Rachel Stillwell, is originally from New Zealand and is a keen cyclist. She rode right through her pregnancy and now loves to ride with her baby. Here she shares her experience of cycling after birth, offering helpful advice for others looking to do the same
'Can I eat blue cheese and rare steak?' The Swiss doctor said yes, no problem, just avoid strong flavours that might affect your milk, like asparagus. 'Can I do sport, yoga and cycling ?'. No yoga, she said, not until your six week check-up. However there's no reason why you can't recommence cycling after childbirth as soon as you feel like it, taking it easy of course. I couldn't believe my luck. The internet had convinced me that I'd have to wait six weeks until getting back on my bike. I asked my midwife the same question just to be sure. Oui, was the answer, tu peux faire du vélo.
With my one week old baby in care of his papa, I tentatively rolled my pregnancy bike out of the bike store. I climbed onto the seat nervously, anticipating discomfort and maybe pain. I was first surprised and then thrilled to find I felt fine, and with high spirits I rolled down the hill to the supermarket, feeling almost normal.
The American College of Gynaecology state that you can restart cycling after childbirth as soon as you feel up to it, providing you’ve cycled before and during your pregnancy. If you chose other types of exercise after your baby arrives, thirty minutes five times a week is recommended at an intensity at which you can talk but not sing.
Care is essential with any post partum exercise as your body is going through major changes with your uterus healing and ligaments still loose. Those not accustomed to cycling shouldn’t chose this moment to start serious cycling or any kind of exercise. However, if like me your doctor gives you the green light to get back on your bike after birth, you might be surprised at how good you feel when you do try it.
Can I cycle up mountains?
At my six week check-up I asked the doctor if I could I start doing some serious cycling, like up mountains ? Her advice was to do what ever feels good, listen to my body, and adapt my cycling accordingly. Will hard physical exercise would affect my milk? No, definately not, she reassured me, milk production should not change and claims about lactic acid affecting breastmilk are unfounded.
Sweating as I pushed the pram home in the blazing July sunshine, I decided that I needed an objective. I decided that I would climb the Saleve, 1,379m, before the end of summer. To get up that mountain would take some preparation.
The milk alarm clock...
Breastfeeding is a symbiotic relationship between mum and baby – meaning you can only leave your baby in between feeding times. For me this meant a maximum three hour window, and when I took into account getting dressed, getting out the door and needing to be back half an hour early in case of a baby breakdown (baby deciding he needs to be fed early and screaming to make sure everyone understands that), the three hours became two and a half.
With a baby bottle in the fridge in case of emergency, it was with trepidation that I hit the road for my first real ride in almost a year. With the wind on my face and the road under my wheel, I felt strong and free. I grinned at the fields of sunflowers and passersby, revelling in the energy I felt, the sleepless nights since baby arrived no longer important. I rode for an hour and a half and joyfully returned home to tell my partner how surprisingly well it had gone. It’s the muscle memory, he said as he handed the hungry baby.
On something of a high, I told my ex-cycling buddies about my ride and somehow I committed to joining their weekly road ride over a mountain pass the following week. Despite the thrill I’d felt on my last outing, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my able bodied friends as we climbed what I’d normally consider the leisurely 5% Col de Saxel. I mentally prepared myself for the worst, seeing myself straining and struggling up the col while everyone waited for me at the top. Between imagining failure and chatting with my friends, I didn’t notice that we had arrived. We were at the top, 943m. My scalp tingled with endorphins. I could not quite believe it. I felt almost normal, like my pre-baby self, as we broke out our homemade muesli bars around the water fountain.
The following week I climbed the Saleve!
The right kit
The right equipment is essential no matter what sport you are doing. As with cycling while pregnant, cycling after childbirth also requires a bit of thought in terms of kit. For me the most essential change to my cycling gear was a much more supportive sports bra, because as your cycling, your body is making milk and that milk needs support.
Other cyclists change lycra and bike seats. Ultimately adapt whatever you need to in order to be comfortable.
I used to think that labour would be like cycling up the Saleve 10 times without stopping. It wasn’t, it was harder, longer and less predictable. Pregnancy and birth are great at putting things into perspective. But this doesn’t mean physical challenges are easy afterwards. Quite the opposite, with your body recovering from major changes and sleep deprivation wearing you down, getting back on the bike can seem like a colossal challenge.
Just like cycling up a mountain, the challenge is as mental as it is physical. Your muscles haven’t forgotten those kilometers you rode and mountains you climbed. So be brave and trust in your body. Getting back on your bike will do you a world of good, it did me.
After all, it is just like riding a bike.