Anna Young’s race photo from the REVEL Big Cottonwood Canyon Half Marathon wasn’t your typical hunched-over, mouth agape, eyes-begging-for-the-finish-line shot. At mile eight, a photographer snapped a photo of Young, 27, pumping breastmilk midrun with the manual pump she tucked in her Camelbak.
In the spirit of nursing-runner-mom camaraderie, Young shared the photo on a breastfeeding community Facebook page, and it exploded.
Young was anxious before the start, grappling with the unease of running her first postpartum half marathon (and only her second attempt at the distance). As a new mom, she wondered if the sporadic training she found time for was enough to carry her to the finish line. Young pumped before leaving home at 3:45 a.m., so she knew she’d need to bring a pump with her and possibly stop during the race. And sure enough, at the eight-mile mark, Young felt her chest get heavy and uncomfortable.
“I decided to get my pump out and just use it for a few minutes,” Young told Runner’s World. “I was so nervous. I’ve nursed my five-month-old daughter in public before, but I know some people don’t look at it in a positive light. People give you dirty looks. But there weren’t a lot of people close to me, and I told myself no one could see what I was doing. There was one lady who turned and looked back. She cheered me on and said, ‘Way to go!’ That gave me more confidence.”
While there is undoubtedly shaming when it comes to moms breastfeeding their children in public, the taboo continues to lessen as women become more empowered, said Susan Johnson, M.F.A., I.B.C.L.C., R.L.C., a lactation consultant with Motherfed, LLC. “Women run. Women campaign for public office. And women breastfeed,” she said. “These are all normal things women do, and the more often we see women do ordinary important things, the more quickly our expectations change.”
But Johnson understands that many people (including nursing moms) still question why a woman might need to pump during a race that only lasts two or three hours. But that timing doesn’t take into account travel time or the milling about before a race. And skipping feedings tells the body it doesn’t have to produce as much milk, which can have a significant impact on the supply, Johnson said. “A race that lasts several hours separates mom and baby for several feedings. This means a mother will either need to stop to breastfeed, or slow down to pump or hand express some milk. If not, she will be physically uncomfortable, and her milk supply will take a hit,” she said. “You can't turn the breast on and off. Milk flows in response to normal breastfeeding routines.”
Young was stunned by the 2,000 shares and 11,000 reactions to the photo she posted on Facebook. She thinks it hit a nerve, among women especially, because breastfeeding can be stressful enough without factoring in daily runs or following a training program.
Young is far from the only mom to pump while on the go. Among the ultra running and Ironman crowds (in which athletes are moving for hours on end), breastfeeding and pumping during training and on race day go without saying.
Jacqueline Choi, a 35-year-old mom from Jersey City, New Jersey, said she struggled with her decision to run the Umstead 50, an endurance run through the William B. Umstead State Park in Raleigh, North Carolina, while she was still breastfeeding. (She ran a personal best at the Umstead 100 right before she got pregnant.)
“I had second thoughts about running it, as well as third and fourth and fifth thoughts,” Choi said. “Not only was I unsure whether my body would heal quickly enough from an unplanned C-section, but I was also worried that training and racing would diminish my already-meager milk supply. Fortunately, I was able to pump around the clock for a couple of months to trick my body into making more milk, and I actually had an amazing oversupply by the time I needed to race.”
Easing some of her worries, Choi checked in with other running moms, who suggested she stay hydrated and empty her breasts frequently during long-run sessions through her training and on race day. She found inspiration in ultrarunner Liza Howard, who set a course record at Umstead 100, while taking multiple pumping breaks throughout the race.
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Michele Gonzalez, 34, from Staten Island, New York, also debated whether to train and compete in her first Ironman in Lake Placid in 2013 while she was breastfeeding her son. The sheer distance and length of the race was a significant obstacle. In addition to the physical training, Gonzalez had to take special care in planning her race day.
“I made the decision to pump only during transitions—I nursed my son a bit before the start and then pumped immediately after the swim, which was roughly three hours later,” she told Runner’s World. “That part was okay. The most difficult was going through the entire 112-mile bike ride [6.5 hours] without pumping,” Gonzalez says. “By that point, my boobs were heavy and felt like they were ready to explode. I pumped in the second transition and then completed the run.”
Training and race day logistics are only a piece of the running-while-nursing puzzle. Young said another tricky aspect was fueling herself properly thanks to an increase in appetite and needing more calories—breastfeeding can burn an extra 300 to 500 calories a day. “I get hungrier now that I am breastfeeding,” she said. “On race day, I wish I had brought a snack for before the start of the race (since I had eaten at about 4 a.m.) because I was very hungry by the end.”
“Just as moms need to consider the extra logistics of breastfeeding while training, they also need to consider the extra nutritional needs,” said Tori Armul, a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Women need more calories and fluid while breastfeeding, and runners need even more calories and fluid to replenish what they burn. Running races is an amazing way to meet your goals both as a mom and an athlete, but doing both well relies on satisfying the extra calorie and fluid demands from breastfeeding and running.”
But just because training and nursing is challenging, it doesn’t mean moms need to give up their sport. Young, Choi, and Gonzalez are thankful and proud of their decisions to continue doing what they love while breastfeeding.
“I wouldn't change a thing,” Gonzalez said. “My son was happy and healthy, and I was able to accomplish one of my lifetime goals. I received nothing but positive feedback and reactions from other athletes during the entire experience. During the race, when I was pumping in the transition tents, the other females were coming over, giving me high fives, and offering encouraging words of support and acknowledgement. It was pretty amazing.”
Johnson, of Motherfed, LLC, recommends women find mother-to-mother breastfeeding groups for support and an International Board Certified Lactation consultant to help them work toward specific breastfeeding goals.
“Once you find a way that works for you, help another runner,” Johnson said. “Remind her that everything changes when you have a baby, but that doesn't mean you give up your passions. Circumstances change, but women keep moving.”
Young kept moving. She crossed the line in 1:44:36.