I was in my early twenties when I had my first child. While my friends were graduating from college and hosting quaint costume-themed parties, I was learning how to coordinate making dinner while breastfeeding and keep a household running on about 3 hours of nightly sleep. Though I’ve never regretted becoming a mother, nor has my adoration for my children faltered, I confess I sometimes feel envious of the freedom and early self-discovery young people enjoy. As I was nurturing my son, being his primary developmental aid, I, too, was growing and maturing, unearthing new passions and becoming the adult I understand myself to be today. Hidden talents and interests emerged but because of my motherhood, which is inherently self-sacrificing, I could not explore my abilities or begin to even know my potential.
While I’ve always been active–I went to college for dance and I grew up hiking nearly every trail on Mt. Tam–it wasn’t until my son’s first birthday that I plunged deep into endurance sports. I took first to road cycling and then, after another baby, to trail-ultra-running. I was a climber and possessed the ability to endure extensive suffering. Coaches and competitors noted my skill and encouraged me to pursue a spontaneous dream of landing on a professional team. Unfortunately, the excitement of my new-found facility with sports was in contention with my position as a mother. Elite athletes attain success only if they follow an adequate training regimen followed by sufficient recovery, and very few new parents have enough time, let alone energy, for the selfish hours required to dedicate to a demanding hobby.
Limited availability for interests is not a circumstance restricted to parents. Individuals with high-workloads and/or high-stress jobs–or simply those with anxiety–often experience the same exogenous constraints . Some working (the term “working” includes parents) athletes possess the self-discipline to adhere to precise, rigid schedules, and they are often cited as the paradigm for how the rest of us should pursue our goals. Their success is highlighted by their ambition and willingness to forfeit other pleasures for training, claiming there isn’t an excuse for not carving out time for whatever means enough to them. That model just doesn’t hold up in my world. I am now a working parent of three children and 2 dogs, I have been sleep deprived for over 10 years, I volunteer 4 days per week at my kids’ schools, and I have an oppressive amount of stress. Trail-running, hiking, and cycling are absolutely passions of mine, and I would love the opportunity to train like a champion, or even just train to finish a few local races each year. But with my current life load, creating time inflates, rather than alleviates, my angst. The reality is that I have to prioritize and my current responsibilities trump the importance of my passions.
For years I fought against myself, vacillating between enthusiasm for workouts and racing, and then finding myself fatigued and unmotivated. Following a long-distance training plan was impractical because my weeks were (and still are) predictably chaotic. A scheduled run might get scratched out because the baby needs to nurse or a company phone call takes too long. My progress was hampered and I couldn’t compete as I wanted, which inspired feelings of guilt and self-scorn. I’d compare myself to what I imagined I could be. I pondered how I’d perform if only I could relax after a strenuous workout or sleep just one hour more. Hard workouts became harder. The anticipation of a training session made my anxiety pulse and flare. A planned 3-hour run wouldn’t just be cut short, it’d be cut out altogether because I would worry anything less wouldn’t be enough until I didn’t have any time left at all. I craved evidence that I was capable, strong, unyielding, but forcing the workouts was causing me to detach from why I was doing them at all. My identity was flickering and, with it, my joy of being outside in motion. I wasn’t getting faster, I was irritable, I was doing too much and accomplishing less. Why couldn’t I sustain the same level of intensity and fitness as others? Stress. Whether you call it anxiety, worry, tension, fear or trauma, stress has a profound impact on our behavior, choices, and tolerance for discomfort.
In the mid-1990s, researchers from Kaiser Permanente inadvertently discovered a relationship between patients’ childhood experiences and their health as adults. Since that time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser have continued the investigation, recognizing 10 types of household dysfunction (traumatic stress) as major risk factors for developing disease, and the more adverse childhood experiences (ACE) one suffers, their likelihood for malady increases, as well. Kaiser designed a questionnaire to provide patients a score with which to understand their risk. The average American has a score under 4; I have an ACE score of 7. My body was riddled with stress as a child and it influences how my body copes with stress today. For example, I feel profound physiological responses when I am exposed to yelling, and I have the propensity to cry easily during the high hormone phase of my menstrual cycle. Though ACE scores do not dictate how happy you will be as an adult, nor do they accurately predict health later in life, I do wonder how my sensitivity to stress affects my ability to cope with anything high-intensity. Perhaps my competitive mission was thwarted not only because of my busy day but also because my body, on a cellular level, could not handle frequent vigorous exercise without breaking down. Exercise is known to boost mood, assuage feelings of depression, and combat stress, but it’s possible that because my “fight or flight” response is already heightened I can only tolerate sporadic high-intensity or long-distance activity. Toning down stress, in all its forms, may be the only way to acheive balance and regain a healthy nervous system again. It has been my recent experience that replacing a run with pilates, yoga, dance, and weight lifting keeps me fresh and invested in my long-term running goals because of the variation, neuro-muscular conditioning, and stress alleviation they provide.
A closer examination of my priorities reveals that I am a mother first. I cannot justify focusing on my interests at the expense of them. If any of my personal endeavors hinders my obligatory labor in their lives I have to pull back and re-fashion the pursuit. Unless family members or employers are decidedly supportive of your request for a more open and elastic agenda, becoming an elite athlete will be a battle, not impossible, but a feat that is accomplished by those with ascetic personality traits or an unusually positive, energetic disposition. At this time, it is unrealistic for me to be fast or win a high-profile trail ultra, but I would like to find a way to visit the trails each day and maintain an intimate relationship with running without becoming estranged because I do not measure up to who is currently featured in the trail-running community. Re-framing what exercise means and how it benefits me has freed up time in my schedule because I no longer worry I won’t get the long run in. The idea of racing has become fun again as long as I remember I am successful without the titles or a stellar UltraSignup rank. My kids have a happier, more balanced mom, and I somehow have more time in my life to unwind and feel content to not obsess over how little I ran this week.
The following are 5 suggestions for runners whose lives are dominated by work or children, or both.
1. Be realistic about how much time you can dedicate to training and/or racing.
Select only the races that are most important to you, and don’t sign up for a 50K if you know you can only run 5 miles/day. Many runners can actually run much farther than their long run without injuring themselves, however, if your goal race is substantially longer than your longest run in training, the risk of physiological harm is much greater. Know it’s okay to reduce the miles if you need. Running a half-marathon or trail 10K is still a fun challenge and your friends will still think you’re pretty neat for racing. Figure out your pace and go by time instead of miles.
2. Be flexible: Change the activity/duration/time of day if you need.
Both energy levels and schedules change. Depending on your personal circadian rhythm and hormonal profile (it fluctuates often for women) you will find that you have more motivation at specific times of the day. Capitalize on those moments whenever you can. But if you are too busy during your peak energy time, find a friend, music, or a reward to help get you out the door when the opportunity for running arises. Don’t be afraid to change up the activity to increase or maintain fitness. If weight lifting or an aerobics class seems more appealing than running, go for it! It’s better to be active and skip a run rather than continue to burn out and feel discouraged.
Thirty minutes of jogging counts. Period. Being flexible with how long the workout lasts will support consistency, and you can still gain endurance and strength with short workouts. Throw in just 2 high-intensity interval sessions per week and you will experience an increase in VO2max and power. If your family complains that you haven’t been spending enough time with them, take them out for a steep hike and it can still go into your training log. If you didn’t get to go as long as you hoped, look for the positives in what you were able to do.
3. Keep a long run and a specific skill workout tailored to your race.
Find one day in the week when you can run for at least 90 consecutive minutes. Keep to a routine if your schedule allows and let yourself run slow (even slower than you think) if you are feeling tired or not looking forward to the workout.
If your race is going to be hilly, after a 10-15 minute warm-up, find a steep grade that takes around 3 minutes to ascend and complete 5-8 climbs with a slow jog down the hill as recovery between reps. Cool down for at least 10 minutes. If your race is flat and fast, take your workout to the local track and bust out 8-12 x 400. These workouts only need to be done once per week, and at least two days should stand between the long run and the skill sessions. Some studies have found that exercise is more tolerable when the hard part is done first. Do your hill repeats or speedwork directly after your warm-up and you may be more inclined to feel good about going into the next training session. Get the work done, and then get home. There is no need to feel guilty for not doing another repeat as long as you get at least 15 minutes of real work in.
4. Skip a workout and sleep instead.
Sleep is just as important as exercise. If you know you haven’t been getting enough rest and you find some time to yourself, you should take a nap. Sleeping restores healthy cognitive function and repairs cellular damage. Even if it means you won’t have time later to run, you are aiding your body’s ability to manage stress from both life and workouts. Chronic sleep deprivation lowers IQ, negatively impacts mood, and impairs judgment and muscle endurance. Drink some water and relax!
5. Consider all sides of your identity.
Be kind to yourself and understand that you have a life outside of running and it’s important to provide attention to other relationships and interests. Think about why you run and life might be like without it. Cultivate new talents by exploring new pastimes and talking to people about something other than running. Believe you are worth more than being fast.
I am still an athlete even though I may never toe the line at a big media-covered race, but I am proud that I am a successful mom and I am an appreciative daughter of the mountains–and that means more than winning. Accepting who I am now without focusing on what I could have been is one of the most freeing, stress-trimming actions I have ever taken.
Written (with a baby on her lap) by Tanya Stahler