When you’re a new mum, returning to exercise will probably be the last thing on your mind.
But when you feel physically and mentally ready, a gentle return to physical activity could be the best thing for you and your baby.
Olympic gold winning cyclist Laura Kenny knows exactly how it feels to struggle to get back to fitness after pregnancy.
For Laura, her first baby, Albert, came just after the Olympic games – and stepping away from the sport she adores was a wrench at first.
‘When I was pregnant I had to make the decision of when I was going to stop riding my bike,’ Laura tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Which was tricky. You go from riding every single day, to saying – right, this is going to be it.
‘The decision was, in a way, made for me.
‘I had spoken to my doctor and he said that my abs, as much as they were splitting open, they were doing all the protecting for a long time – even when my baby was on the outside of them. But on the road, there’s a lot more that you have to think about.
‘I am on the road with cars, and as much as I would like to say that I’m confident and that it’s fine, I can’t control the decisions other people make.
‘One day out there just put me completely off and I just thought – I’m done. I was five months pregnant at that point so it wasn’t anywhere near as long as I thought I was going to keep riding for. I had ideas that I would still be riding at eight months down the line.
‘But I just didn’t feel confident any more. I didn’t want anything to happen to either of us. So I just decided to continue training in my garage on my stationary bike.
‘I watched so many episodes of One Born Every Minute! I just went through this phase, I was honestly obsessed with it.’
When you’re pregnant, it can be hard to know how much exercise is safe for you and your baby. Laura had the best doctors and professionals around her to guide her in her training so she could keep working, safely, until she wanted to stop.
‘I continued to workout in the gym, up until around eight months. For the last five weeks I didn’t do anything other than walk the dogs,’ she explains.
‘I was just in so much pain at that point, my back and my knees were hurting – it was all just such a lot heavier for my small frame. But up until then I was on the cross trainer.
‘That was one of the hardest things to get my head around – the fact that I suddenly couldn’t do three or four hours on the road.
‘Once I had Alby, I had six or seven weeks barely doing anything. I did do some light exercises in the gym. Our physio came round to look at my stomach muscles – to see how far they had split open and what exercises we could do together to try to improve them.
‘Jess Ennis-Hill was also a real help, she basically had a whole book full of exercises to do after giving birth – with little drawings and everything.
‘After six weeks – that was when I did my first ten minutes on the bike. The hardest thing was really leaving Alby inside. As much as I would try and do it when he was asleep, but that wasn’t always possible.’
And there are other things to thing about when you’re a new mum. Finding time for fitness can be hard when you’re literally the source of your child’s sustenance.
‘Also breastfeeding was tricky,’ says Laura.
‘I breastfed for six months, so trying to cluster feed him so I could cycle was really difficult. He was the hungriest baby ever and he was only going about ten minutes without wanting to have food.
‘Trying to go out and come back and not feel disgusting and sweaty for him – that was tricky. It definitely got harder when I started to go out on the roads.
‘If I would go out, even for an hour, I would feel guilty. Because he was so young, it wasn’t like I had had a year off with him.
‘As athletes, our maternity leave is when you’re pregnant. Afterwards, there’s nothing really holding you back from training, so you sort of just have to get on with it.
‘The first long road ride I did was when he was three months old. That was hard.
‘The whole time I was thinking – I just hope he’s OK. And he was just at home with Jason and my mum, so of course he was OK, but you can’t help but feel guilty for leaving them.’
The guilt was one thing, but another hurdle was the physical challenge. Pregnancy and birth changes your body – even when you’re an elite athlete. And starting out on the road to return to your pre-pregnancy fitness can be incredibly daunting.
‘The last thing I had done before getting pregnant was the Olympics,’ Laura tells us. ‘So I was comparing myself with the best I had ever been.
‘Coming back and feeling like an hour of cycling was hell – was so hard. I messaged my sister and told her – I can’t do this. But she said – this is the hardest it’s ever going to be. You’re always going to be better than this, this is your bottom.
‘And she was right because every day, I started to feel more and more like myself. It took time though. It took until last December for me to really feel myself again. So that was a good year and a half to feel really back to my peak, elite level.
‘I went to the World Championships after six months, so I got back into the team fast, but to get to the level I really wanted to be at – that took longer.’
Laura thinks it’s vital for new mums to look after their mental health as well as their physical health – and the two often go hand in hand.
‘When you have a little one, you think you have to be there for them 24/seven. And it is 24/seven, of course.
‘The amount of times I woke up in the middle of the night and just thought – is he still alright? Is he still alive? It sounds stupid but that’s how you feel because you’ve never been in that situation before.
‘When I went out an did my first ten minutes on the bike – it gave me time to be me. It sounds terrible or selfish, but it was the best thing to just go out there and be me for ten minutes.
‘It just gives you head space, it gives you freedom, and I think it made me a better mum for doing it.
‘There are a lot of times when you will feel stressed, anxious, like you have no idea what you’re doing – getting out and having that time just made me so much more relaxed and calmer around him.
‘All of a sudden you stop worrying about things. You stop worrying about his feeding, his sleeping – because you’re not thinking about it literally every minute of the day.
‘As much as I know I should encourage people to get outside and be active, but even if it’s just taking ten minutes to read a book.
‘As a mum – do what makes you feel good.’