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Athletics or Kids? The Mental Battlefield Pt. 1

Updated: Jan 26, 2023



"Let's just finish out this cross country season, then we can start trying for kids," I told my husband September of 2018.


"I just want to get through this track season, then we can start trying to get pregnant," I said in March, 2019.


"I'm only 29. The night is young!" said my uterus in January of 2020 as I got faster and faster while training with the Melbourne Track Club under a world-famous coach Nic Bideau.


"What's a few more months?" I asked with the 2020 Olympic Trials only 6 months away.



Athletics or Kids - 4 Questions to chew on


If it's not obvious, the decision to sacrifice running excellence - for a period of time, and possibly forever - in exchange for children was not an easy one for me.


If you're weighing it out, it likely won't be for you, either.


This is of course a big move that you'll ultimately have to make yourself. But since I've done a considerable amount of measuring and weighing myself, I figured some of these thoughts would be useful to you, and maybe allow you to sleep instead of wrestling with them until early hours of the morning.


Here are 4 questions I'll try to answer:

  1. Should I "sacrifice" my body?

  2. What main things should I consider?

  3. What can I expect?

  4. What perspective do running mothers have of prioritizing family


Should I "sacrifice" my body?

The short answer is no, you shouldn't - if you can prevent it.


Here's what I mean...


For the longest time (thousands, hundreds of thousands of years?) we've believed that a woman's postpartum body is basically fit for nothing above housework and maybe an MLM side hustle.

Photo courtesy of Forbes - Kathrine Switzer becomes first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon

It's the biggest lie in the book, right after the one from the 1420's that classified women as improperly developed men with inverted penises.


Yet still we let this type of lie perpetuate, likely because we're embarrassed to push back for fear it will offend the few women who do unfortunately have remarkably hard or complicated pregnancies leading to long, postpartum recoveries.


Do not believe the lie that every mother is doomed to foregoing her own dreams because she has a new child running around.


You just have to know how to navigate pregnancy & postpartum recovery, and get a little bit lucky with an uncomplicated pregnancy.


If you don't think you can come back to absolute top of your game after having a baby these days, you need to do more research. Here's a post I wrote on a handful of mothers in the running world, and here are some pro athletes from other sports who prove the Iie wrong again:

Photo courtesy of Vogue.com

  • Serena Williams - Tennis

  • Candice Parker - Basketball

  • Alex Morgan - Soccer

  • Kerri Walsh Jennings - Beach Volleyball

  • Cat Zingano - UFC Fighting

  • Dara Torres - Swimming

  • Kristin Armstrong - Cycling

  • Martina Valcepina - Speed Skating

  • Anna-Maria Johansson - Handball

  • Amelie Kober - Snowboarding


Tons more from the same sports listed above and others here.



What Main Things Should I Consider?


How old am I?

As callous as it sounds, you've got to do the math to determine whether your family of three perfect children is going to be biologically possible if you wait until after this next season. Though entirely doable, a "geriatric pregnancy" is technically anything over the age of 35 - something to be aware of.


On the other hand, are you 22 and only want three kids? Totally viable to wait (though I swoon at the idea of how well my body would have done after pregnancy had I started at 22).


Do the math. Don't just let the ideas flutter in nebulo-land like I sometimes do.


What is my next MAJOR goal? Are there at least 8 months between a potential delivery date and that goal race?

8 months at the very least because you should plan on at least a month to six weeks until you can run again, another month to get back into some form of running shape before launching into two, 12-week training cycles (6 months altogether). Note that this 8-month plan is very optimistic. One year for all this is much more doable timeframe if you don't want to rush into injury.


Is that next MAJOR goal really that major?

This is subjective, but when I look back at what caused me to delay having children (subjective b/c family is EXTREMELY important to me), I scoff at how important that 'A' race seemed at the time, and how much of a speck it feels like now.


Do I know, or could I find a doctor willing to work with me as I continue to train through pregnancy?

Belief is a fragile thing. When someone of authority tells you you're running too much, and potentially causing the baby harm, it can be scary no matter who you are. The problem with doctors is that they all speak as though they're the ultimate authority, yet every one of them will tell you something different.


Find the right doc. Don't let a 'more traditional' doctor (put mildly) shatter your belief that running while pregnant is actually good for you and baby when done properly. It is.


What if I never make it back to running competitively?

This is a real possibility, and should not be rationalized away. I think low or no expectations of returning to competitive running, (while still training as though I was competitive, particularly in early pregnancy), helped shape a healthy mental relationship with my body. Every workout or day I felt good enough to push hard was a little treat. Because I had no expectation of the next one, the positive momentum grew throughout the pregnancy.


It's not out of the question to return without training hard during pregnancy, which even some competitive runners opt for. In that case, it's just a matter of patience and consistent training after delivery to get to where you want to be. Not 'if' but 'when.'





What Can I Expect?

Oh boy. You can expect a lot.


First of all, a baby! I realized after delivering that I'd given a lot of thought to what might happen during and after pregnancy with regard to my own body, but hadn't thought enough about how the actual baby would change my schedule, my recovery opportunities, my relationship with my husband, his work schedule and therefore my running schedule, amount of stress I felt when leaving on a run knowing my daughter was waiting for me...


The list goes on and on, but before I talk you out of it, let me tell you I would do it again one million times out of a million.


First Trimester

Nothing shocking here.


During the first trimester, you can expect HUGE amounts of exhaustion, and bouts of nausea causing you to avoid even thinking about running shoes. You can also expect that your fitness will not quickly dwindle into some unknown abyss. It is there, so when you get a window when you're feeling good (consistently at least once every day for me), run.


Your food choices will be wildly unusual. I once (or five times) had a bowl of Goldfish for breakfast, spoon and all. Your body just knows what it wants to grow this kid while you keep running, and you will feed her that.


Pro-tip: Don't get your leg caught in the flattering trap of the people who say you should eat whatever you want all the time. I don't care if you're pregnant or not. Junk food and lots of sugar will destroy you. Muscle down as much nutrient-dense, whole food as you can stomach throughout the entire pregnancy.


Expect the need to motivate yourself to get out, and maybe load up your favorite podcasts and motivational videos on Sunday like you would when food prepping for the week.


Second Trimester

Your energy slowly returns, and naps move back to their regular one/day. Morning sickness has subsided a bit, and you're not huge yet. Your running window widens, and workouts seem doable again.


Round ligament pains will enter the picture as you near the end of the second trimester, and you'll panic for a second on a few runs. These are normal. If it gets too much to handle, just stop running for a second. Easy. Walk home if they're feeling really bad.


The Slow Bomb stage. I've experienced it myself and heard about it from other pregnant runners. It's near the end of the second trimester when you suddenly blow up, feel as exhausted as the first trimester, and get much slower. Workouts where you intend on bringing speed are especially frustrating. Throw pace out the window and keep doing it anyway.


Particularly if this is your first pregnancy, every little pain or discomfort will cause you to question if you're doing damage to the baby. This is not medical advice, but I believe your body will tell you - and I mean really tell you - when to stop. As in, you won't be able to continue.


A pregnant woman's regulatory systems are incredible. For instance, when I'm pregnant, I literally cannot run an all-out mile. It won't happen. I can run a mile as hard as I can, but not as hard as I want. In other words, I finish this "all out" mile with 20% still left in the tank. My body's governor shuts down my force output before I do any real harm. Pretty cool.


Third Trimester


If you've stayed consistent with running and lifting during your first two trimesters, you'll be super happy you did during the third.


Chances are you've successfully maintained a substantial amount of fitness, and are nowhere near the complications that people who subscribe to "eat whatever you want and sit on the couch" have to deal with.


You may not be as snappy as you once were, but slower paces are only masking the fitness gains you're making. Where you're used to using speed as the metric for fitness, and seeing incremental progress go up and to the right, your speed graph will now look more like an incremental slope downward. That doesn't mean your fitness line isn't trending up.


Just trust it. Keep running those 9:40/mile, hour-long runs in the third trimester. Keep pushing those 85-second 400's at the track. Fitness is all relative. When you finally get that baby out, you'll wonder why you ever used pace as a measure of your fitness during pregnancy in the first place. Your speed will rocket, and you will taste those gains you've made.


Postpartum

You'll really want to hit the streets right away, particularly if the birth went smoothly, and you're on cloud 9 like I was, as opposed to experiencing postpartum depression, which can happen.


Don't just dive right in. When your doc clears you, take an easy 10-min spin around the block to just feel your legs again after the few-week break. Notice how light you feel. I can't wait to feel that feeling again, personally. It's like taking your braces off.


Sometimes in those few weeks getting back, though, you'll feel unfit and breathe heavily. Your body just changed immensely. Be patient. You're taking 5 steps back to take 1000 steps forward.


Slowly ramp up. Back off and reset if any warning signs happen (such as bleeding too much). Remember, you budgeted at least a month if not more to just get back into "running," so use the whole time. You'll want to steer clear of social media so as to not get caught up in rushing back to the competitive field after seeing your old teammate winning some race.


You'll also really want to start building back core strength, as it's tough to do core stuff while pregnant.


What Perspective do running mothers have of prioritizing family?

I've tried to be objective thus far in providing information you'd want to consider as a would-be-mother runner. Okay, I suppose it's all a little biased.


But now I'll go full sales mode. If mother nature didn't imbue you with a natural desire to procreate that outstripped your desire for athletic glory before this section, I hope I can help her do it by the end of this post.


I talked to several women in the running world who were at the top of their game leading into pregnancy. Here are some of my questions, and their responses.


Question: What were your perceptions/fears of pregnancy and motherhood (in the context of your running career) before baby, and how were they answered?


Answer by Molly Huddle "I’d say my perception of motherhood as an athlete has changed a lot since my friends and peers in the sport have shown me what it can look like. I used to think it was a career killer, because your body changed so much and you needed so much time off. Plus, there was a complete lack of support, lack of knowledge on how to physically come back, and a pervasive narrative that moms aren’t athletic or competitive. For whatever reason, women who were succeeding at this weren’t spotlighted in a way that reached me.


I wasn’t sure if I was going to have kids because I had so many dreams in the sport and it seemed at odds with that. But once I saw what it could look like up close from women who I relate to, I saw how it could work, and it made me realize I could do it. Then Dream Maternity happened and I was happy to know I didn’t have to get ‘fired’ for it, which was nice. I feel a lot more connected to the running community because of the relatability of managing a family with competitive goals now."



Question: How did finding out you were going to be a mother change the way you see running?


Answer by Genevieve LaCaze:

"It gave me so much more purpose outside of my own personal goals. There was immediately a bigger picture in my life and the pressure or expectation I originally felt with running disappeared."



Question: What were your perceptions/fears of pregnancy and motherhood (in the context of your running career) before baby, and how were they answered?


Answer by Kellyn Taylor: "In addition to obvious fears of sponsorship support there is also the fear of getting back to where you once were. With my first daughter, I was young, fresh out of college and hadn’t yet started my professional running journey. There were no expectations other than the ones that I placed upon myself. This time I am much older and as my career gets closer to the end I can’t help but wonder if I’ll get back to where I was and then to where I want to be. Patience, faith in the process and belief that things are going to work out are what I’m betting on. Every mothers journey is different. I choose to go into both pregnancy and motherhood with a naive optimism that everything will work out as I plan. If it actually does, great, and if it doesn’t then I adjust as needed…that’s life."


My Perspective

I could spew off a cliche like, "family is everything," but the simple fact is... it's not.


There are a lot of other passions and interests that can bring you genuine happiness and fulfillment. I'm not making up the emotion I feel when I finish a solid run, or the positive emotions/mental well-being it provides me the rest of the day and week.


These are real feelings. This is real purpose.


But knowing what I know now, I'd give all my interests up in exchange for the greatest amount of fulfillment I now know: love for my daughter.


I can't tell you how to live your life, and you don't want me to. But I can tell you what happened to me.


The second, and I mean the very second that double line appeared, I was different. My entire view of the world shifted like two tectonic plates had just smashed together.


It was the most primal feeling you can imagine. Everything in my biology told me it was the single most meaningful thing that had ever happened to me - that I'd never be the same.


Don't even get me started on the day she was born.


You see, the problem with success as a means of fulfillment and happiness is that you can always see a higher peak from the top. There's never enough. One major success lasts a good day and a half. Then you must go back for more.


Unadulterated love makes all your surrounding successes both more meaningful and absolutely meaningless at the same time.


I can now say that if running were stripped from me, my identity would remain intact. I don't know that I could say the same before my daughter, Kenny Lou showed up.


I will still argue, till death, that you can have kids and dreams. But in addition - and in full sales mode - I will also argue that the kids make every dream twice as rich.


...Amen, haha.



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Another amazing article!! I would LOVE to learn about your lifting routine. Maybe a new post idea?

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Very helpful, thank you! A little hard to relate to (and trying not to compare myself to you) because I dont run professionally and a 9:20pace is actually me on a good day 😅

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