Breastfeeding and the Endurance Athlete
“Of course, everyone around the couple had an opinion. Friends who dropped by would give their advice about breastfeeding. One friend was particularly taxing. You know the type: If you had a headache after giving birth, she tells you she had a migraine; if you had a C-section, she had a D-section; if your nipples hurt from breastfeeding, hers became infected.” Secrets of the Baby Whisperer
Pregnancy, postpartum, and child rearing in general tend to be topics that many can’t help but offer their opinions and advice around. I found that much of it was negative, at least when I’d voice my hopeful desires and plans to maintain my life before kids. I am sharing my experience in the hopes that it’ll encourage someone out there who was like me: before having a child I sought hearing experiences and information from people I could relate with—I clung to the hopeful and positive stories and remembered them each time I was reminded, “enjoy life now, before you can’t ________________ anymore”.
A number of people have reached out and asked what breastfeeding looks like in tandem with riding so this is an effort to shed light on what worked for me. Everyone’s story is different: this is mine.
I would consider myself someone very in tune with who I am and aware of what drives me. When I was at summer camp as a child I opted to skip out on a late night 8th grade graduation celebration with my cabin-mates because I frankly didn’t like staying up late. I advocated for myself, they sent me to the nurse’s office to sleep and skip out on the late night celebration and I’m sure plenty of my friends could not identify with me. But I didn’t really care. I knew who I was and what worked well for me. This has been a common thread throughout my experience and has helped me advocate for myself and my well being.
With that similar self assurance, I knew I wanted to both have a family and remain as active as I was pre child. Endurance sports (not just cycling) are a passion of mine: they’re tied into my work, it’s one way I experience community, it’s my meditation and creative thinking “me” time and it’s also sometimes an opportunity for a date with my husband. I was certain I wanted to make room for it in my life and was intensely curious as to HOW I could make it happen. It doesn’t have to be exercise; whatever drives you is an important part of who you are and deserves space in your life.
Feeling alone, isolated, overwhelmed and like your body isn’t your own aren’t uncommon feelings as it relates to breastfeeding and new motherhood. One way of arming myself against these feelings was creating space for my own needs. In tending to the things in my life that foster community, endorphins and a clear mind (the antidote to being alone, isolated, overwhelmed), I felt like I was taking my vitamins before getting sick. It was a way for me to feel like I was still me.
One of my first curiosities was how breastfeeding and sport would intersect. I was fairly certain that given the ability to breastfeed, I would and wanted to try. I had read enough on the topic to know that it’s not as straightforward or “easy” as it may seem for many, so there were no expectations in my mind other than trying. If I could do it, great. If not, many assured me that my daughter would thrive, regardless.
I was also certain that I was still Laura King. I know myself well, I know how I function as my best self and that feeling any sense of restriction would be frustrating. The thought of needing to be near my baby every three to four hours felt overwhelming. I needed to know that while I’d do my best, I also could have the freedom to be away. While that might sound selfish, let me offer a reframe: I knew I’d do anything for my child to make sure their needs were met. However, I didn’t want to deny that I also had needs and I was convinced that there must be a solution to do both: never at the expense of my child’s needs, but in harmony with. This is all with the premise that I had a healthy and thriving child; if that had not been the case then my story would look very different.
With the goal of getting back to my passion quickly, I decided to introduce the bottle in the first week after establishing milk supply. I did adhere to the advice from other like minded mothers as well as the book, “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer” which encouraged introducing the bottle before three weeks old. There are some in the camp of “nipple confusion” and this book debunks this theory as a myth. Myth or not, introducing the bottle and pumping right away worked well in my case and helped me take steps towards the goals I had set out for myself. There were many reasons this ended up being a great decision for our family. My husband was excited to have a role in helping feed our baby and there were opportunities in which this increased my ability to get additional rest or have time to myself.
My first “long ride” of four hours was at three weeks postpartum. I was fortunate to have a very quick recovery and be back on my bike six days after giving birth. While I won’t delve into these details, you can listen to my friend Sonya Looney and I discuss our postpartum exercise experiences and thoughts on this podcast.
I know many mothers struggle with guilt when being away, that hasn’t been something that I struggle with, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t empathize. Time away makes me miss my daughter which reinvigorates my excitement and energy to be with her and be fully engaged. It’s not that different from anything you give energy to; even during a full work day there’s nothing like fresh air, a walk, a break of some sort to get creative juices flowing, organize priorities and have you refreshed to return to your desk, a more productive and happy employee. I know that my daughter will benefit from the modeling of watching her mother take care of herself, make time for her goals and passions and maintain healthy habits.
What did breastfeeding and riding look like practically speaking?
I’ve always had a healthy appetite, but breastfeeding and motherhood has taken my calorie intake to a whole new level. In the first few weeks, I often woke up in the middle of the night with a stomach that hurt so badly from hunger that I had to eat a snack. Even before a cup of coffee was in hand, I was already eating something to hold me over before I had a moment to make breakfast. Between exercising and breastfeeding, I’ve probably averaged an intake of around 4,000 calories a day and still consistently shed weight throughout. I was concerned that the amount I was eating might be overboard, but it was what my body was demanding. Almost eight months in, I’m still enjoying the metabolic wildfire. It won’t last forever, but for someone who loves food, it’s nice to know my body needs it for energy, will use it, and I’ll feel my best for it. Once my daughter became mobile in the past few months, I’m up and about more than I’ve ever been. I hardly have a moment to sit on the couch or relax unless it’s feeding time which has contributed to an even higher demand on caloric needs.
I used the Elvie pump. It’s silent, wireless and it fits inside a sports bra or a cycling jersey pocket. I had the option of bringing one or both sides of the pump. If I wasn’t in a hurry, I would opt to bring one and pump separately. Other times I was trying to be efficient and would carry the pump in a handlebar bag rather than a jersey pocket. If it wasn’t a million degrees outside, I would try and transport the milk home (who wants to dump that liquid gold?!). I used a small milk storage bag for the freezer. The ziplock is tight and unless it’s sitting out for hours and hours, breastmilk is highly resistant to bacteria. Interested in more of the research behind that? Emily Oster, the economist and author of Expecting Better and Cribsheet has a fantastic research based newsletter where she delved into breastmilk’s bacteria resistant properties.
I don’t know what I would’ve done without the Elvie. Sometimes I’d drive to begin a ride and immediately upon finishing, I’d insert the pump into my sports bra, hit start and drive home; no time wasted and maybe awkward if I would’ve been pulled over. Milk ready to go in the fridge upon arrival!
For any ride three to four hours in duration, I would feed or pump as close to my ride departure as possible. All rides now took on a new level of efficiency so that time on the bike was maximized and time away was minimized. Four hours was a window in which I could make it without pumping mid ride, generally speaking. In the first month postpartum, the body is working hard to produce as much milk as might be needed and engorgement might be more of an issue. It will improve as your body adjusts to the demands of your baby. I might’ve had a bit of discomfort towards the end of a ride in the early months, but I was never in pain and I never had any blocked ducts or mastitis issues. Contrary to the lactation consultant’s concerns (she did not recommend pumping in the first month for concerns of oversupply), I’d describe my supply as moderate. My daughter’s weight gain was steady, although she was born in the 20% in weight, she jumped to the 25% and remained on the projected growth line. I was able to stash a small supply of milk in the freezer, but I never had an entire freezer overflowing with milk reserves. I also could’ve pumped more regularly in an effort to stash more, but my takeaway was that the entire process of breastfeeding and pumping is energy depleting and so I could only manage so much. I’m in complete awe of moms who pump all day while away.
For rides longer than four, there were a few options. In the initial first months before supply is solidly established, you may want to bring a pump along. Sometimes I would stop for a snack break and pump, but if I was really in a hurry, I was able to pump while riding. I did have to take the effort down to a spin and try and relax for optimal output, but it did work and I felt like such a badass multitasking like only a mother could.
The other option is delaying a feed or skipping one altogether. From my research, skipping one feed once a week is unlikely to affect supply. It wasn’t always the most comfortable, but it wasn’t painful for me either. Supply obviously adds another layer to the challenge–for those with undersupply it can induce anxiety as running the risk is likely not worth it. I’ll be honest, even for someone with adequate supply, I did worry a lot about impacting supply or being able to pump enough to replace the bottle that was used that day. It wasn’t always perfect and there are still days that a ride lasts longer than expected and my anxiety meter rises about not pumping exactly on time.
Anxiety in motherhood is normal and expected. I think it manifests itself in different ways depending on the person, but for me it definitely manifests itself around feeding, and this was something I would’ve rolled my eyes over before having a child, but I understand now. I know I’ve walked a fine line in trying to “do it all”. Yes, it has worked, but it hasn’t been easy. For me, it has been worth it to return to doing what I love to do.
“Regular, vigorous, aerobic exercise at moderate to high intensity does not alter the quality or quantity of breastmilk in women.” Dr. James Clapp, Exercising Through Your Pregnancy
I took confidence in Dr. Clapp’s research. I did find that I had to work to manage my hydration. I have a hard time hydrating unless it’s hot outside. The more I had to drink, I did notice a better output in breastmilk volume.
We didn’t yet know the extent of the pandemic and I had hopes of returning to racing, so I was eager to ride longer. I was also just excited to be out with my friends for our long weekend rides. My husband, professional cyclist Ted King, had launched a virtual riding challenge and began a goal of riding his original race calendar solo. I was inspired to join the challenge at well. Included amongst the rides was the Belgian Waffle Ride: 140 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing at eight weeks postpartum. This was an eight hour effort and I was fortunate to have my husband drive support with our daughter in tow so that I could breastfeed. We also brought bottles in a cooler since I didn’t have enough time to breastfeed at every stop.
The biggest #DIYGravel challenge was 206 miles for DK at twelve weeks postpartum. Ok, so I got a little excited about a new challenge. I hadn’t been able to ride this long since before pregnancy and I had that little question in my mind, “could I do it?”. That question is what often drives me: riding from Burlington, VT to Portland, ME point to point was a goal in place of racing and I was motivated to try. This ride was just under twelve hours and entirely unsupported. I did not want to be riding in the dark, so I did stretch the pumping window this day. I pumped three times total during the ride: twice was during stops to fuel so I was eating and pumping simultaneously and the third was while I was riding in an effort to finish the ride on time.
Generally speaking, I managed high intensity riding and ultra long rides well in my postpartum months, but I did notice the cumulative energy toll was heavier. I attribute it to the energy it takes to breastfeed, take care of a new human and the compounding months of broken sleep. I would save my hard efforts for the days that mattered to me and work hard to rest enough in preparation for them. I also realized that I didn’t have the energy for back to back intensity and needed to keep the effort low and focus on refueling and sleep so that I wouldn’t dig myself into a major hole.
I’ve observed a lot of athletes be shy about their return to sport because they don’t want it to appear that they were rushing the process. I think it’s important to assess what the motivating factors are. Is it because you feel pressure? Does the activity feel energy sucking rather than energy giving? Being driven, loving the process of finding fitness and appreciating the mental and emotional health boosts are positive reasons for returning to sport in whatever manner suits you and your family. If it’s motivated because one feels pressure to keep up with someone’s else’s journey, that is energy depleting and not energy giving. There were absolutely days where I was tired, needed a break and craving cuddles all day long with my baby. Be honest with what feels right to you, but don’t feel like a bad mom for being inspired and having big goals either!
Eight months in and I’m still breastfeeding but things are different now that my daughter has been eating solids for three months. I still breastfeed four to five times a day before she eats her solids, but my body has adjusted for that amount and creating a milk stockpile is definitely more challenging than it was in the beginning. It’s also tiring and a bit anxiety inducing when I’m trying to pump enough for a last minute planned ride or outing so I decided to put formula in the pantry so that I would relax a bit. There have been a couple of times that I was worried that I wasn’t leaving enough milk and I added one or two ounces of formula to the bottle just in case. Whew, that was such an easy solution to ease my concern. If my daughter ended up drinking the entire bottle, then I’d pump an extra time to account for it.
How long do I plan on breastfeeding? I originally set a goal of six months and was thrilled to make it until then. Sometimes the prescribed one year goal feels a bit overwhelming and still so far away. I decided to just take it one week or one month at a time. While I enjoy it more than I expected I would, I don’t know what the future will bring. Leaving it open ended lets me still dream about planning an adventure or trip and having the freedom to do so. How do most people get through a long endurance feat? They don’t think, “I still have 100 miles to ride”, they generally find more success in just focusing on the next water stop. Even breastfeeding when it comes easy can feel overwhelming, so setting smaller, achievable goals has helped me mentally.
“First of all, breastfeeding is harder than most prospective mothers imagine. Second, it’s not for everyone… ‘this is about meeting not just your baby’s needs, but also your needs. When people place pressure on a mother who doesn’t want to breastfeed or hasn’t really taken the time and given thought to the pros and cons, you’re not going to have a happy camper”. Secrets of the Baby Whisperer
“Many women find breastfeeding to be an enjoyable way to bond with their babies. There is certainly no evidence that breastfeeding is any worse for a baby than formula. And maybe there are some early-life benefits in terms of digestion and rashes, which you may or may not think are important. But what the evidence says is that the popular perception that breast milk is some kind of magical substance that will lead your child to be healthy and brilliant is simply not correct.” Emily Oster, Everybody Calm Down about Breastfeeding
Maybe breastfeeding came easy for you, or maybe it was much more challenging or didn’t work for you at all. I appreciated the above reminder that both the baby AND mother’s needs are important. Don’t forget that or feel guilty; your baby will thrive off love and a happy mama.
Recap: What did Breastfeeding and Cycling Look Like?
- Do the math: I left extra milk reserves in the fridge/freezer in case my ride went longer than planned
- I pumped or fed as close to leaving the house as I could.
- Efficiency is king. I didn’t waste any time so that I made the most of my window and time away.
- I brought the Elvie pump for rides over 4 hours in a handlebar bag or jersey pocket
- I usually stored the milk to bring home in a Lanisnoh breastmilk storage bag so long as it wasn’t too hot out
- I didn’t find that skipping one feeding in a week had any negative affect on supply
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate!
- Fuel appropriately. As an athlete, you need more than just the 500 extra calories suggested for breastfeeding, often a LOT more. Sonya Looney expanded on this, check out her article.
- Work hard to recover and sleep: I went to bed REALLY early in anticipation of broken sleep throughout the first six months and I believe this helped immensely. While the free time is nice, more sleep was a game changer for me.