I love running. To be honest, I’ve been out of a good running routine since Mary was born. She’s one now. I would like to change that. I’m scheduled (yes, my husband and I literally have to schedule everything with our crazy work weeks!) for a run this week and I’m thrilled.
As a pelvic physical therapist, my goal is always to help my support my patients in whatever exercise or fitness routine they enjoy. Sometimes, pelvic floor problems get in the way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard things like: “I used to run all the time, but ever since I had a baby, I just can’t” or “I tried just wearing a pad while I was running, but I can’t get over the feeling that I’m making everything worse” or “I can run if I go first thing in the morning, empty my bladder before I leave, and then stop at the park on the way to go again.” Bladder leakage during running is ANNOYING. It can be so impacting to people, and for many, it can lead them to stop a movement or activity they enjoy, for the long-term.
5 years ago (has it really been that long!?!) I wrote on the topic, “Is running bad for the pelvic floor?” after receiving that question several times. Spoiler alert: There are times when it may be appropriate for someone to stop running for a period of time to retrain their body and regain their pressure modulating system optimization– however, running can be an excellent way for someone to exercise and move! There are no “Bad” exercises, just bodies that sometimes aren’t quite ready for them.
So, if you’re struggling with leaking every time you hit the pavement, what can you do?
Let’s consider what happens during running, from a pelvic floor standpoint. Several studies in the past few years have demonstrated that the pelvic floor muscles are active during running. This study from 2017 used EMG electrodes at the pelvic floor muscles, and found that there was increased activation of the pelvic floor prior to heel strike and reflexive activation after heel strike during running. This is in line with what we know about the pelvic floor muscles. They play a crucial role in anticipating movement, preactivating, then have modulating force during movement based on the task at hand. And, this is protective. We would want the muscles to have varying levels of activation so that we can support ourselves during movement, support around the urethra, not leak.
What happens then when someone is leaking with running? We of course, want to say that this reflexive thing is not happening. This review did show some alterations in the way that those who leak contract vs. those who do not leak. However, this study found that the reflexive action was the same in those who leaked and those who didn’t. This one also found that patterns of engagement were the same. So, it is likely that there are sometimes differences, but sometimes not. And this seems in line with what we know about leaking. Leaking during running is a pressure system problem. So, to help it improve, we have to address the whole system– which includes the pelvic floor muscles, but not only the pelvic floor muscles. It makes sense that sometimes the issue is stemming from these muscles not activating at the right time, with the right force–but sometimes, the pressure problem is from something else.
How can we address the pressure modulation system?
First, we need to evaluate the system to see how the structures are functioning, and this includes looking at you– the full person– to see how you control pressure through your pelvis. So, we need to look at how you move from head to toe, then evaluate your running mechanics, then look more closely at your breathing pattern, your abdominal wall, and your pelvic floor muscles. Once we do this, we often have a clear idea of what is happening and can make a strategy to get this better.
So, my big Tip #1– Go see a pelvic floor PT–but make sure it’s someone who is trained at looking at the whole person and can really evaluate you well.
If you’re nervous about doing this, I feel you. It can be hard to talk to someone about very private things. And I totally understand that the idea of having an internal examination can be a barrier for some people. BUT, know that those of us living in the pelvic floor world talk about this stuff ALL THE TIME. You won’t surprise us. Seriously, we hear this stuff all day. And, if you don’t think you’re ready for an internal exam, that’s cool. Honestly, we don’t mind. There is SO much that can be done to help the pelvic floor and bladder leaks that can be done without an internal exam! If you want to learn more, give us a call. One of our doctors of physical therapy will be happy to do a virtual consult with you and get you started!
Ok, off my soap box… What else can you do to impact the pressure modulation system and decrease leakage?
Tip #2: Breathe!
This seems so simple. I know, you’re thinking, “Of course I’m breathing!” But, are you? Or are you going through a series of breath holds? Next time you run, pay attention, and keep your breath flowing in and out as you run. The diaphragm is the major pressure regulator of the body. So, we need to keep your breath moving so pressure is spread out!
Tip #3: Let your ribcage move!
Many people tend to run with stiffness, locking down their ribcage. This can funnel pressure downward toward the pelvic floor muscles leading to increased load, and potential leaking. Instead, relax your ribcage, let your arms swing and allow your trunk to rotate. This will actually turn on more of the muscles around your core improving the synergistic activation of your pressure modulating system.
Tip #4: Lean into the hills!
When going up or down hills, it is easy to lean back to try to control the movement. This can alter the position of your ribcage over your pelvis which will impact your pressure control. Instead of doing this, lean into the hill as if you have a strong wind blowing against you (I love this visual I got from my friend & colleague, Julie Wiebe!). When going downhill, lean into the downhill and let yourself pick up a little speed instead of leaning back to slow down. Relax into the hill. Many of my patients find that doing this actually reduces the pressure they feel and can decrease leakage.
Tip #5: Get a running evaluation!
Running form matters, it really does! So, go see someone and have them take a look at your running form to offer you guidance on how you can optimize it! Be sure you’re using the best type of shoes for your foot as well! This can make a big difference! Awesome running stores in your area should be able to help you with this!
I hope this is helpful! What questions do you have about running and the pelvic floor? Ask away! We are here to help!
Have a great week!