This is compared to the 0.8 grams typically recommended of non-lactating women.

However, evidence would suggest that optimal protein intake for exercising individuals is actually closer to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (Morton, 2018).

By increasing your daily protein intake and getting it closer to this recommendation of 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight, you can ensure that you will be able to recover from rigorous training and produce enough milk every day.

Outside of these two recommendations, there is nothing else that really needs consideration. The remainder of your diet should be made up of around 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fats – which is in line with typical recommendations.

What are the best tips for running and breastfeeding?

Running after the baby and managing the requirements of breastfeeding is no easy feat. There will never be a time when training and competition become your sole – or even primary – priority during this period.

However, there are certainly a few things that you can do to make the entire process easier.

I have already discussed a couple, but they certainly require another mention:


I strongly recommend you pump and store as much milk as you can, as often as you can.

This essentially gives you some freedom around when you can train.  You will have the comfort and knowledge that your child can still be fed when you are not here. Moreover, it also means that they can be fed at night by your significant other while you get some all-important shuteye.

This is perfect for nights before a heavy training session, or even for a few nights leading into the competition.

Train around their ‘feeding schedule’

While I admit that this easier said than done, over time your child will settle into something that resembles a sort of routine. This includes somewhat regular feeding times.

Once this routine is set (well, as set as possible), try and train around it.

In my opinion, the best time to train is immediately after they have finished feeding. They should be satisfied and your running should be more physically comfortable as a result.

Choose higher intensity training

Finally, as soon as your body is prepared for the rigors of exercise, I suggest you opt for higher intensity training methods. I recommend high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

These modalities of training are extremely effective, yet take much less time to complete. This means that you can still get in some fantastic training sessions, without being away from your child for too long a time period.

It seriously is the perfect option for breastfeeding mothers!

Take Home Message

Elite distance runners have a challenging time managing their training commitments and their breastfeeding routine. They still get it done.

With this in mind, you can take a lot of the tools and tips that they use to manage both of these effectively, and implement them into your own life. This will guarantee you can keep fit and active, while also keeping your newborn baby happy.

A win-win, if you will.


Committee on Obstetric Practice. “ACOG committee opinion. Exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Number 267, January 2002. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”.  International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics: the official organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics 77.1 (2002): 79.

Tenforde, Adam S., et al. “Running habits of competitive runners during pregnancy and breastfeeding.” Sports health 7.2 (2015): 172-176.

Mottola, Michelle F. “Exercise in the postpartum period: practical applications.” Current sports medicine reports 1.6 (2002): 362-368.

Brumitt, Jason. “A return to running program for the postpartum client: a case report.” Physiotherapy theory and practice 25.4 (2009): 310-325.

Gartner, Lawrence M., et al. “Breastfeeding and the use of human milk.” Pediatrics 115.2 (2005): 496-506.

Giles, Audrey R., et al. “Elite Distance Runners and Breastfeeding: A Qualitative Study.” Journal of Human Lactation 32.4 (2016): 627-632.

Nedelec, Mathieu et al. “The Variability of Sleep Among Elite Athletes” Sports medicine – open vol. 4,1 34. 27 (2018).

McCrory, Megan A., et al. “Randomized trial of the short-term effects of dieting compared with dieting plus aerobic exercise on lactation performance–.”.  The American journal of clinical nutrition 69.5 (1999): 959-967.

Fly, Alyce D., Katherine L. Uhlin, and Janet P. Wallace. “Major mineral concentrations in human milk do not change after maximal exercise testing.”.  The American journal of clinical nutrition 68.2 (1998): 345-349.

Kominiarek, Michelle A., and Priya Rajan. “Nutrition recommendations in pregnancy and lactation.” Medical Clinics 100.6 (2016): 1199-1215.

Morton, Robert W., et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation. On resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.  Br J Sports Med 52.6 (2018): 376-384.

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