Serena Williams had to withdraw from the French Open last week with an injury. It was her first return to grand-slam tennis following maternity leave and the birth of her daughter Olympia. She looked fit and fabulous and said she felt like a ‘super-hero’ but playing six matches in six days appeared to be too much for her body.
The truth is that pregnancy and childbirth take their toll, even on a magnificent athlete like Serena. She had a very stormy time around the birth, suffering a pulmonary embolism and a haematoma that left her bed-ridden for about six weeks. She has competed intermittently since and, judging by her appearance and her first few matches, has got back to fitness and pre-pregnancy shape. But she suffered an injury to one of the muscles in her chest, saying ‘It is hard to play when I can’t physically serve. I’ve never had this injury before, I’ve never felt it in my life and it was so painful. I don’t know how to manage it.’
Thesepectoral injuries are usually associated with overuse, so she may have been taking on too much, too soon. Dutch tennis champ, Kim Clijsters, who returned to winning ways after the birth of her babies said: “I was interested to hear she had never had this injury before. New aches and pains come along after you’ve had a baby. It took me a good nine to ten months to come back. I was a little surprised she played doubles.”
Whether you’re an international tennis superstar or just someone who is looking to regain your fitness and physique after the birth, there are some things to consider when you start to exercise again. Many mums are so drained by the birth, breastfeeding and sleepless nights that even the idea of exercising is overwhelming. However, women who have stayed active and had a straight-forward vaginal delivery with no complications, can start exercising gently a week or so after the birth.
You should always listen to your body’s signals and don’t push through the pain barrier, slow and steady is better than going all out and risking injury. Light exercise like walking, stretches, pilates or yoga can be the perfect start.
Don’t Overdo It
Learn a lesson from Serena’s experience. Start gently and gradually increase the length, level and intensity of activity. See your doctor or midwife before starting a new regime, especially if you were fairly sedentary during the last trimester. If you had any pregnancy or birth complications, they may recommend that you take it easy until after the six-week check.
Protect Your Joints
Your body releases a hormone called relaxin in pregnancy. It’s designed to make the ligaments stretchy, to allow your pelvis to adapt for the birth of your baby. For a while after the birth, the ligaments will still be soft and your joints will be vulnerable to injury. Choose low-impact exercise like walking, which is less likely to cause damage. As you regain strength and stamina, you can go more quickly, travel further and venture up hills or onto more challenging terrain.
Many gyms and leisure centres run postnatal exercise classes. They can be a great way to make new friends and get back in shape. Alternatively try a class for stretching and toning the body, like pilates. Remember to tell the instructor that you’ve had a baby and they may modify some exercises to prevent injury. If you’re keen to up the ante, wait for the six-week postnatal check, when your doctor may give you the green light to reintroduce high-impact exercise like aerobics and running.
Listen to Your Body
In pregnancy, we recommend that you should always be able to carry on a conversation while you’re exercising. That’s good advice for the post-natal period too. Don’t force it, rest immediately if you’re feeling weak or exhausted, if you’re very breathless, achy or dizzy. If you spot any of these signs, stop exercising:
- Your lochia becoming heavier, there is more blood or there are clots.
- Bleeding restarting after the lochia and stopped.
- Joint pain, pelvic pain or problems with your perineum.
Exercise and Breastfeeding
The good news is that researchshows that exercise shouldn’t affect your ability to feed your baby, just make sure you eat well and stay hydrated. Wear a well-fitting supportive bra to avoid too much bouncing, which can be very uncomfortable. It’s also a good idea to feed your baby before you start, so that your breasts are less full and tender.
Swimming is a great form of exercise that’s also gentle on your joints. However, make sure you’re not still bleeding after the birth. Wait a clear seven days after your lochia stops before taking the plunge.
Recovery From a C-Section
A Caesarean is a significant operation. It takes time for your body to bounce back. Rushing your recovery and exercising too soon can increase the risk of bleeding, wound infection and other complications. Wait until your doctor says it’s safe to work out. It takes weeks for the skin incision and the deep wounds in the muscles and womb to heal. Again, some steady walking is a great way to start. It prevents clots forming in the legs, helps maintain fitness and activity may help protect against postnatal depression.