An inspiring tribe of mothers are changing the perception of what women are capable of postpartum – by following their passion for extreme sports. By Fleur Britten.
Imagine yourself nine months pregnant. Or perhaps a few weeks post birth. Now imagine running 16km, up a mountain. No, nor us! But a fitness phenomenon is afoot, and a new breed of women are pushing the limits of what was previously thought possible during pregnancy and post birth, and in their wake attitudes towards exercise for expectant mothers are shifting. For these ultramums, the marathon of motherhood is no reason to stop doing what they love — and, equally, nor is their ambition a reason to delay having children. Check with your doctor first, of course, though we could all do with remembering what our bodies are truly capable of.
You might expect the 32-year-old Swedish professional skyrunner Emelie Forsberg, one of the sport's greatest, to be a hard-nosed disciplinarian, having won many races and smashed many records. After all, the extreme sport of skyrunning entails racing up and down mountains more than 6,600ft (2000m) high. Yet she puts her low injury rate down to taking good care of herself. Having had her first child in March — her partner is the Spanish skyrunner Kilian Jornet, who summited Everest without supplemental oxygen twice in one week in 2017 — that attitude continues. Forsberg may have skied on the day of her daughter's birth (she's also a familiar face on the podiums of ski mountaineering), but, she says, she is building back up slowly "because I've heard about so many women running too much too fast and getting injured".
Prior to her pregnancy, she ran 200km a week. Two weeks after the birth, she consulted a doctor and a physio, who, noting that her abs and pelvic floor were in good shape following a natural birth, gave her the nod, so she started with 200-metre jogs interspersed with walking, then steadily built up the miles per week — 10, 20, 50, up and down mountains. Five months post-birth, she is up to about 160km a week in preparation for the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a day-long 100km mountain race that is part of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), the world summit of trail running, which takes place later this month (and yes, the strict vegetarian is still breastfeeding). Forsberg, whose book, Sky Runner: Finding Strength, Happiness and Balance in Your Running, was published last year, also seeks the counsel of the other "mountain mothers". There's no judgment between them, she says. "It's more like, 'We understand you want to go out for your 12-hour run because that's your life.' It's not that you don't want to be with your baby, it's that you become a better mother if you do." For Forsberg, that's because it makes her happy, and gives her "peace and energy". And what new mother wouldn't want that?
If you could wish for a photo of yourself to go viral, it probably wouldn't be the one in which your top is hoicked up over your boobs, your three-month-old latched onto one and a breast pump pummelling away at the other. For the 37-year-old entrepreneur Sophie Power, this image went global after she completed last year's 168km UTMB race, with its almost 33,000ft of climbing, in 43 hours and 33 minutes, but that was the least of her worries. Having not been able to feed her younger son for the first 16 hours (her first-born is four) was worse. "I basically had two watermelons attached to my front. It was so painful," she says. But then, she shrugs, "it's only my boobs". Running the UTMB was a long-held dream that Power was not prepared to give up, despite the suboptimal timing. "When a man becomes a father, you don't see them give up their activities." Mothers, she says, often think they don't have the right to do anything for themselves, "and that's completely wrong. I have two boys that will never grow up thinking women are less than equal to men."
However, as her priority was returning to her boys, ready to parent again, Power raced in a very "different way". Instead of hurtling round, she took time to eat and rest (and hand-express behind trees). "I had time to enjoy it — I was doing what I love." It wouldn't have been possible, she says, without her support crew: her husband, John, also an amateur ultrarunner, and their nanny. The couple, who live in Surrey, work as a "tag team", alternating who gets out to train or race and who stays with the kids. Power recently completed one of the world's toughest endurance races, the summer Spine Race, a 268-mile ultramarathon along the Pennine Way. It was a good opportunity to catch up on some ultramum camaraderie, which always includes "lengthy pelvic-floor conversations". After a difficult first birth and "huge pelvic-floor issues", having run late into that pregnancy, Power was keen to educate herself. That knowledge contributed to the first physiotherapists' guide for postnatal women returning to running (available from women's health physios). No more excuses.
It has to be up there as a novel way to sleep-train your child. When the 35-year-old ultrarunner Jasmin Paris ran the harder winter Spine Race, in January, she was still breastfeeding her then 14-month-old daughter, Rowan, and used her breaks en route to express milk. Not only did she beat the Spine record by several hours, and become the first woman to win it, but, by her absence, she also succeeded in getting her child to sleep through. The Edinburgh-based vet, who is also currently completing a PhD, attributes her speed in part to her daughter: "I wanted to get back to her." But she also points out that, over longer distances, the physical differences between the sexes cease to be such an issue. "It's less about strength and more about stamina." Maybe, she adds, women are better suited to the mental aspect of ultrarunning: "You have to look after yourself, feed yourself, take care of your feet. Much of it is in the mind. You can push the body further than people think."
Paris is currently training for the Petite Trotte à Léon later this month, another UTMB race. There's actually nothing "small" about this highly technical 300km race, with 82,000ft (24993m) of ascent around Mont Blanc, which must be completed within 142 hours. Indeed, it's so hardcore that competitors are required to run in pairs. "You're in high mountains on technical terrain, crossing snow and glaciers," says Paris, who is running it with her husband, a science academic. "If you fell, your partner would be the only person that could help you."
For a working mother, to be race-ready means a more focused, quality-over-quantity training regime, which Paris achieves with the help of a coach, mixing tougher sessions of speed work and hill reps with recovery days. It may seem counterintuitive to the rest of us, but for Paris, this is her chance to "recharge" from motherhood. "It's my headspace. Plus, I think it's good for Rowan to see that her parents have their own hobbies."
Don't try this at home
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It's not wise to compare the average person to these athletes. Their bodies are used to being trained this way, plus they are hopefully being looked after by specialist physios and medical professionals. Running isn't the best prenatal exercise because pregnancy creates a load on your joints and pelvic floor. We also say no high-impact until six months post birth — if you're breastfeeding, you will have joint laxity, though that will improve with weaning. Because everyone's pregnancies and births are different, we err on the side of caution. That said, a physio can give you the go-ahead to start loading sooner. The most common mistakes that pregnant women make is giving up all exercise before birth; doing too much too soon afterwards (for example, a 5k run six weeks postpartum); or doing too little afterwards — you do need to stress the body to progress. You should first rehab your inner core (pelvic floor, diaphragm and transversus abdominis), ideally from six weeks postpartum. Then build back up to light conditioning. After six months, you can load more.
Written by: Fleur Britten
© The Times of London