minutes per mile blog

running a marathon vs. giving birth — will 26.2 miles prepare you for labor?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that questioned whether giving birth would be similar to running a marathon. The more I think about it, my question wasn’t so much whether the two experiences would be similar, but more whether having run marathons would have prepared me for the big birth event!

Little did I know that the day after I hit publish on that post, contractions would kick in. Now that I’ve officially experienced one unmedicated labor as well as nine (also unmedicated!) marathons, I’m here to report back!

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Here’s your short answer:

Running a marathon is NOT like giving birth, and will NOT prepare you for labor. Hate to break this news to all my soon-to-be mother runners, but it’s the truth!

In contrast to the many posts I found that discussed how labor and distance running were similar (see here, here, and here), I only found a slight similarity between the two in my experience. Although both surely qualify as true endurance tests, I was surprised to discover that having an unmedicated/natural birth was really nothing like running a marathon. I mean, yes, they’re both physically and emotionally challenging — but in entirely different ways.

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Before I get into my list of reasons why, let me pause and say this: I do think that being generally fit made a positive difference in my birth experience — so don’t use this post as an excuse to become a couch potato when you’re pregnant! I was lucky to have been able to work out through my entire pregnancy and gained an appropriate amount of weight over the course of 39 weeks. Any pregnancy guide will tell you that a healthy pregnancy is important for a smooth delivery and healthy baby. As a fairly healthy mom-to-be, I found labor quite challenging and can’t imagine how much tougher it would have been if I’d gotten way out of shape or overweight leading up to the big event. So my advice to you is to stay as fit as you can during your pregnancy, because you’re going to need all the strength and energy you can muster when the moment arrives :)

So. Why is giving birth nothing like running a marathon? Here are my five reasons:

1. It’s a different type of pain. One of the things I was most curious about during my pregnancy was what a contraction would feel like. Would it be a fatigue-like, slow-burning muscular pain, like the kind you feel during mile 22 of a race? Or more of a sharp, side stitch kind of pain? Unfortunately the pain of a contraction isn’t really comparable to any sort of running-induced pain I’ve experienced. Obviously the pain is in your uterus, not your legs, so there’s that for starters :). Second, the intensity and type of pain is just completely unique — not even like menstrual cramps in my opinion. Some people describe contractions as “waves” and that’s the best word I’ve found so far. A contraction starts slowly,  ramps up and peaks, and then vanishes completely. You know when a contraction is coming and have a few seconds to prepare yourself before it hits. The only mildly similar running “pain” I could compare a contraction to is doing a hill sprint. You see the hill coming in the distance, know that you have to tackle it, and brace yourself for the intensity to peak before you glide back down. During early labor I actually visualized myself sprinting up hills, which did seem to help a bit!

2. You’re not in control. One of the things I love about running is that it’s predictable compared to other sports. If I want to run a marathon in a certain amount of time, I can come up with a fairly black-and-white training plan with target paces to meet my goal. During the race, I’m in control of my pace and can make adjustments as necessary — slowing down for hills, speeding up to pass people, or even stopping altogether and dropping out if I don’t feel good. For better or for worse, this type of control is completely absent during labor. Although you definitely don’t want to tell yourself this during the labor process (one of my mantras was actually “I’m in control,” which was a complete lie!), you’re pretty much a “victim” of the labor process with no options to back out or slow down. Although there are ways to help manage the pain (shout out to anyone who has gotten an epidural, which seems like a brilliant invention that I probably should have considered had I not been so stubborn) there’s no “DNF”-ing labor. You’re in it from start to finish, whether you like it or not!

3. You don’t know where the finish line is. This was the most challenging revelation I had during my labor. Apparently the prenatal powers that be read my pre-labor post about running marathons vs. giving birth, because I was rewarded with a 50-hour labor that must set some record for toughest endurance challenge ever! I started having consistent contractions on Saturday around 2 p.m. that continued every 5-10 minutes through Saturday night, all day Sunday and Sunday night, and into Monday morning. Things finally “picked up” late Monday morning and Baby A arrived by 5:30 that afternoon! Needless to say, I was more physically exhausted than I’d ever been in my life after two nights of constant contractions and no sleep. Equally exhausting was the emotional endurance I had to muster up for the event. On Saturday we were sure that delivery was in sight — and then were bummed to get sent home from the hospital because I hadn’t progressed enough. And on Sunday night when we got sent home again, I was so confused and frustrated — when would this baby finally come, and how much longer was it physically possible for my body to endure nonstop contractions?!! Going into labor is like signing up for a mystery race that could be a 5k, or could be an ultramarathon — with no mile markers along the way. You could have two hours, or in my case, two DAYS, to go before the finish line! It’s impossible to pace yourself or set a goal. You just know that you have to tough it out till the end, whenever that may be.

4. It’s all about the breath. Some runners swear by certain breathing techniques, but breathing has never been a focus of mine when training or racing — I’m much more likely to consider things like form, cadence, etc. In labor, though, I found that focusing on my breath was the most effective way to manage pain. This was especially true when it was time to push and I had to channel my energy through my breath (instead of simply screaming like a mad woman, which is how I coped with all the other contractions — just ask Anthony, who got to hear it all!).  I’d taken a prenatal yoga class on and off during the second half of my pregnancy, and wish I would have taken more. The breathing styles and mental focus I practiced through yoga were much more applicable to managing labor than any running-related techniques. If you’re pregnant, I highly recommend signing up for prenatal yoga classes and finding your zen.

5. It’s a million times more amazing. I realize that up to this point it might sound like I didn’t enjoy the labor process or wish I hadn’t gone through it — but it’s completely the opposite. Like running a marathon, the difficult journey made the reward that much more incredible. Giving birth was hands down, by far, undeniably, the most amazing and unique experience I’ve ever had in my life. Even though it was crazy painful, I’m completely in awe of what my body was able to do (woman power!). And I’m in love with the beautiful baby that we were blessed with at the end. Other than wishing my labor experience was a wee bit (maybe just 24 hours?!) shorter, I wouldn’t change a single thing about if I did it again. The mystery and magnitude of it all was completely overwhelming and nothing compares to the joy of holding a human being that you created. Not even a first place marathon medal :)

15 thoughts on “running a marathon vs. giving birth — will 26.2 miles prepare you for labor?

  1. Daaang, 50 hours! You are a champ Mary! Hope you’re foam rolling and recovering okay! More pictures of Alice and braided bread please. :)

    • haha can you foam roll a uterus? 😉 i’m actually feeling really good, no major recovery issues. ready to get back on the run but still have to wait 2 weeks for the doc’s approval!

  2. A belated congratulations Mary! I’ve ben so excited to follow your pregnancy since I am due in a month. This is a great post and very helpful to me as I have no idea what to expect! All the best to you and your little lamb. :)

  3. I’m just past 38 weeks now and as a 40-time marathoner, I was REALLY hoping you were going to say it was just like running a marathon! 50 hours!? Wow…fingers crossed mine isn’t quite that long! I’ve been trying to prepare myself for birth as much as possible, but I’m not sure how much you can really do you prepare yourself when there’s no way to know what will happen! I do know already that you’re definitely right – no medal will beat a beautiful baby at the end of the ‘race’! Congrats on your new little one, she’s pretty perfect! :)

    • best of luck with your birth! wow, 40 marathons — that’s incredible! yes i wish i had better news to report back with, but hate to say my experience was nothing like running a race. curious to see what your experience is like!

  4. Oh.my.gosh. 50 freaking hours? You are a champion. Lesser hospitals might have given you pitocen. Glad you had the unmedicated birth you wanted. Having experienced both, I would definitely advise going for the epidural next time, but maybe I’m just weak! Congrats!!

  5. Ha! This was great! I’m 39 weeks tomorrow with my second so fun to read. I had an unmediated birth with my first but I’d say it was only 8 hours of active labor (maybe 24 if I count early but I was able to sleep on and off through all of the early stuff). So 50 hours?! Dangggg! I bet your next won’t be so long though! Usually people experience quite a bit shorter labors with their subsequent kids. I’ve only run a few half marathons but I agree that running and labor are totally different. Contractions are so different than anything I’ve ever felt and mentally it is TOUGH and you have to surrender, completely. I think I liked labor more though in some ways- my endorphin high post birth was even better than a runners high. Good job mama and good post! Here’s hoping this baby comes at 39 weeks like yours – the last was 41. Whew.

  6. AMEN! I totally agree that running a marathon is not like giving birth! Yes, there are pains and incredible highs but they are totally different.

    I will say that giving birth did make me a better marathoner! I had a baby last March and ran a marathon in November and I definitely noticed a difference in mental toughness (compared to marathons pre-baby). My mantra for both giving birth and the marathon was “I can do hard things.” It’s insane and amazing what our bodies can do!

  7. Great post! 50 hours?! #trooper

    My son was breech, so I only experienced labor briefly before needing an emergency c section. He was also born at 24 weeks, so absolutely nothing about his birth went according to plan. I would give anything to experience a “normal” pregnancy/birth and the joy that goes along with it, instead of absolute terror that my baby was coming at 24 weeks.