We tend to blame a lack of pelvic floor strength for the leaks when we run or jump or sneeze. Those “oops moments” have been normalised over the years (thanks to the pad ads on TV or lack of post-natal care and education). We might have accepted they are a “normal consequence” of having a baby or getting older, but leaking during running, or any activity is a signal. A signal that there is potentially an issue with strength, coordination, or managing high-impact or high-pressure activities.
If we re-frame leaking as a signal from the body, then we can also free ourselves from some of the language around pelvic health such as dysfunctional or weak, and instead become curious about what’s going on.
If you’re looking for more strength, pelvic floor exercises (or Kegels) are a useful place to start. They allow you to get familiar with contracting your pelvic floor muscles and build initial strength.
It’s super common to start these with great enthusiasm but this enthusiasm can soon dwindle. This is often because they don’t yield the desired results and become yet another chore on your to-do list.
TIP #1: A great way to be consistent with your pelvic floor exercises is to tie them to another habit that you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil for your morning cuppa. This helps to instill them as another self-care habit rather than something you feel you “should” do. You can also combine them with exercise or everyday movements which also builds better function.
However, running is a complex activity and pelvic floor squeezes may not provide all the strength and function needed. Pelvic floor muscles don’t work alone and are part of our core system. This system includes the diaphragm, deep core muscles (our transverse abs), and multifidus (small stabilizing muscles in the back). They work together to relax and lengthen when we inhale, and shorten and contract on exhale. They provide stability and support and allow the core to respond to an activity. Injury, pregnancy, childbirth, and stress are just some of the factors that can interrupt their ability to work together. This lack of coordination may be another reason for leaking during running.
TIP #2: Take a nice deep breath through your nose. Does your tummy relax and your ribs expand? What happens to your pelvic floor?
Now try breathing out through your mouth. Do you feel your pelvic floor lift? Or a gentle tightening in your lower tummy?
This will give you a clue to how well co-ordinated your core and pelvic floor muscles are.
Your pelvic floor muscles may hold too much tension and this can show up as back pain, leaking, uncomfortable sex or tightness, or pain in other parts of your body, such as your jaw, your bum muscles, or inner thighs. The effect of a tight pelvic floor can mean the muscles are shorter and stiffer and don’t have the range of movement, or the ability to do the right thing at the right time (like keep you dry when you run). In this instance, a relaxation strategy versus a strengthening one is useful.
TIP #3: Learn to relax your pelvic floor, especially if you identify yourself as an anxious or tense person. Deep breathing, certain yoga poses, and stretches for your back, hips, inner thighs, and glutes may be useful in reducing tension in your pelvic floor and surrounding muscles. Non-movement strategies such as journaling and finding ways to switch off are also useful in reducing tension. Check out the Nourish App for inspiration here.
How you run can also impact leaking. You are more likely to leak with a stiff and upright upper body, shallow breathing, and constant holding of the pelvic floor than lovely relaxed breathing, a smooth arm swing, and a slight forward lean. Even the thought or anxiety of leaking can change your running and breathing pattern and, despite your best intentions, you end up leaking.
TIP #4: Bring awareness to how your running tendencies. Set up your phone and record a short video of yourself running. What do you notice? Do you have a nice arm swing? Are you bolt upright or do you have a slight forward lean? Are you holding your breath or breathing evenly? Play around with positions and movements and see if this changes the leaking.
You don’t need to put up with leaking during any activity, let alone one that brings you physical and emotional benefits and some much-needed me-time. Knowledge about our bodies, and particularly our pelvic health is empowering and will help you to keep these important muscles healthy and functioning well across your lifetime.
Here are a handful of tips but if you’re unsure or worried about any aspect of your pelvic health, start by seeing a Women’s Health Physio for a check-up and more personal guidance.
About the author
Beth Davies is a women’s health & fitness coach specialising in pelvic health. She helps women experiencing core and pelvic floor issues such as leaking, pelvic organ prolapse, and diastasis to get stronger, more confident, and back to the exercise they love.
Beth combines physical training and mindset work to create a unique “beyond the pelvic floor” approach for her clients.