The Breast-Feeding Marathon Runner

Two Secrets Every Running Woman Should Know

/ by Jasmina Kozina Praprotnik

I am somewhere in between the Marathon fields and Athens. It is slightly raining, and wind is swaying the branches of the harvested olive trees. It is the morning of 13 November 2011, and for Greece, the weather is quite cold.

Exactly 2501 years ago, Pheidippides is said to have run on this path, from Marathon to Athens, to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians.

And I am running here, too.

There are many runners around me. We are shoulder to shoulder, but we do not talk a lot, we only run. The cold wind and the raindrops make us focus on our every step. But we have the same goal: To run on this historic route, to honor her in this way, and to be as fast as possible (and satisfied at the same time while doing it).

My husband, Urban, is running beside me. He is a professional running coach, so he is accustomed to long runs, but this one is a particular challenge for him. His hands cannot swing as freely as mine. His grasp a handle—he is pushing a baby stroller.

Oskar was only 4 months old at the time, and he needed me a lot. He was a gourmand and, since I was the source of his sweet pleasure, it was much better for him if we were never apart. The best thing is that I was constantly nearby, and so he was calm, knowing that he only needed to whine and his mama would come, and quickly delicious, warm milk would flow into his small throat.

The way to Athens descended, ascended, then back again. When Oskar slept, Urban and I took advantage of this quiet time and ran quickly as possible. When we were passing runners from all over the world, many of them marveled and then encouraged us. We greeted and ran on. Even when we felt that some sips of the water and the snack station would do us good, we ran on. It was too risky to stop, still too far from our so desired finish line, so it was better that we not upset our passenger, sleeping and dreaming. But filled with oxygen and marvelous views, we were also running, and dreaming, like he was.

As the kilometers passed by, so did our fellow runners -- some dressed as ancient Greek soldiers, some barefoot, others with symbolic outfits or bouquets of flowers in their hair.

When the half-marathon was behind us, our vigilant eyes noticed that something in the stroller moved: Oskar was waking up. He was hungry. Very hungry. But before he made his food demand very loudly, and to everyone around us, we stopped and I took him out. Then I rolled up my running shirt and our young marathon companion was ready to latch on. During the lactation we walked, and had something sweet also for ourselves. Once again, we greeted the runners we had passed earlier. When they saw what the load in my hands was doing, they gasped. Someone joked that maybe he could apply for such a revitalizing treatment.

After some minutes, Oskar was full. I set him back in the stroller, put an olive branch in his hands and then we were back on the track. Our fed descendant held tightly to the olive branch with small strong hands, so he would not drop it before we reached the finish line.

But that was not the last interruption. During the second part of the marathon, he asked for more milk, and I accepted his will, each time. So we walked a few more times, and then restarted running, until we had finished all 42 kilometers.

And now the question: Did the physical effort, of which a marathon distance certainly qualifies, affect my milk? Had it become acidic? One researcher, Dawnine Enette Larson-Meyer[1], examined the effects of physical activity on breastfeeding, and found that participating in both irregular and regular sports doesn’t affect milk production. It is surprising that the amount of milk is not affected by either reduced caloric intake, or in combination with exercise. The quantity and quality of milk (proteins, fat and lactose) does not change, even in high-intensity exercise, in which the exercising and breastfeeding mother became physically exhausted. Physical activity also did not change the mineral content in the milk, nor did it show any significant differences between the size and weight of a child with either physically-active or inactive mothers.

A study conducted by G.B .Cary and T.J. Quinn[2] also suggests no detrimental effect of exercise during lactation on milk composition and volume, infant growth and development, or maternal health. Other studies also demonstrate improved cardiovascular fitness in lactating, exercising women and suggest a quicker return to pre-pregnancy body weight, and a more positive sense of well-being.

After running, or after any other physical exertion, the quantity of mother’s milk is not reduced.

The quantity could, surprisingly, even increase. In a survey carried out by C.A. Lovelady[3] and others, who measured exercising nursing mothers compared with non-exercising mothers, the former produced even slightly more milk, which was also more caloric.

Milk, therefore, does not get sour, since its chemical composition does not change. As in the study of breast milk at different intensities of exercise found (by G.B. Carey and others [4]), under the exercise intensity of 75% of maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max, the intensity below the anaerobic threshold), lactic acid and the pH of milk do not change. In this study, however, where the exercise mother practiced with 100% intensity, some lactic acid was present in the milk, but nonetheless in a minimal amount. And, after 10 to 30 minutes, it disappeared.

There are many researches that examine the influence of physical activity on the breastfeeding mother.[5] They demonstrate that postpartum physical activity can improve mood, maintain cardiorespiratory fitness, improve weight control, promote weight loss, and reduce depression and anxiety.

Since, for Oskar, this was the coldest day in his young life, he seemed particularly hungry. The targeted symbolism and fans on the last kilometers of the path did not excite him. He wished for milk, even just a few hundred meters before the finish line. But after, that he continued holding the olive branch in his hands, and then, full and happy, reached the finish line of the marathon at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.

It took us 4 hours and 30 minutes to come all that way, milk stops included. And these hours were a benefit also for Oscar.

But that's not all.

Although he experienced his first marathon route, even before he grew his first tooth, he did it as a part of the three generations that enjoyed the route with him. Besides him and his parents, his grandfather and grandmother were also running the famous path. Fate ordained it that those three generations met again, in just the last hundred meters before the finish line, and then ran through it together. Three generations, the world’s most famous (and first) marathon, with only a few stops for self-contained sustenance along the way.


Jasmina Praprotnik’s latest book has just been published in English: The Long-Running Life of Helena Zigon.


[1] Effect of Postpartum Exercise on Mothers and their Offspring: A Review of the Literature

Dawnine Enette Larson-Meyer. V: OBESITY RESEARCH Vol. 10 No. 8 August 2002 853.

[2] Cary GB, Quinn TJ. Exercise and lactation: are they compatible? (Review) Can J Appl Physiol. 2001 Feb;26(1):55-75.

[3] Lactation performance of exercising women: Lovelady CA, Lonnerdal B, Dewey KG. Am J Clin Nutr. 1990 Jul;52(1):103-9.

[4] Breast milk composition after exercise of different intensities Carey GB Quinn TJ, Goodwin SE.

J Hum Lact. 1997 Jun;13(2):115-20.

[5] Summary of international guidelines for physical activity after pregnancy. Evenson KR1, Mottola MF2, Owe KM3, Rousham EK4, Brown WJ5. Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2014 Jul;69(7):407-14. doi: 10.1097/OGX.0000000000000077.

Jasmina Kozina Praprotnik

is an anthropologist, writer and a running trainer. She is the author of a book about an octagenarian runner, Helena Žigon, called Bela dama. With her husband, she leads the club called Urban Runners. She lives in Ljubljana and has 3 children.