Jennifer Vollmann is a Cross Fitter-turned Ironman triathlete. When she was pregnant with her daughter seven years ago, she was fortunate to be able to continue exercising the entire time, even 12 hours before giving birth. After her daughter was born, however, she began experiencing pelvic floor issues that seriously impacted her active lifestyle. She was able to completely overcome her symptoms by introducing pelvic floor exercises into her workout routine, and today she’s on a mission to educate women on the importance of pelvic floor maintenance.
What is your pelvic floor?
The pelvic is a “sling” of muscles, sort of like a small muscles hammock, that runs between the pubic bone in the front and the tailbone at the back. A women’s pelvic floor supports her uterus, bladder and bowel (colon). These muscles are very important because they help you to control your bladder and bowel. After childbirth, many women experience a weakening of their pelvic floor muscles that can lead to mild to severe bladder leakage and even fecal leakage.
“When you carry around a growing baby, plus the placenta and extra water and everything that goes with it, that’s a lot of weight on your pelvic floor for several months,” says Vollmann. “Your pelvic floor is basically what’s holding the baby in, so it gets really strained.”
Despite being very active during pregnancy, Vollmann began to experience a heavy feeling in her pelvic area every time she tried to run after giving birth. When she attempted to pick up heavy weights, she would also often experience bladder leakage, or lose control of her bladder altogether. “It literally felt like my organs were going to fall out of my body when I ran,” she explains.
She thought it would get better on its own, but after months of no improvement, she knew something had to be done. Through her own research, she learned that just like any weakened muscle in the body, you have to work your pelvic floor muscles to make them stronger. While many women pass the symptoms of a weakened pelvic floor (like poor bladder control) off as the normal reality of giving birth, she says it doesn’t have to be that way.
How to strengthen your pelvic floor
“I’m sure most women have heard of Kegels,” says Vollmann, “which is essentially a term for squeezing your pelvic floor, then releasing it.”
The problem, she explains, is that research says you need to do hundreds — even thousands — of Kegels to actually have an impact on your pelvic floor. Many women, unfortunately, don’t know how to do them properly, nor do they do them often enough to make a difference. To solve that problem, Vollmann encourages women to invest in a pelvic floor trainer. There are many different types and brands available, but Vollmann’s favourite is the Kegelbell.
“It’s basically a weightlifting system for your vagina,” she says. “You basically insert it the way you would a tampon, and there’s a string attached to it where you can add small weights to the bottom.”
The weights are key, she explains, because they naturally force you to do a proper Kegel. She began using hers in the shower for three minutes, five days per week. During that time, she would squeeze for 30 seconds, then relax for 30 seconds, and then repeat until the time was up. She adds that you don’t have to worry about straining your pelvic floor at all, because if your muscles are too tired to hold it in, it will simply release it, so you can’t hurt yourself. In just six weeks, Vollmann was able to run without discomfort and lift weights without fear of losing control of her bladder, and seven years later she continues to do her Kegels one day per week as maintenance.
After giving birth to her daughter, Vollmann couldn’t run more than three miles, and today she’s preparing for an Ironman. She has no more leakage, no more heaviness, and she says she’s back to her pre-pregnancy normal. She has gotten many of her friends to invest in pelvic floor trainers, and even buys them for her friends who are pregnant as a baby shower gift.
“The sad thing is a lot of women are forced even into surgery because they don’t know what else to do, or they’re buying adult diapers or they’re not exercising,” she says. “They’re doing these things to overcome their situation without realizing what a simple solution there is with a little bit of weights and exercise.”
So for all women out there, whether you gave birth last week or 20 years ago, Vollmann wants you to know that bladder leakage and other symptoms are not normal, and there is a simple solution to allow you to get back to doing the activities you love without worrying about embarrassing or uncomfortable symptoms.
Jennifer Vollmann is a triathlon coach at Findingendurance.com.