Returning to training post baby
Team athlete Elaine Garvican recently gave birth to her first daughter after performing exceptionally well in Kona 2017 as one of the leading Age Groupers. Below she describes how she has adjusted to becoming a mother and fitting her athletic lifestyle in differently to 2017.
It is now over 10 months since I gave birth to my daughter, and more than a year since my last blog post describing my training during pregnancy. Turns out there is considerably less time for either training or writing when you have to look after a tiny human – who knew?! A few weekends ago I took part in only my second post-baby race – a local off-road 10k. It was a far cry from the remarkable ITU race of Nicola Spirig, 12 weeks after the birth of her 3rd child, and this prompted me to pick up from the end of my Training Whilst Pregnant blog.
I continued running until 36 weeks, swam occasionally through 38 weeks and she arrived the day before her due date. My labour was fast and uncomplicated, with the whole thing over in less time than it takes me to complete a 70.3 – some of this I put down to having stayed fit and active, but a lot is also simply good luck. Without a doubt though, my fast recovery in the days and weeks afterwards was at least in part due to having continued to exercise throughout pregnancy. However, if I thought there was a paucity of evidenced-based information regarding training whilst carrying a baby, I quickly found the post-partum recommendations to be even sketchier. I read a few blogs describing what seemed to be worryingly early return to high impact exercise and a lot which seemed overly cautious. When you have a new baby, everyone likes to give you advice, and it can become very tiresome, but here are 5 things I found to be true:
1. See a physiotherapist with post-natal experience
An often-quoted rule is that you should wait until after your 6 week GP check before returning to exercise, but in most cases this appointment actually focuses on the baby not on the mother and in reality would leave a first-time mum no wiser as to whether she was really ready. Suspecting this might be the case, I made an appointment to see Sharon Simpson at the Bosworth Clinic at 4 weeks pp, and until then concentrated on (the critically important!) pelvic floor exercises, establishing breastfeeding, sleeping (when I could!) and enjoying being a new mum. In the grand scheme of things, a month passes extremely quickly with a new baby anyway, and in my opinion there is nothing to be gained by rushing to train during this period, and a considerable amount to lose when looking at the remainder of your athletic career. Sharon has treated me for the past 3 years and although she is more familiar with the fitter, leaner version of me, the most striking change was due to the effect of massive amounts of the hormone relaxin in my system; whereas only weeks before I could perform a stable single-leg squat, now there was laxity in every joint from the ankle up. This is normal – you need that hormone during labour – but I hadn’t appreciated how long it hangs around for. This is the reason for urging caution in a return to running – it’s not all down to cardiovascular fitness, complications from giving birth, whether any sutures have healed, or how “strong” you are in general, relaxin means you lack tautness in stabilising tendons and colateral ligaments and as a result injury is significantly more likely, whoever you are. For this reason, Sharon advised no running until Alexandra was 3 months old, and set me a bespoke program of strengthening exercises, not just for my core, but with an eye on a return to running. These took 40 – 60 minutes to complete and became progressively more challenging and I was often initially shocked at what I was unable to do, and then surprised at how quickly I progressed. She did give the green light for the turbo, although for various reasons it was week 6 before I did my first session. I continued to see Sharon regularly throughout my return to fitness, which has been uncomplicated.
2. Get checked for a diastasis recti
I had extremely minimal abdominal muscle separation (<1 finger), and was clued up on this as a potential outcome beforehand but I have several friends whose large diastasis went undiagnosed for many months. Closing the gap requires diligent work on your lower abdominal muscles and avoiding working the upper abs as much as possible.
3. Don’t compare your output with someone in a different set-up
I run my own small business and I am a Trustee in a charity where the Board are required to be extremely hands-on. I could not take maternity leave from either, so there were always a few emails, calls or jobs I had to do every day, however little sleep I’d had the night before. I have no family close by, and in his current job my husband is away a lot – regular single nights, evening work functions and his first week long trip away when Alexandra was only 7 weeks old. There were many days when I simply could not manage any training (or even physiotherapy), but no days when anybody starved or anything truly critical was missed and slowly I learned to be accepting of this. In addition, I chose to exclusively breastfeed, meaning I was permanently “on call”, night and day. My life is very different to that of a professional athlete with family to help and bills to pay through sport, and if it takes me longer to get to the start line of my next triathlon than some of them, so be it.
4. Incorporate your baby into training where possible
Babies do sleep a lot, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you have a lot of free time (see also point 3), depending on other calls for your attention. During the night of course, they wake up a lot too, so your ability to train during those daytime sleep windows might depend on how well rested you are. It is hard to push yourself to threshold reps when you can barely keep your eyes open. Some babies quickly consolidate their daytime sleeping, but others prefer a much greater number of naps of shorter periods, so although your total baby-free time might add up to an amount which seems reasonable over 24 hours, when this occurs in a number of 40 minute blocks throughout the day, realistically you can be pretty limited. I was given a running buggy for Christmas, so although you cannot run with a baby in a buggy before they are at least 6 months old (and able to support the weight of their own head) as the winter finally thawed away, I was able to combine training with a nap for her. My turbo and I have been great friends for many years now, so we simply picked up where we left off, although in practice sessions were capped at 90 minutes – apart from anything else, add on a shower time and then at least one of us would have to feed! I am still yet to swim, because for me, the peripheral time associated in driving to and from the pool and getting changed, is time I could better spend in a longer run or bike session, but I’ve never really been a huge fan of swimming anyway.
5. Remember the Golden Rule: This too shall pass
In many ways, Ironman is good preparation for motherhood. Time management, self-discipline and perseverance are helpful skills to have for life in general. When it comes to a tough race though, it helps enormously to stay in the moment – not to focus on the marathon when you’re only at mile 60 of the bike, not to think of the 3rd or 4th lap of the run when you’ve only just left T2 and your legs feel tired. Do what you can right now, and worry about the next mile when you get to it. When it comes to a difficult period with a baby though, the bigger picture can be more helpful – this stage will pass, this night will pass, teeth will come through, their bodies will adapt, they will learn eventually. Looking back, an extra few days of zero training will pale in significance, even if it’s hard to take at the time.
I’ll be on another start line in September and I will race as hard as I am able on the day. It is difficult not to harbour expectations based on what I used to be able to do, but I am learning to set goals in a different way, and to look forward to extra cheers and finish line hugs!