This year has seen an unusually high amount of top professional triathletes taking the opportunity to start families. It’s a subject that’s close to us at Trisutto with no fewer than 6 of my former athletes currently pregnant or who have just given birth. Over my career I’ve seen many athletes both struggle and triumph with what should be a very happy change in life circumstance.
I understand people’s interest in the performance aspect, so I’ll start with what should be a rather obvious point:
Everyone is individual and will be impacted physically and emotionally post birth in different ways. The reality is some athletes will come back and be just as strong (if not stronger) than before, some will be back but having lost some top end speed, and some won’t return at all.
Athletes making the decision to start families tend to fall into three categories.
Those who are very firm that if and when they have a baby, that will be the end of their sporting careers.
Athletes who want to see how they cope with motherhood before making any decisive decision on their sport careers.
A third group who are very positive and in no doubt about coming back to their sport.
Returning to racing after giving birth really has very little to do with training, but about time and expectations.
I have been taken aback with some criticisms levelled at the female athlete who decide to continue their sport at the top level. While being a top athlete does sometimes mean a level of selfishness in one’s lifestyle choices, starting a family is not a selfish decision. Every athlete I have worked with that had children spent much more time with their children than the average working mum.
Unfortunately that is a stigma that still needs to be broken down.
High Performance Post Pregnancy The positives: Many athletes after birth tend to be physically stronger. I have been surprised that with no extra weight training, on return, many are at strength levels similar or above what they were prior to the birth. Similarly short course athletes may have the bonus of discovering a natural endurance they previously never had. It is of course anecdotal, but one sees across sport athletes returning after birth mentally tougher and resolute than before.
Another positive is how new mothers will also tend to become much more organised in their training behaviour and habits! Once training is done, they switch totally to being ‘mum’. This is a huge benefit, as instead of fixating on past workouts and thinking 24/7 about triathlon, the ability to focus on what’s really important in one’s life and training becomes much sharper.
Bella Bayliss (16x Ironman winner) after the birth of her child tended even to drop the warm up and down out of the workouts with a ‘I don’t have time to fluff about now’ attitude! This attitude didn’t have any harm on her performance.
If I’m to list the negatives; Guilt. I’ve seen athletes suffer huge guilt returning to training hard, one suspects because of societal pressure that is also seen across women in the workplace. Being an athlete and mum can also be a huge stress on the partner, which in turn can make for an unsustainable balance in one’s training and parenting.
Another negative, at least perceived from a female perspective, is that there will be a little gain in weight! This, especially in Ironman should not be seen as a negative and is greatly linked to strength and endurance improvement. Not necessarily just for long course, but we saw Nicola Spirig at the Olympics compete competitively over the short distance. Similarly, I personally think Gwen will be every bit as formidable and perhaps stronger after a season return.
For those returning to Ironman I would caution on two points: Training for Ironman becomes super difficult from a time perspective. For short course triathletes, as well as specialist swimmers, cyclists and runners we see it’s not so much an issue – as training times are not as long and with proper time organisation can be overcome. Ironman is tougher. To be at your best there is no getting around the fact one needs to spend long periods of time on the road.
Not that it can’t be done. Rachel Joyce showed great character returning and qualifying for Kona. With time she has built back to have a terrific season and in Ironman winning form.
Which brings me to the final point: If you are contemplating a comeback to racing after giving birth, please don’t rush it! Yes, I saw what Nicola did just 15 weeks after birth. It’s not an example I’d suggest others follow! Very few have the level of talent, mindset and support to get back so quickly.
If you take your time, organise oneself, it is my opinion child birth does not harm performance. Over the long term and by it’s very nature has the ability to unleash hidden potential that some athletes just can’t access.