For many of us, the spring weather means lacing up those running shoes and sprinting to get back outside. While those first few runs may be difficult, it can be even tougher if you’re exercising while pregnant, or a new mom returning to running after pregnancy.

“I’ve been a runner for over 20 years,” says Dawn Alstatt, lead therapist for the Regions Hospital Running Program. “Running was therapeutic for me, so when I became pregnant for the first time I wanted to be able to continue running as much as my body allowed.”

After a successful delivery that summer, she was ready to pick back up where she left off. Or so she thought.

“I took six weeks off after having the baby, and then decided to try running a couple of miles,” she says. “I was surprised at just how difficult it was. I couldn’t run for more than five minutes continuously due to discomfort, and got really discouraged at first. Then I sat down and came up with a plan to get back on my feet.”

Now a mother of three, Dawn has experienced the highs and lows of running after pregnancy.

“The first thing I had to remember was that my body had been through a lot,” she says. “Not only were there changes from pregnancy and childbirth, but my level of conditioning wasn't quite as good because I had been unable to maintain my baseline level of fitness while pregnant.”

The solution, she says, wasn't to try and push through the pain, but to take a step back.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” she says. “I focused on a slower run-walk progression, gradually building back up my endurance. I also made sure to include core and leg exercises to work on building back up my strength to my pre-pregnancy level.”

Dr. Heather Cichanowski, an orthopaedic and sports medicine specialist who co-founded the Regions Running Program with Dawn, echoes her sentiments.

“In general, whether you were recently pregnant or just haven’t run in a while, you should stick to the 10 percent rule. That means increasing your distance or duration by 10 percent week.”

According to Dr. Cichanowski, this is one of the keys to preventing overuse injuries like shin splints.

While the physical aspects of your running program are crucial, the nutritional elements are equally important, especially for new moms. Pregnancy and breastfeeding requires increased intake of calories, calcium and protein. The same can be said for runners. That’s why it’s important to look at your diet and make sure that you’re providing your body with the fuel it needs to succeed.

“On average, a person burns 90 calories per mile when running,” says Dr. Cichanowski. “Considering the amount of energy and calories that a woman burns from breastfeeding (roughly 300 to 500 calories per day), it can be very easy to underestimate the calorie intake that you need to maintain your strength.”

In addition, nursing mothers need roughly 20 more grams of protein per day than women who don’t nurse, while runners need around 50 percent more protein than non-athletes.

“I had to learn that some exercise is better than none at all,” Dawn says. “I also had to remember that consistent exercise is important. Especially when returning to exercise after a period of inactivity, it is more important to do shorter, more frequent exercise at a level that is comfortably challenging than to do less frequent but intense bursts of activity.”

According to Dawn, inconsistency in exercising can lead to poor training and possible injury.

“My average workouts right now are around 20 to 30 minutes, and some of them include my kids,” says Dawn. “Of course I would like to do more, but consistent running and strengthening is really the goal.”

In addition to feeling better, you’ll also prevent possible running-related injuries.

“Remember to listen to your body,” says Dr. Cichanowski. “If you’re feeling hurt, beyond normal post-workout soreness, take a few days off before running again. You can use an elliptical or try swimming as an alternative.”

While some times mild pain may subside on its own, Dr. Cichanowski says that it is important that you do not ignore potential warning signs of injuries.

“If the pain hasn’t gone away after a few days, or if it’s focused on a specific area, you should consider seeking treatment from a specialist.”

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that running isn’t just good for the body, but for the mind too.

“It’s so important as a mom to find some time in the day for yourself,” says Dawn. “Working out is my ‘me’ time and it makes the day so much better.”

Dawn Altstatt, DPT and Heather Cichanowski, MD, are the co-founders of the Regions Hospital Running Program. They offer evaluations, running analysis, treatment, education and training to help improve running and avoid injuries. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Cichanowski, call 952-831-8742.