In the 14 years that I’ve been running at a high level, it never occurred to me that all the mileage I was logging, the lifestyle I was leading, and the mindset I was cultivating might, in a roundabout way, be preparing me for pregnancy. I actually feared the opposite: that an identity rooted in running and an existence structured around training, racing, and recovering would make pregnancy even more jarring and difficult than it already is.
Fortunately, as I’ve discovered in the last 36 weeks, it’s a little bit of both. As I approach my mid-December due date, I’m acutely aware of the ways that my running background has made this nine-month initiation into motherhood both smoother and more challenging.
With the help of Irish record holder, Olympian, licensed mental health therapist, and mother of three Roisin McGettigan-Dumas, here’s my attempt to make sense of it all.
Inadvertently training for pregnancy
Even though my training has steadily decreased over the last few months—I’m down from seven to four days of running per week, maxing out at 16 kilometres and cross-training when running just doesn’t feel good—there are some obvious overlaps between my experiences as a runner and my current status as mother-to-be.
The insatiable appetite is a big one. Eight years of marathon training has conditioned me to build big, balanced plates, to eat every few hours (and never leave home without snacks), and to fuel with intention. My diet these days looks surprisingly similar to my diet while in marathon training, down to the post-exercise smoothies and pre-bedtime snacks. Only now, those calories are helping me grow a human, and my cravings are far less predictable (quesadillas one week, cupcakes the next).
While there’s certainly some room for loosening the reins during this time, McGettigan-Dumas was surprised to learn early in her first pregnancy that she wasn’t in for 40 weeks of lounging around and subsisting on ice cream. Instead, she was encouraged to continue eating like an athlete, with an emphasis on iron, greens, and high-quality protein and carbs. McGettigan-Dumas also found that her runner’s lifestyle—a 24/7 attempt to optimize everything from training and nutrition to sleep and socializing—bore clear resemblances to the human-growing gig, plus the parenting one that followed. The purpose was different, but the diligence was the same.
The discomfort, fatigue, and body awareness that become second nature to endurance athletes are also serving me well. I have to think that all of the times I’ve pushed through side stitches, lactic-y legs, and depleted energy stores are making running with the equivalent of a bowling ball strapped to my stomach a little more bearable. Being so attuned to my body also means I’m quick to notice new symptoms to pass by my doctor, and to dial things back when needed. With a bladder that feels marble-sized and makes for very interrupted nights, the daily napping habit I’ve maintained since my days as a collegiate athlete has been clutch during this season, too.
Finally, the delayed gratification practiced by anyone who has spent months training for a key race bears clear parallels to pregnancy. Whether you’ve dedicated a summer to base mileage or spent a season chasing peak fitness for one opportunity, patiently working towards a distant goal is well within our wheelhouse. Likewise, pregnancy requires nine months of waiting, planning, and preparing for a massive event, with plenty of checkpoints (in the form of check-ups and sonograms) along the way, plus all the nerves and optimism that precede a big race.
McGettigan-Dumas captured it well in a blog post she wrote after the birth of her first child. She described pregnancy as “a big build up to the crowning event of the year,” only “instead of a major global championship, it was the birth.”
From runner to mother mode
Some aspects of the running lifestyle and mindset, however, have been less helpful in recent months. There are the obvious changes to my body and interference with my normal workout regimen, which, for the last decade or so, has included several double days, two-hour-plus long runs, and two to three intense workouts per week. Being pregnant has also meant learning to override deeply-ingrained instincts and expectations.
For one, carrying and delivering a baby—especially for the first time—features more variables and unknowns than a debut marathon. In running, I can typically maintain a good amount of control over the process, from the logistics of each workout to the timing and composition of my in-race fluids. Of course, sometimes plans go awry. But more often than not, thoughtful preparation, practice, and execution yield a pretty predictable result.
With pregnancy, I’m wholly at the mercy of my body and the baby. There’s no telling which runs will be derailed by round ligament pain, which meals will initiate heartburn, or which nights I’ll play host to a long round of baby boxing. There’s only the understanding that my body is working on its own terms, and it’s best to just roll with the punches (and especially the kicks).
McGettigan-Dumas can relate, especially when it comes to the birthing part. “I thought I’d prepare, have my plan, and execute, just like a race strategy,” she remembers with a laugh. As most women who have babies know, and as McGettigan-Dumas eventually discovered, it’s very rarely that straightforward. “As an athlete, you choose your pain,” she says, “but when you’re growing and having a baby, that’s not necessarily in your control.”
Another difference involves the typical chain of events in a running season. I’m used to building volume and intensity as a season progresses and enjoying near-weekly gains in fitness, until eventually I’m in PR shape or close to it. But in recent months, I’ve had to slowly dial back my running to match my diminished training capacity, feeling less fit by the week as a result. Logically, I know that’s an unfair way to see it; my body is working as hard as it ever has, just in a different way than I’m familiar with. But that awareness hardly makes it easier to reconcile my current “long run” stooping to former recovery run distances, or my average pace reaching all-time highs.
Finally, the void of races, runner’s highs, and built-in reunions with running friends is almost impossible to prepare for. Were it not for the miracle taking place in my body and the excitement that surrounds it, this year would feel uncannily similar to one dominated by injury.
Some coping mechanisms I’ve found to be helpful include sticking to a schedule (which means moving and getting fresh air first thing every morning), keeping in touch with my running buddies (especially those who are pregnant or not far removed), and looking to the many mother-runners who have mounted successful comebacks as inspiration for Act II.
Pregnancy through a running lens
McGettigan-Dumas offers the following framing tips for pregnant women like me, whose running background has left them equally comforted and confused:
Prepare for the X factor
With pregnancy, birth, and racing alike, McGettigan-Dumas says, “You have to prepare for the X factor: the thing or things you can’t predict or control.” This includes what exercise will look and feel like as your due date approaches, how your mood and motivation will fluctuate along the way, and what kind of recovery you’ll require on the other side.
The ability to stay calm and present when the pain and chaos sets in is a huge advantage in running. That holds true for pregnancy, delivery, and parenting, too. The progressive muscle relaxation McGettigan-Dumas used as an athlete conditioned her to be able to relax in other stressful situations (like childbirth), as did her ability to stay mindful amidst significant distractions and unknowns.
As busy and disheveled as you may feel during the transition to motherhood, it’s important to maintain your relationships with loved ones and the world outside your home. Just as babies who are deprived of human contact and connection can really suffer, McGettigan-Dumas explains that pregnant women and new mothers also need people around them. In addition to the family members and friends already on your support crew, she urges you to “find your mom squad” if at all possible.
Show yourself compassion
Most women will admit to feeling some degree of anxiety about their changing identity and responsibilities as they enter into motherhood. Similar to how marathoners are taught to “respect the distance,” McGettigan-Dumas encourages a healthy respect for the process, but also the freedom to express your worries and fears rather than bottling them in. Self-compassion and self-care care are every bit as important now as during heavy training weeks and post-season resets.