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  • Danyell Russell, PT, DPT

5 Things I Learned In My First Year as a Postpartum Athlete

Today is my son’s first birthday! It’s hard to believe that he’s a year old. This also means that I have been postpartum for one full year. While this was my second pregnancy and postpartum journey, I was not active with my first baby during pregnancy or early postpartum. So in many ways, this was a whole new experience. This process has been anything but easy, but I have learned a ton in this last year and I wanted to share some of the things I learned in my first year as a postpartum athlete.

  1. Prioritize sleep: All Mamas know that after having a baby, sleep is a hot commodity. Some babies sleep really well and some not so much. I was fortunate that my little one began sleeping through the night around 6 months old. But even still, we occasionally have sleepless nights. I learned really quickly that the times when he wasn’t sleeping well, that I would have to take the rest when I could get it. Sometimes that meant not going to the gym. As much as I wanted to be there, I knew that my body needed the rest. And besides, if I were not well rested, I would not perform well anyway.

  2. Slow down to speed up: This was SO hard for me, and I think it’s hard for a lot of Mama’s in the postpartum stage. I struggle with the all or nothing mentality, and I had a hard time keeping the weight light, the volume low, and the modifications I needed to make in place. I went back to the gym when I was 10 weeks postpartum, but knew that I would need to make modifications for a while. Even as a physical therapist. Even as a pregnancy and postpartum specialist. Even with the knowledge I have about how we recover postpartum. I struggled so much with just wanting to “bounce back” and “get back to normal.” I will admit, I overdid it quite a bit throughout this process. I set myself back a few times because I got too ambitious. I needed to be reminded that I needed to slow down. Once I slowed down and focused on the fact that I was recovering, I started seeing progress in my ability to perform better and with fewer symptoms (and later, none).

  3. PRs can wait: Pregnancy and childbirth have a HUGE impact on your body. I like to tell my clients that it is like having an injury, which is exactly how it should be treated. The muscles in your pelvic floor, abdomen, and hips have all endured a major trauma, regardless of how you deliver your baby. It takes time (and often help from a pelvic floor physical therapist 🙂🙂) for these tissues to heal well and for them to be ready to take on load again. There is a lot to take into consideration when thinking about returning to loading postpartum and the progression back into those skills, which is outside of the scope of this post (but stay tuned, it’s coming!) As a GENERAL guideline, returning to pre-pregnancy loads should occur around 9 months to a year. Yes, you read that right: 9 months to a year. Obviously every woman is different. Every pregnancy is different. Every postpartum journey is different. What works for one woman won’t necessarily work for every woman. The point here is that the PRs can wait!

  4. If you do too much and cause symptoms, it’s not the end of the world: If you’re working back into postpartum activity, you’ll probably overdo it at some point. I certainly did. My biggest symptoms postpartum were heaviness/fullness in my pelvic floor, leaking or feeling like I was going to leak urine, and knee pain. Yup! Knee pain (or pain elsewhere) can happen if you overdo it postpartum, because you may be lacking the tolerance to load your pelvic floor which can cause compensation in other areas, like your knee. There were a few times after I went back to the gym that I overdid it and one of these three things popped up. The good news is that these symptoms usually resolved within 24-48 hours after they showed up. If you have symptoms after activity, don’t panic! More than likely you haven’t caused any long term issues and you’ve just caused a flare up of your symptoms. Take note of what you did that caused the flare up, so you can tone it down a little the next time you do that activity. While you’re having the symptoms, you can keep moving but modify the things that cause your symptoms to avoid making the symptoms worse.

  5. Focus on skill and form first, then add load: One of the things I loved about being postpartum is that it was kind of like a clean slate. The things that I have always sucked at I still sucked at. But guess what, the things I was kind of good at I sucked at too. This means I was able to get better at the things that I sucked at, and work more on the skill of the things I used to be decent at. Since I had to drop the weight on things like squats and deadlifts, I really had time and the focus to work on the skill of those movements. And since I've always had a wonky bar path with Olympic lifting, I was able to really work on improving the skill of my Olympic lifting. Now at 12 months postpartum I am lifting heavier than I ever have and my Olympic lifting is looking better (still very far from perfect, but better). Burpees are still the worst and I still hate running, but I'm getting better at those things as well. By having to take a step back and really focus on technique, I am starting to be a better CrossFitter and overall better athlete. This has made me more well-rounded as an athlete even though lifting is still my favorite.

This has been a whirlwind of a year, and I cannot believe that my little guy is a year old. Happy Birthday, Jordan! Mama loves you!

I also can't believe how much I've changed in the last year. I can't wait to see how things continue to progress.

Are you pregnant or postpartum? What did you learn as a postpartum athlete?

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