No, a New Study Does NOT Show That Childbirth Is 'Harder Than a Marathon'

Hey, have you seen this crazy news bouncing around social media?

A study out of the University of Michigan found that, among a group of women "at risk for childbirth-related pelvic floor injury at first vaginal birth," postbirth one out of four "showed fluid in the pubic bone marrow or sustained fractures similar to a sports-related stress fracture, and two-thirds showed excess fluid in the muscle, which indicates injury similar to a severe muscle strain."

Or, as some blogs are reporting it: GIVING BIRTH IS HARDER THAN RUNNING A MARATHON.


If that headline sounds pretty far removed from reality, that's because it is. We'll get to that in a moment. But first, let us issue this full-throated disclaimer:

Having a baby is insanely tough. It is uncomfortable. It is physically and emotionally draining. The pain can be wrenching, and often it's relentless—Mrs. Dumb Runner herself was in labor for 22 hours before we welcomed Baby #1 into the world. 

And then there's the actual delivery, which... wow.

So, yes—giving birth is hard. To put it mildly.

Is it "harder" than running a marathon? Whatever that means?

Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. Personally I think it's a ridiculous, and unanswerable, question. The two things just aren't that similar. Not really. (For starters, you can always decide to drop out of a marathon.) 

But that isn't the point. Not in this case. The point, in this case, is that the question is irrelevant, because that isn't what this study set out to examine and it certainly isn't what this study concluded.

Just to be sure, I contacted Janis Miller, Ph.D., APRN, FAAN, the lead author of the study. 

“You're right," she wrote in an email. "'Giving birth is harder than running a marathon'  is a gross oversimplification and not what I said."

As noted above, Miller's research focused on injuries experienced during childbirth—how often they occur, what they look like, and how long it takes women to recover from them. In addition, the subjects were not a representative sample; they were chosen because they had certain "high-risk factors." (If you're interested, here is the study abstract and here is the full text.)

Miller's findings, by the way, were surprising. In a nutshell: At least among certain high-risk women, postpartum pelvic injuries are often much more serious than previously thought, and women should see a specialist if they feel something's not right, as opposed to just sitting at home doing Kegels. That's actually pretty important news.

So how did we go from that, to "GIVING BIRTH IS HARDER THAN RUNNING A MARATHON"? It's difficult to say. The University of Michigan's press release about the study—which another blog described as coming from "the Michigan News," apparently taking the university's online PR hub for a news website—doesn't mention marathons, or even running, though the headline does liken childbirth to an "athletic event."

The word marathon pops up just once in the study itself, parenthetically: 

... These observations are similar to general MSK-MRI studies where resolution of muscle strains or stress fractures found in athletes (eg, marathoners) resolve over time.

In short: Declaring that childbirth is harder than a marathon is silly, at best. Suggesting that this research proves it? That's not silly. It's lazy and irresponsible, and it does readers a real disservice.

Here's the real lesson, and it applies to all of us—men and women, runners and nonrunners, anyone who reads and shares news:

Be curious. Be skeptical. Click. Read. Think.

When you don't, the results can be painful.