How Do Olympic Athletes Train for the Games and Exercise After Pregnancy?
When it comes to postpartum fitness, so many factors play into when your doctor gives you the green light to hit up the gym. Were you active before? Did you have any complications? The list of questions goes on and on, so the answer is very personalized. But with the Olympics around the corner, we started to wonder what’s different about a professional athlete’s postpartum workout regimen, and how they jump back into training after having a baby or even while being pregnant.
The topic is always a headline-maker—because it's amazing what the female body can do. Sarah Brown, a U.S. runner, famously continued training for the 2016 Olympic Games while pregnant with her daughter, and even jumped back training four months before the games in attempts at making the team. According to her Instagram post, she waited one week after giving birth to begin her pelvic floor and core re-strengthening exercises.
Beach volleyball Olympian Kerri Walsh revealed after the London games that she was five months pregnant while competing, though she wasn’t aware at the time. And according to CNN, Short-track speed skater Martina Valcepina was pregnant with twins while competing at the Sochi Games in 2014. Most recently, after giving birth to her second child, Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer has been documenting her entire postpartum training experience on Instagram.
For Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who competed at the 2008 games in Beijing, the situation was a little different. Her postpartum workout plan was never supposed to include representing her country again in the Olympics. Her doctor told her she would be safe to lift weights immediately after giving birth in April of 2006—a week and a half later, she was doing just that at the gym. Three weeks after having her daughter, and after consultation, she was swimming at the Masters Swimming Nationals.
"The only thing that made me feel good was going to swim, the floating," she told us of why she even got back in the water during her pregnancy. "I don’t know what it was, but it made me feel better. So that’s the only reason I initially started swimming again while I was pregnant. And then after that, I still had no intensions—because I had a newborn—of swimming again. Plus, I never thought it my wildest dreams that I would be swimming in my late 30s, early 40s competitively."
Torres ended up attending the Masters World Championships in August of 2006 and qualifying for the Olympic Trials. "We brought our daughter out with us to the meet in 2006 and a few months after I delivered, and I breastfed before I swam so I didn’t feel as heavy or like I was sinking in the water," she said.
At the meet, after pressure from fellow swimmers and verbally accepting the challenge to represent middle-aged people in the games, she decided she would take on the challenge of training and making the team in less than two years. "Once I say I’m going to do something, I do it. I was committed for the next less than two years."
Torres credits getting back into shape in the water so quickly because of muscle memory and her fitness routine before getting pregnant. "I love fitness. I just love the way it makes me feel on the inside. I love the way it makes me feel on the outside," she told us. Today, Torres actually owns a Bar Method Studio in Wellesley, MA, where so many of her clients are pregnant women looking for low-impact but effective workouts that allow for modification. "Even when I didn’t think I would be back swimming again, I always worked out. So for me to come back after not being in the water for six years, I still kept myself in great shape."
But what about exercise after pregnancy in general?
According to celebrity trainer Kira Stokes, that's a common theme, but even then that's not set in stone. "It’s a real personal answer," she says to exercising postpartum. "I’ve ran the spectrum of clients that have throughout all of it—been able to easily get pregnant, and the continue to do what they were doing while I was training them, obviously within the guidelines of what you’re able to do when you’re pregnant. And then I had clients that had to be on bed-rest who were super fit prior to getting pregnant, so it really is. There’s no set rule," she continues.
Though, again, getting cleared by your doctor is always the best rule of thumb. "The basic guideline is six weeks before you start back to a relatively intense training program. But quite frankly, there are some people who feel amazing two weeks postpartum and they are itching to really get out there and start training again."
Equinox Brooklyn Heights trainer, Paul Corona has a similar point. "Coming back to working out, is different for every new mom," he says. "I have found that those clients who were very consistent with their prenatal training programs that focused primarily on building pelvic floor integrity with breath work (kegel exercises), doing full-body and core exercises to promote healthy tissue along the abdominal wall so as to reduce the likelihood or severity of diastasis recti, and to prepare the body and physique to be more resilient postpartum," he notes, while also stressing the importance of allowing a physician to make the final call.
Regardless if your exercise routine is of Olympic level, Stokes says it's a time to listen to your body, not try anything brand new, and be kind to your joints. "Hopefully you’ve developed this amazing connection with your body, and hopefully you had it before. But if you didn’t, it’s the perfect time to work on that. Notice the changes in your body, notice how you’re feeling."
We heard the same thing from Torres. "I think it’s very important to see where your limits are after having your child. And not pushing it too much and just know that you had nine months to gain the bodyweight so give yourself that amount of time to lose it too," she adds. "I think if they can find something that they enjoy doing and they can do after they have the child. I think it’s very important."