Postpartum Mountain Biking Guidelines 101

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Mountain biking is shifting from being male dominant sport to an activity also pursued by women and children and families. The number of women and kids entering this sport is growing steadily around the globe. The amount of women who want to continue to ride through pregnancy and into motherhood is also growing.

However, the majority of guidance is coming from the glorification on social media of women making fast returns to racing and pushing the limits of their physical health and capabilities during pregnancy and postpartum in an attempt to inspire others to do the same.

What we really need though, are voices for sustainable, whole body strategies to support pregnant and postpartum mountain biker’s actual needs, not just desires. 

This includes educating the sport, fitness and MTB community on what their actual needs really are -consideration of the mother, baby, core/pelvic health and an adjusted mindset because this chapter in their athletic life demands modifications that extend beyond exercise.

There are currently no official guidelines for women returning to this sport after having a baby, and guidance for this particular sport in this particular chapter is limited. Mountain biking is the best sport In the world, no rider doubts that. And no new MTB mama ever wants to hear the words “you shouldn’t ride your bike right now…” …. Instead we are surrounded by well meaning advice “Just Listen to a Your Body”.  

This advice is not actually bad in itself, but what is lacking is education in what to listen out for.  Pregnancy modifications are thoroughly covered & the risks of riding while pregnant are also obvious. But where do we get advice on the actual signs and signals to look out for modifications in the postpartum chapter? (they extend far beyond back pain or bleeding or breastfeeding problems).

Urinary and fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, back pain, pelvic dysfunction, abdominal separation, hernia and similar conditions are prevalent among female riders.

For a review of the official Fitness Australia postnatal exercise guidelines, click here. 

Experts estimate pelvic floor dysfunction affects more than 30 percent of women in the general population, and is likely higher—more than 40 percent!!—in female athletes – including mountain bikers. 

Athletes are used to pushing their bodies to the limit. We get up early, we ride as often as we can. We subject ourselves to gruelling climbs and hours and hours on the bike. Maybe we even train in the gym too.

Athletes do NOT have higher levels of pelvic floor muscle strength. Because athletes train more and push harder, there is more strain!

The message here is not that you should stop riding your bike! Absolutely not! Only a 1 on 1 assessment with a Women’s Health Physio can determine whether you are ready or not. I am advocating for awareness and understanding of the importance of optimal postpartum rehabilitation as prevention of injuries as well as big picture support for this transition from birth to bike and riding longevity for all. 

Pregnancy is temporary, but Postpartum is forever! Our bodies adapted to pregnancy, now we NEED to adapt to POSTPARTUM.

There is ZERO information out there about MTB and the female pelvic floor because no one else is advocating women’s health in this sport and because women have not been studied as much as men, not because we are not prone to these problems.  

The first question most new mums want answers to is  “When can I start riding again?” 

Returning to riding and training post-pregnancy however, is not timeline related. Instead, it is recovery and preparedness related. Whether it has been 6-weeks, 6-months, or 6 years, where you are in the recovery process and your level of preparation for a return to riding determines your readiness. 

If you google “safe pelvic floor exercises or safe postpartum exercises”, and so on, you’ll almost always encounter the recommendation that cycling is a safe form of exercise postpartum. 

This is largely due to the fact that cycling is a low impact sport. However, cycling and MTB are two very different demands on the pelvic floor. Mountain biking is a HIGH IMPACT SPORT. 

The issue I have with assigning cycling as a “safe postpartum exercise” is that:

  1. Cycling and Mountain Biking are two very different demands on the Pelvic floor. In MTB there is a lot more “sit to stand” (to go over roots and rocks)  and sustained standing/hinging movements, jumps and drops (similar to the demand plyometrics would place on the PF) and technical skills involving balance and core strength. Mountain bikes are typically a lot heavier and require a lot more energy and lower body strength to propel forwards as well.
  2. Do we really know if either are “safe” for an individual without knowing what their tendencies are when they exercise? For example – do they have the habit of holding their breath or bearing down? What is their lower body & core strength like? Do they overuse their obliques when asked to do a simple movement?
  3. Mountain biking can exacerbate the weakness that pregnancy and birth factors cause on the body.
  4. Women place so much pressure on themselves to get back their “pre-baby fitness” and win races that in many cases this goal is pursued at the expense of their own health, without any awareness of the damage they may be doing… and often under the guidance of a trainer or friend that has no training in pelvic health. Just because a trainer has had a baby, does not mean the trainer knows the full scope of intra abdominal pressure and role it has on influencing the core and pelvic floor. 
  5. Mountain Biking is a physiologically + psychologically high demand sport! (that’s partly what makes it so addictive!) Studies have shown that more than half (51%) of the time on the bike is spent between aerobic and anaerobic thresholds and 39% above the anaerobic threshold! Therefore highly developed aerobic AND anaerobic systems are needed to perform well and meet the demands of the trail, and this in itself is a huge stress on an already depleted mama body. Nutrition, hydration, rest, emotional support and inside out rehab boxes need to be ticked on a daily basis for athletes. 

So how can we make MTB safer for women during these chapters of life? 

  1. Even on a flat surface there can be a fair amount of downward pressure, so one key factor or this postpartum rehabilitation should include learning to balance internal pressures. This is taught via the breath. The breath is also used for retraining the automaticity of your core and pelvic floor so that when suddenly you need to stand to get over a log or boulder or to pedal through tough terrain like sand or mud you don’t need to think about your pelvic floor, you just breathe and it does it for you! It means you can also concentrate on staying on your bike and deal with whatever is coming at you on the terrain!
  2. ALL women regardless of what type of birth and how long ago it was, should have an individual postpartum assessment by a Women’s Health Physiotherapist.  This includes an internal exam and functional PF testing too . Why? Basically, A brief check-up with a midwife or obstetrician six weeks after giving birth isn’t sufficient for postpartum care, especially for returning to exercise. A WHP will evaluate your risk and readiness for returning to MTB, whether it is XC, Downhill, CX or enduro. 
  3. Build up your Glutes! Glutes (your butt muscles) attach to the outside of your pelvis, and your pelvic floor attaches to the inside. Both play a role in giving the pelvis stability. If one muscle group is weak or too tight the function of the other can suffer, but also they can support each other very well when functioning well. Both glutes AND pelvic floor function are necessary for MTB longevity. Weak glutes may increase back /hip/knee pain or injuries, leaking, and over compensation patterns. The glutes help to keep the PF muscles taut (pulled tight not sagging). 
  4. Assess your seat shape and set up with a pelvic floor physio and a professional bike fitter who understands the pelvic floor and the shape of your pelvis. You need to “spread the load” evenly through your sit bones. If the seat is too low or high, too far back or too far forward or if it is on an angle then your pelvis will not be in neutral, which decreases the function of the pelvic floor. If you have the tendency of pelvic floor overactivity, do not underestimate the importance of your saddle type! 
  5. In the early phases of returning to riding, try to avoid steep inclines, jumps and drops. You can still have fun on the trails while doing all the B-lines instead! Use this time to dial in your foundational MTB and bike handling skills again! 
  6. Be aware on longer rides that just like any muscles, pelvic floor muscles fatigue.
  7. Menopausal women are prone to pelvic organ prolapse. This occurs due to factors including failing to rehab the pelvic floor and core after childbirth and hormonal changes which affect the pelvic floor tissues. The body can remain in a postpartum state for around 30 years – it’s not uncommon for a menopausal woman to experience a prolapse even if they have never had a baby.
  8. Research/talk with your physiotherapist about wearing a pessary when riding if you have Pelvic organ prolapse.  If you have prolapse, a pessary will give your pelvic floor the support that it needs and hopefully prevent further straining.
  9. I cannot stress the importance of establishing good bladder and bowel habits!
  10. Finally, start slow, light and breezy , not for one week, but at least for the entire fourth trimester. For step by step guidance, stay tuned. 

In conclusion, there needs to be more deep guidance on the female MTB rider’s mindset in this chapter. As mountain bikers, we are pretty good at evaluating the risk vs reward regarding trail features. But during pregnancy and postpartum, It’s not just about whether you can ride a feature or not, it’s about big picture core and pelvic health function and the risk vs reward (not CAN YOU but SHOULD YOU) for that too. 

Copyright 2019  – Alison Frendin MTBmamas

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