Why I'm a Better Runner Since Becoming a Mom
There’s a lot of #BetterAfterBaby comeback stories out there, particularly in the fitness world, and in the running world specifically, there’s a lot of of faster after baby ones. Truth be told, next to actually having a baby, my postpartum comeback story is what I’ve most looked forward to ever since I found out I was pregnant.
Prior to my own pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum experience, I figured that a large part of the reason many female runners seemed to get stronger and faster after having babies was an increased pain threshold after enduring unmedicated vaginal births. And perhaps I should be ashamed to write this, but my assumption that unmedicated vaginal birth equaled postpartum PRs is probably one of my main reasons (if not the main reason) for hoping to deliver my daughter that way. In my head, my birth story went like this:
I’m out for an at-least-six-mile-run (I also assumed I’d be running longer and later in pregnancy than I did, but that’s beside the point) and my water breaks. My husband rushes to get me and we fly to the hospital as I gut out crazy contractions, and arrive just in time for me to push like the badass endurance athlete I am until baby pops out across her first-ever finish line, leaving me with a new definition of unendurable.
What really happened:
After a failed ECV attempt, we scheduled my c-section for one week before my due date, arrived
that date and time and, with the help of lots of modern medicine, welcomed our daughter, Teagan, into the world—not without complication or discomfort—but in terms of actual birthing process at least, pretty much pain free.
I am not downplaying c-sections at ALL. It is a major surgery, one that, unlike vaginal delivery, I deliberately turned a blind eye to for the purpose of not wanting to mentally endure what I knew happened to the core muscles I’d worked so hard to protect prior to and through pregnancy. But I did think that my postpartum running comeback might not be as Rocky-theme-song worthy having not endured vaginal childbirth.
Suffering and endurance seem to go hand in hand. In fact, one of my favorite books to quote to runners I coach is Alex Hutchinson’s Endure, which draws on extensive research and experiments to illustrate a definite correlation between the two for successful distance running. “Simply getting fitter doesn’t magically increase your pain tolerance,” Hutchinson writes, “how you get fit matters: you have to suffer.” I don’t disagree with this. As athletes, our fitness will plateau if we don’t challenge our own edges and pursue discomfort by running further and/or increasing the intensity of some of our runs. But we also need to be to a certain level of baseline strength before we can gain more strength through deliberate suffering. And, of course, enduring pain as intense as childbirth could and likely does provide a mental edge for runners in a position to draw upon it, and I’d encourage any runner in this position to do so. What I’m getting at is that just because there’s strength to be gained through suffering, we don’t always need to seek suffering in order to gain strength. Sometimes, we’d be better served to just seek strength.
I can’t link my own better/faster-after-baby story to a pain threshold redefined by childbirth. But, I do link it to motherhood. Becoming a #MotherRunner has taught me to value strength as a way not to suffer—or at least to suffer later and less.
I’m not talking about strength gained through strength training, though as a personal trainer, I obviously value this sort of strength, too. But the strength I’ve learned to value since becoming a mother is the strength I’ve realized functions intuitively within me. You’re a machine is something we usually say to imply someone has superhuman strength, and while there are many ways in which I believe moms are superheroes, the running-related strength I’ve gained since becoming a mother has come from understanding what my body can do mechanically when I appreciate it for the undeniably human machine it is.
And the fact that a machine can run on empty doesn’t mean that it’s any operator’s goal for it to so, and no machine runs its best on empty. I ran a course PR at the Booksie Way two weeks ago, I’m targeting an overall PR at the Detroit Half Marathon next week, and the fact that I was able to to do the former and feel cautiously optimistic about the latter is that I’ve fueled my body in a way that, while not necessarily intuitive to me, has helped in function intuitively under the demands I place on it—springing up and flying down 13.1 miles of hills while producing milk to feed my daughter on the other side of the finish line for example.
I have a long history of an eating disorder (ED), including a several-year bout with anorexia, but I’m grateful that my journey as a (recreationally) competitive runner began in the years proceeding this. That being said, when it comes to truly-adequate fueling, I still have some ED-demons that get giggles out of convincing me that a sweet potato in itself has a meals worth of adequate protein or that an underfeed training run is ‘great’ mental training for X upcoming race. Knowing this, my husband connected me with a sports dietician (Meghann Featherstun of Featherstone Nutrition) who has helped me mute those demons in favor of improved protein intake, honed hydration, and a race-day fueling strategy that allows me to operate on what my body’s been given vs. having to battle through what it’s missing. I used the mantra “empty the tank” my last couple of miles, where in the past, I’d been mostly running on empty. I used to think strong will power meant enduring an empty tank as long as possible, but hear me out fellow strong-willed runners who may/may not also battle ED demons: willing yourself to empty a tank you’ve hitherto willed yourself to fill is a far more empowering situation to be in.
And what does this have to do with motherhood?
The answer is intentionality. An ED demon can convince me to skimp on calories when it means I might fall a few seconds short of a PR, but they can’t convince me to do anything that would make me fall short of being the mom Teagan needs me to be. Prior to Brooksie a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to my friend/coworker that the reason I thought I did so well in 2019 was that my attention was more on coaching than running the race; more on others than myself. The same was true this year in terms of coaching, and then factor in that my attention in some ways was even less on myself because of Teagan---but also, ironically, even more on myself because of her; because of the fact that my body is responsible for holding, loving, and feeding her; because I need to and am fully capable of being a strong, fast, and reliable human machine; one that can and will suffer as necessary, but that won't rely on suffering to define her strength.
*NOTE: the absolute last thing I aim to do in this post is understate the strength and endurance it does in fact take to pop out a baby with OR without an epidural. I know, not firsthand, but through some incredibly badass women (some who are and some who aren’t endurance athletes) that this is an insanely painful and pride-worthy feet.