Pelvic floor exercises for female runners

pelvic floor exercises
Pelvic floor exercises for female runners

Do you ever leak during a run? Or perhaps when you cough, sneeze, laugh or jump? If so, it's likely due to weak pelvic floor muscles – the muscles responsible for supporting the bladder, womb and bowel.

Both women and men can suffer from a weak pelvic floor and, as such, benefit from doing regular pelvic floor exercises. Thankfully, these pelvic floor exercises are easy to do and an effective way to help you reclaim comfort while on the run and elsewhere.

What is your pelvic floor?

'The pelvic floor muscles are located in your pelvis and stretch from back to front, from the coccyx to the pubic bone and across to the sitting bones at the side,' explains Rosie Stockley, a pre- and post-natal exercise specialist and founder of MAMAWELL, an online fitness club for women.

'They form part of your supportive core, alongside the deep abdominal and back muscles and the diaphragm, which work together to promote good posture and support the spine.'

'They support organs above such as the bowels and bladder, and a woman's uterus. In pregnancy, they also support the baby.'

When we run – or do any other high-impact activities like jumping and weightlifting – internal pressure places additional demands on the pelvic floor, meaning it needs to work much harder than if you were standing, sitting or walking.

What are the symptoms of a weak pelvic floor?

When your pelvic floor muscles work correctly, they can lift to ensure full control of the bladder and bowels. They can equally relax to pass urine and faeces and to aid childbirth in women.

However, if your pelvic floor muscles become weakened, you’ll might start to experience symptoms such as leaking, pressure, pain or prolapse.

The pelvic floor during pregnancy

For women, pregnancy and childbirth can place significant strain on the pelvic floor. Some pregnant women leak or feel heaviness in the pelvis, while others may feel no discomfort at all. 'What we know is that the growing baby is putting pressure on the pelvis (and abdominals and lower back) where there wouldn’t normally be any pressure, which can impact the pelvic floor muscles,' says Stockley.

As such, pregnant and postpartum women – or those planning to have a baby – are encouraged to do pelvic floor exercises before, during and after pregnancy to reduce or avoid stress incontinence.

'In a vaginal birth, the pelvis widens and the muscles become stretched and get thinner to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal,’ says Stockley. ‘While they will go back to their normal position, pelvic floor exercises are needed to strengthen them again.

'With a cesarean birth, pressure will still have been put on these pelvic floor muscles, and if the mother goes until full term, the body will start preparing for a vaginal birth and the muscles will start moving. Being strong in the pelvis after childbirth will quite literally help you to get up on your feet again.’

Stockley points out that that there is a link between postnatal depression and incontinence, so making time to do pelvic floor exercises is important for a mother's mental and physical health. 'The link between the two is no surprise, given how important it is for our bodies to work autonomously,' says Stockley. 'It’s not something that should be ignored.'

Why are pelvic floor exercises important?

Having a healthy, functional pelvic floor is important for everyone, whether you’re a runner, a new mum, pregnant, or someone who has never expected a baby or given birth.

The pelvic floor is an integral part of the core musculature, and a strong core can help to enhance your balance, spinal stability and form while running while reducing your risk of injury. Your muscles will work more efficiently, optimising your overall running performance.

Pelvic floor exercises for women (and men)

Stockley says that the simplest way to activate the pelvic floor is to squeeze the pelvic floor muscles. 'This should then be accompanied by a full relaxation, but not a pushing down,' she says. Below, here are two guided pelvic floor exercises for women – and men – to do to strengthen this key part of our anatomy.

Before you get going with the exercises, be mindful to fully relax the muscle between reps, then take a breath to reset. 'As with any muscle, overuse can lead to fatigue, which means it won’t strengthen effectively,' notes Stockley. 'It’s also really important to breathe fully into the belly when inhaling, as there’s a strong connection between the diaphragm and the pelvic floor.'

Slow, sustained activation

This pelvic floor exercise builds endurance and strength, for times when you need your pelvic floor to be turned on throughout the day. It will help you to activate the slow-twitch endurance aspect of the muscle with a sustained hold, which is the muscle activation that happens in your daily life.

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either kneeling on all fours, seated with a straight spine or standing.

  2. Take a few deep breathes to begin, placing your hands on your diaphragm if you wish, then take a full inhale and long exhale. Repeat this twice.

  3. Inhale again deeply and, as you exhale, imagine drawing up through your anus and holding there. Don’t tighten your buttocks or tense any other part of your body. If you don't know where to squeeze, imagine you're trying to stop wind escaping or trying to stop urine coming. Ideally, you want a combination of both.

  4. Hold for as long as you can, for up to 10 seconds, then soften. Don't worry if your pelvic floor is softening as you try to hold. When relaxing afterwards, don't push down – imagine your pelvic floor is like a duvet spreading out.

  5. Take another full inhale and long exhale, repeating the contraction again during your exhale.

  6. Repeat this pattern 10 times.

If you've just had a baby, start by doing this pelvic floor exercise lying down, then work up to a seated position and later a standing position. 'We want to work up to standing because it's in the standing position that our pelvic floor muscles get the most use,' says Stockley.

Fast-twitch muscle activation

This pelvic floor exercise trains muscles to turn on quickly and sharply when needed, for times when you need a quick activation of pelvic floor muscles under higher pressure – for example, when you’re sneezing, coughing and running.

  1. Get into a comfortable position, either kneeling on all fours, seated with a straight spine or standing.

  2. Take a full inhale and a long exhale.

  3. At the end of your exhale, pulse the pelvic floor muscles with a 'grab' activation for 10 repetitions. Relax by softening the pelvic floor.

  4. Take another full inhale and long exhale, repeating the pulse activations again at the end of your exhale.

  5. Repeat this pattern 10 times.

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