When I got pregnant with my daughter at 33, I thought that I'd seen the last of my competitive running days. And I was okay with that. After competing for my high school and university teams, and then training regularly for big races as an adult, I rather welcomed this end to perennial competing, which had become a self-imposed source of stress.
Following my daughter's birth, though, I found I loved running in a way I never had before. I loved the 20, 30, 40 minutes of uninterrupted focus that a run allowed, and soon, to my total surprise, began to crave the competitive outlet and that consistent racing had once provided. More fundamentally, I missed the chance to be selfish — to care about something as utterly inconsequential as how fast or far I ran. And then, for the very first time, running truly began to feel like something I got to do. Something playful and fun.
Finding a place for competitive running as a parent of young kids — I now have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old — can certainly be logistically and emotionally challenging. If you've been wistfully thinking back to days you used to participate in races, here are nine strategies, both practical and philosophical, that can get you back on track.
Prioritise a few key runs each week and commit to getting them done
For me, this has meant a weekend long run and one interval workout that I typically do very early on a weekday. Setting my alarm for a time that starts with a 4 one day a week is sustainable in a way that doing so every day would not be, and is actually kind of exciting. My interval day has become my favourite day of the week. This time is something I'm giving myself.
Once you've prioritised those key runs, make the non-key runs accomplish other goals
Sarah MacKay Robinson, who qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the marathon 17 months after giving birth to her daughter, PJ, recalled: "Everything pulled double or triple duty. If I was taking time away from being with my girl, I needed it to matter. On the weekends I did my workouts during naps or with the stroller. And if I ran with the stroller, I made it a bonding time for us."
Invest in a running stroller
It's common wisdom on pregnancy forums that running strollers are the biggest dust-collectors of baby registries, but I've used mine to log about a third of the miles in my current training cycle for the New York City Marathon. Neither my kids nor I are up for a continuous 20-mile stroller session, but I've found that the stroller makes both multitasking (literally running errands!) and prioritising a few key runs possible.
Invest in a gym membership or a treadmill
Membership at a gym with childcare can make getting a run in possible on days without other options. We don't belong to a gym, but I've come to embrace the 22-year-old treadmill my parents passed down to me. I've used it for easy early-morning runs in icy winter months and for nap-time intervals when life gets in the way of getting to the track. The baby monitor fits nicely in the cup holder.
Be willing to be creative and flexible in training and racing
Mary Johnson, a USA Track & Field-certified coach and founder of Run.Lift.Perform, says, "Sometimes, if someone is having a particularly stressful week, I'll throw three or four runs into their schedule . . . giving them the flexibility to pick and choose which runs they want to do when." Before competitions, Robinson once had "a whole pre-race routine starting the week prior". After her daughter was born, "I lined up for my first half-marathon and realised I hadn't even shaved my legs or armpits. And, of course, I spent part of my warm-up pumping in the car."
In her memoir Let Your Mind Run, 2004 Olympic medalist Deena Kastor details the changes she made in her pursuit of Olympic dreams and professional racing goals. While some of these are patently at odds with the realities of early parenthood (daily naps, savouring coffee and breakfast before a key long run), her central message to cultivate gratitude reflected the mental shift I felt when I began competing postpartum. Robinson echoed this sentiment. After having PJ, "competing became more fun and celebratory and way less type-A", she says. "It truly shifted my mind into a place where training and racing are a privilege that I'm thankful for. I felt more excitement than fear, and found more meaning in the journey."
Be inspired by the work that's already gone into training
The day before my first big race as a mum, I caught myself coming up with excuses to not go all out: It was humid, the baby wasn't sleeping through the night yet. . . . But then, I considered the mornings I'd got up early enough to run before she woke, the occasions when I'd brought my breast pump to the track, the times I'd asked my husband to stay home so I could go on a long run. I not only wanted to honour the effort that had gone into my training, I wanted to be accountable to the people I love who had supported those goals.
Focus on the example you're setting for your kids
I try to redirect the temptation to feel guilty about the time running takes from my children into pride that they'll see me doing something I love and working hard to achieve a goal that's not a given. Johnson said that many of the mothers she coaches find motivation in knowing that their sons and daughters "will grow up watching their mum being strong and active".
Accept that it's not only OK but important to retain a connection to the person you were before becoming a parent
While it sometimes feels almost selfish to pursue an interest outside of work and family while raising young kids, we shouldn't be expected to relinquish the opportunity we've had to take ourselves and our sports seriously. Says Robinson, "It made me a better mum to also focus on my sport as well as my career."
An acquaintance recently asked me if next month's New York Marathon will be my first marathon. I laughed and said, "In this lifetime." The last time I trained for a marathon, I had more flexibility: I could run before work or after work (or even sometimes, both!); if a workout wasn't going well, I could quit and try again the next day; I could put off a long run until my pre-run breakfast was perfectly digested. I spent a lot of time overthinking.
Now, I just do it when and how I can, and I'm not nervous about the run. Perhaps that freedom from stress is the reason that, despite less rigorous training, I have run faster than I did in college (Robinson has as well). Becoming a parent not only doesn't have to mean the end of racing, it can also mean it's still possible to reach, literally and figuratively, for your personal best.