Unlike most competitive athletes, I was already a parent the first time I showed up to a race. Ignoring the complicated details of choosing to become a mother at the age others were finishing up their bachelor’s degree, my talent for endurance sports emerged just prior to pregnancy, and I was faced with raising two people: my son and myself as an athlete.
Human development is a long process with many fuzzy stage transitions and a few transformative experiences. Much of it is asynchronous, with cognitive growth zipping ahead or lagging behind physical maturation. An early aptitude for one thing does not guarantee an enduring interest or talent for it as an adult, nor does a late discovery prohibit a professional career. Babies tend to follow a predictable schedule toward becoming older children, while adolescents and adults often take unpredictable large leaps in the direction of their lives.
As my infant was learning to smile, then crawl, then speak, I was learning that I was a runner, then cyclist, then all around outdoor enthusiast. I loved every bit of challenge outdoor sports presented and I wanted the chance to test myself. But as a new mother, cloaked in sleeplessness and milk stains, how was I supposed to find the time and energy to devote to those activities, which often require 3+ hours each day to hone?
This predicament isn’t limited to new mothers; it’s a scheduling problem all parents face. Luckily, the outdoors is precisely the environment for which we are most adapted. Our creativity and resourcefulness are a product of needing to survive in the wild without horns or talons. Exploring is part of our collective heritage, and introducing our kids to dirt and water is an opportunity for enhanced family connection and experiencing self-transcendence, the feeling of wonder and awe. Pop a baby in the backpack and off you go!
Getting outside with kids is good for the mind, but it can be difficult to elicit from it the fitness gains necessary to improve in running or cycling or climbing. Finishing a 50k with a baby on your back is impressive but show me the child (and the parent’s patience) willing to cooperate. Sometimes we need the freedom to practice alone.
Be Okay with Spontaneous Workouts
Many parents work or must be home with the kids while their partner works, and schedules aren’t always certain or fair. Getting used to being flexible and prepared to jet out the door at any moment can help ease the anxiety of missing a workout. I exclusively breastfed my kids, so I had to be on call for them in the early days. I’d get dressed for a workout in the morning just in case I’d have time, and the second I had 30 free minutes, I threw on my shoes and ran—even if were just 15 minutes. Other days I found myself up much earlier than everyone else and I’d just keep my phone on and stay close to home if I was needed. Sometimes chasing my kids up and down the play structure at the park presented an impromptu body-weight circuit training session.
While being open to this kind of schedule relies a lot on personality type, it’s often just a reality that parents ought to accept rather than resist. Workouts may not be satisfying, but something is better than nothing. Getting some fresh air, feeling like an independent human again, and increasing the heart rate all have really positive effects on our attitudes, outlook, and blood sugar. We can return to our families refreshed and ready to give more of ourselves. And tired parents, who are more likely to overeat due to disrupted hormone regulation, will find they have better control over their eating habits.
Running may not be your first choice for exercise, but it’s convenient and doesn’t require as many gear checks before starting. All athletes can still benefit from the aerobic conditioning of a run, and if you throw in some hills or squats at the end of the session, you’ll be able to build and maintain some leg strength.
Get Good at Scheduling
Conversely, being able to pen in your workouts on a rigid schedule can contribute to consistency and give you something to look forward to. Unlike myself, my husband is very type-A and needs to know the route and time and day of everything he does. Predictable schedules are great for exercising accountability and pushing us to commit to something that matters to us. If we really care about training, we will make time for it, opting to wake up early or throw on a headlamp at night—whatever it takes! This can mean taking a moment to answer why we are choosing to train at all. When we identify why something matters, we’ll get better planning for the goal.
Take Them with You
Over the years, the technology for baby-toting gear has drastically improved. There is now a great range of comfortable carriers, all-terrain strollers/chariots, and tag-a-long bikes to choose from. These items do get pricey, but it’s a great investment when you know you won’t be able to get out without the babe.
Hiking is an underrated alternative to other endurance sports. It’s often thought of as a stroll in the woods, but it can actually be a sweat-flinging, heavy-breathing, quad-burning workout. Hiking the hills with intention and a child on your back can burn as many calories as going for a run, and it allows you to develop intimacy while teaching your child about the world around them. Find a steep grade and do repeats, or use it for active recovery, pointing out the flora and fauna you come across.
While it can take some getting used to, stroller-running is sometimes better than running without one. It’s a full-body workout. I remember the first time I let my husband push the stroller on one of our runs. The next day he complained about his abs hurting. Pushing a stroller while running engages the core muscles, particularly when there’s an incline. Babies can usually take rides in the jogging stroller once they’ve mastered head control, which happens around 6 months. Some kids will sleep for 2 hours while you run, others need to be a little older and motivated to stay put with Coco Melon and gummies, but either way, it’s a fun way to get workouts in while spending time with your kids. Mine never shut up when I’m on a run, so some of our best conversations happen during this time.
A child whose parent values nature and exercise will similarly adopt the same attitude.
(Some of my favorite kid gear: Ergobaby original (when baby is small); Deuter hiking backpacks; BOB Alterrain Pro strollers; Burley Bee bike trailer; Thule Chariot skiing trailer)
I frequently joke to single runners that they should never date other runners. While running is a great place to meet your future spouse, it can also be a source of conflict as the two of you battle for who gets to go running. It’s not always feasible to run together, even with a jogging stroller, so someone must stay behind unless you have a babysitter. This doesn’t need to be an argument. Couples would benefit from sharing with one another their long-term goals, how much time they would prefer to run and how much time they need to run.
For all of us, physical activity is a valid need; for some of us, training is also a need. Being an athlete becomes part of our identity, and training for our sport feeds the athlete’s hunger for purpose. Cutting back on running so that your partner can run can feel like a sacrifice to your own goals, but it’s a generous act that will keep relationships intact and save us from descending too far into our obsessions. Improving is important, but we can only really advance when we have sufficient support, which means being a reciprocal supporter.
Plan around one another and choose races that happen on different days. Take your kids with you as you cheer for your partner and show them what a proud, loving person does for the people they care about.
Training for anything requires investment in time and energy. Single parents don’t always have the luxury of coordinating with a partner to watch the kids. Reach out to the community of which you are a part. Make friends with other families that enjoy getting outside and go exploring together or ask to do a babysitting trade-off. Let your family know that your sport is important to you and that, instead of a birthday gift this year, you’d like help watching your kids so that you can continue your life’s adventures.
Ask More from Race Companies
The average age of ultrarunners is 42.3 years, firmly placed in the child-rearing years, making many trail and ultrarunning race-entrants parents on top of being competitors. Perhaps if there were more pressure on race companies to provide child-care services, more women, who are usually the primary caregivers, would be able to participate in races. Couples would have an easier time planning their races and make events a family affair. By simply raising entry fees by $7, race companies could provide this service.
Ultimately, athletic development is not incompatible with parenting. Now, as a mother of four, who works, trains, and still likes to race every once in a while, I know what works best for me. I respect my need to spend hours alone outside, reconnecting with who I am as an individual. But I also embrace and relish being on the trails with my kids, noticing what they’re noticing, and taking that time to slow down and remember I’m a parent first.
I acknowledge that I am lucky to have been able to develop myself as an athlete while raising my kids—not everyone has the ability to focus on a sport, even with adequate desire. But becoming a parent doesn’t mean the end to fun outdoor adventures. It marks the start of a new period in life, one that encourages us to determine what matters most and be more purposeful in how we spend our time.
Written by Tanya Stahler