Can “Selfish-Athlete” and “Guilt-Free Mom” Coexist?

In the few short years that I’ve been a mom, I’ve come to the conclusion that reading too many books or articles on parenting can make you feel guilty in the same way that reading too many fashion magazines can make you feel ugly. I’m not saying there isn’t a lot of great advice, methods, and techniques out there to learn from but the bottom line is that you have to make anything your own and go with what works for your family and each individual child.

For example, I’ve read a lot about the importance of routines for children whether it be bedtime routines, nap routines, or meal time routines. Unfortunately for me if I followed all that routine advice I probably wouldn’t get out the door too often to train as I’d be constantly interupting a nap time, a bedtime routine, or a specific meal time. Am I being too much of a “selfish athlete” for not structuring my days more around consistent routines for my children’s ultimate security and happiness?

It is a continual balancing act to try and do what is best for the kids while also fitting in my job called training and racing to the best of my ability. I have basically been a “routine-less” mom up to this point. Some days I may train at the crack of dawn (rarely!), the middle of the day when I have a babysitter, and/or a night with my training group. My work as a mental performance consultant is also super variable with changing hours and days each week.

In my routine-less world, Zoe and Nico have adapted very well, and these are the few rules of thumb I’ve followed that help to keep the happy mom, happy kids, happy family ratio the highest….

1. As long as everyone is well rested and happy all is good!  This means most mornings I wake up in the middle of a Zoe-Nico sandwich. Although Zoe sleeps in her own bed, in the wee hours of the morning she often sneaks her way into our bed alongside me without me noticing until I roll into her when I wake up much later! Nico still sleeps happily in the middle of our king size bed and though we’ve had intentions to kick him out since he was about 6 months old, it hasn’t happened yet! We will eventually but are not fixing what isn’t broke yet! With a very busy travel schedule bedsharing is what has worked best for our family and getting kids to sleep is never an issue when on the road!

2. A nap on the go isn’t a bad thing! Zoe took the majority of her naps in the Chariot. Having done nothing differently with Nico he easily goes down for a nap in his crib, somedays two shorts ones, or one longer one. While a crib is likely more comfortable, occasional car, stroller or Chariot naps (especially with the added fresh air) while running, cycling, or cross-country skiing can leave kids just as rested and mom re-energized from a good workout!

3. It is important to be able to workout or go to work guilt-free! In the beginning with Zoe I struggled a lot more with feeling guilty spending time away from her while out training such as on a long bike ride or away for occasional overnight trips for racing or work. With some practice, I’ve become better at being fully present where I am when I’m away from the kids whether it be training or meeting with an athlete. They also do just fine with quality Papa time, grandparent time, or fun play time with our energetic babysitter. Breaks also leave me more excited to come home and play with them, while also strenghtening that muscle called “patience” that every parent learns to exercise the day a new baby comes home!

I know one day life might become more routine. In the meantime, as long as I get to spend quality time with my kids and husband every day, as long as they are thriving (e.g. happy, well fed, and rested), and that I get in my quality “selfish athlete” time, then we will continue our routine of “go with the flow”!

What have my kids taught me about a winning mindset?

In my opinion, there is nothing cuter these days than watching my 14 month old son waddle around. He is getting faster every day and it seems like his body is just trying to keep up to whatever direction his feet want to take him in! Of course he falls down often and gets right back up, most often without any complaining. It is a whole new world to discover up on his feet and his curiosity to explore everything in sight is infectious!

As I observe my two little ones growing up so full of wonder about the world, enjoying being more physically capable every day, and the incredible rate of Zoe’s language development as she doesn’t even notice she speaks “Franglais” (mixing her French and English) so often now, I’m struck by all the things they do so naturally that are most often associated with reaching our highest potential in life, in sport or otherwise.

Why is it that as we get older a certain self-awareness develops that allows us to be suddenly painfully self-conscious, always comparing ourselves to others, and nervous about what the future will bring? When athletes feel overwhelmed with these natural tendencies that occur as we come of age, sometimes reminding ourselves that if we once did the opposite so well as a small child, maybe we can cultivate the same mindset again when the pressure is on to perform. So tap into your inner child and reconnect to the things that are associated with best performances such as….

1. Staying in the Moment. Although Zoe is already at the age where she gets excited about upcoming events, that usually only happens when I remind her about something coming up. Otherwise, she and Nico are experts at staying totally absorbed in the present moment, whether it being playing with their toys, fighting over their toys, or being engrossed in a story, call it experiencing flow, or being in the zone for an adult. When stuck in the past or too wrapped up in some “uncontrollable” in the future I like the reminder of my favourite quote from the Peaceful Warrior movie, “What time is it? NOW. Where are you? HERE!”. When playing with my kids they remind me to practice being fully present! And they notice when I’m not!

2. Failure is Good for Us! Unfortunately too many athletes self-worth fluctuates wildly according to their last training session or last race result. Lucky for little Nico, he isn’t saying, Geez, why aren’t I walking as well as that other 14 month old over there? Or I wonder if I’ll ever be able to run like my big sister? Maybe I should just give up! Heck no. Kids get up, fall over and over again and keep tyring. Failure is how children learn so quickly and they don’t beat themselves up over mistakes (okay maybe just a little bit if a boo boo occurs). If all athletes could think like a child again, maybe we’d reach our potential faster. Falling and failing is good for us. We learn our limits faster and how to improve!

3. Do it because its FUN! So many times after a top performance, you may hear yourself or other athletes often say, “I was just having so much fun out there!” When children try out their first sports, most of the time they stick with something because they find it fun. When something is no longer fun, we quit. Zoe has recently caught the biking bug and was whoo hooing over the bmx bumps with feet in the air the other day. And that’s why we should continue in sport at any level – because we love it!

Here is Zoe shooing away the Mommy Paparazzi today before she rides on by, with Nico keeping up behind pretty well on foot for awhile too!

The Science of “Mommy Brain”: Can it hurt or enhance performance?

Often when I’m trying to get out the door once our babysitter arrives, I end up coming back in several times to get forgotten keys, cell phone, gear, or whatever else I realize I’ve forgotten on the way out to the car! During pregnancy and ever since I’ve jokingly blamed my absentmindedness on “Mommy Brain”. When I recently read a great book called The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine I was happy to discover that a mother’s brain is truly altered structurally and functionally, and even irreversibly through the hormones of pregnancy, close contact with a child, and breastfeeding. Understanding this phenomenom a little better helped me realize the reasons for the mental fog, and appreciate the sometimes tough balance of being away from my children to work or train.

An interesting fact I read in this book is that between six months and the end of pregnancy a pregnant women’s brain actually shrinks! Scientists aren’t sure exactly why but believe it may be due to the massive restructuring of brain circuits, the “birth” of all our maternal circuits you could say, or everything needed to make sure we are rewired to protect and care for our babies. Apparently during the first six months after birth the parts of the brain responsible for focus and concentration are overrided with protecting and tracking your newborn. Brain size only returns to normal at around 6 months postpartum and breastfeeding can also prolong moments of ditsiness. Of course, if your focus and memory isn’t quite where it used to be in the first year after childbirth or more it could also be due to the fact that mothers lose an average of seven hundred hours of sleep in the first year postpartum!

When I first started training and working after Zoe was born I also often felt a little anxiety and guilt about being away from her. After every workout I would hurry home as fast as I could hoping she’d made out okay without me. Although I’ve been a little more relaxed and more able to just enjoy my time away the second time around with baby Nico, it is interesting to learn that these withdrawal feelings are normal. Mommy brain can cause feelings of “withdrawal” when physically separated from your baby due a decline in levels of the hormone oxytocin, produced from nursing, especially if the separation is more than a few hours. Hmmm. It is comforting to have these biological explanations but since most of us can’t be with our children 24-7, I know for me it is important to have childcare that I trust and allows me to go to work or for a workout stress and guilt free.

And the positives of the changes of mommy brain according to this book are that 1) surges of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain switch off judgmental thinking and negative emotions, while also switching on pleasure circuits, 2) breastfeeding causes blood pressure to drop, and increases feelings of peacefulness and relaxation, and 3) maternal brain circuits change in ways that may allow mothers to have better spatial memory and be more flexible, adaptive, and courageous than females who haven’t given birth – all skills and talents we need keep track of and protect our babies (note: the brain transformation hold true for adoptive mothers too as it happens when in continuous close physical contact with your child). You know, like if you have to lift a car or fight a wild boar!

So in the end, in the first year or more of your babies life, you may feel like you’ve lost your mind, you’re incredibly in love with your baby, it is stressful to be separated from him or her, you’re constantly tired, you need support from others in your new role as a mom, and you love the excitement of what each new day brings with your little one all at once.

While of course, there is the initial drop in your mental and physcial performance, the incredible life change and adaptation that it takes to become a mother has the potential to make us stretch and grow in every direction, allow us to become stronger and more patient, and give us the ultimate perspective on performance!

Continually Refining Recovery in Motherhood

Swollen hands and face, itchy scalp, worsening exercise-induced asthma, heartburn, indigestion, feeling empty, breaking out in itchy hives, severely decreased motivation and general grumpiness! These were the symptoms I experienced all at once at my worst. It was the spring of 2005 and my first full season racing Xterra triathlons after focusing on mountain bike racing the previous five years. I found myself so under recovered that it took me a few months to feel normal and get that snappy feeling back in the legs. Without a serious triathlon coach to help me balance the three disciplines I had not backed off on the cycling much and just added some running and swimming – not such a good idea! I was also finishing my PhD thesis that spring on top of learning a new sport and traveling to many new race venues all over the U.S.. It was all exciting and positive, but when all added together stressful nonetheless.

After consulting with a local doctor in Canmore where I was living, who had worked with many athletes, he reassured me that most of my symptoms were likely due to being under recovered. Even though I wasn’t allergic to anything, our bodies sometimes act like it is an allergy and produce extra antihistamines in response to too much stress. I learned my lesson that season. The following season I found my current coach, Cal Zaryski, who races Xterra himself and is excellent at personalizing my training in accordance with what else I have going on in life with work and family.

Once in awhile a few of the above symptoms come back and I take it as a warning to monitor myself and listen to my body. Of course, if its just a day or two after a hard block of training that is normal, or after a hard race, when it can take a couple of days to refuel the tank, physically and emotionally.

As a mother, it has been even more important to listen to my body. Staying healthy is number one, so once in awhile if I feel I’m on the edge of getting sick I back it off. I remember when my brother Geoff coached me as a mountain bike racer, he always said, there is no harm in throwing a day out now and then. So if I miss a planned day of training once in awhile I don’t sweat it. Recovery activities like massage, ice baths, stretching, yoga or using the foam roller don’t happen as often as I’d like but I just have to go with the flow. Luckily I’ve also learned through the sleep deprivation days with babies that I can still have good energy with less sleep and that exercising and training gives me extra energy. Like most athletes, if I’m overdoing it I get testy and impatient and so my kids and husband usually are my first alert to when more rest is needed.

Overall, I try to follow my own advice to the athletes I work with and rely on good self-awareness. Sometimes it takes some trial and error to know how much training you can handle in a given week while trying to balance other things like school, work and/or family. When I first started cycling I relied a lot on monitoring tools like heart rate (in training and in the morning) and watts but with time I’ve been able to go more by feel. Most people forget that it is not just the training intensity of training volume that contributes to over training or under recovery, other life stress can be just as much a factor so balancing it all week to week can be an ongoing learning process. I’ve learned how much volume I can handle while working part-time and raising two little sweethearts, and it is likely almost half the training that some of my competitors who are full time athletes do, but the exciting part is seeing what I can do with the time I have to do it in! As I sit here still feeling pretty beat up from three days of mountain bike racing in Fernie, I take it day by day and my body will tell me when it is GO time again!

What do getting back in shape after baby and LTAD stages have in common?

The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) stages were created by Canadian Sport for Life as a guide, to quote the website, for “an individual’s experience in sport and physical activity from infancy through all phases of adulthood”.

Getting your body back in shape after having a baby can feel like you are starting at square one again, and literally like taking baby steps all over again as far as fitness is concerned! As with exercising during pregnancy (the subject of future posts) I’ve been asked quite often about getting back in shape after childbirth. When I think back to my fitness progression in the year after giving birth I can relate it well to the seven LTAD stages, which are below with a Postpartum spin and a rough timeline for each. Of course, the timeline is very approximate and very individual depending on the birth experience, the baby and number of older children you have, your pregnancy training, and how determined you are to get to or back to a certain fitness level!

1 – 2: Active Start and FUNdamentals (0-3 months postpartum): This is the go with the flow stage. You are adjusting to life with a newborn and really going by feel. Any physical activity is short and for fun such as social walks with baby, yoga, some core work when you feel ready, a light spin on the bike, with no structured training, just something as often as you can that makes you feel good and gives you a little time to yourself!

3. Learning to Train Again (3-6 months postpartum) : If all goes well, at this stage a slightly more structured approach can be taken. You may start making weekly training goals, make a training schedule, or sign up for a regular class. With the ligaments that were loosened during childbirth getting tight again impact exercise such as running can start to feel more comfortable, especially if doing any intervals or speed work.

4. Training to Train (6-9 months postpartum): After both of my children it wasn’t until about the 6 month mark that I felt more normal again, and feeling strong and “normal” in my core again, especially while running. So at this stage I felt good to go as far as following a regular training program again. If competing at all, races can be a good gauge of progress but may be viewed more as “training races” in this time frame depending on your goals. Many moms can get frustrated if they haven’t lost the baby weight by this point but I would emphasize here the importance of focusing on how much better and stronger you feel after exercising consistently again. Weight loss may plateau at times but as long as you are feeling fitter and fitter and make the time to workout consistently while eating healthy the weight will take care of itself eventually!

5. Training to Compete (9-12 months postpartum): Now it is go time! Depending on your progress, you may be able to drop the “I just had a baby” excuse for performance. By this stage after both of my children I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight or lower (thanks to breastfeeding!) and previous benchmarks as far as interval times in training and tests on the bike. If you’ve worked hard you can feel as fit as ever and ready to tackle any training or race challenges you’d like to set for yourself around the 12 month postpartum mark!

6. Training to Win (12 months postpartum +): While obviously not every mom’s goal is to go out and win races after having children, I look at interpreting the Training to Win phase as the time during which you can set more challenging goals for fitness or competition, whatever that may be personally for you! Raise your personal bar a little! For me, that began with training and competing at the same level I was prior to children, and then working on improving that level over time – before my advancing age starts to slow me down that is, ha!

7. Active for Life: Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far, have managed to stay fit during pregnancy and after a child or two, you’ve made it through one of the biggest obstacles in life to staying fit and will have no problem making physical activity a priority for in the coming years!

Pros of being an Athlete Mom # 2: No time for pre-race jitters to hit you!

“Wow, I’m suddenly on the start line – how did I get here so fast?” or “Oh, I’m racing, time to get going!” have been all too common thoughts since I’ve been racing with kids in tow. While I’ve never considered myself an overly nervous racer or very prone to pre-race jitters, the any waves of nervous butterflies I used to feel on race morning have almost been nonexistent since I first came back to racing 6 months after Zoe was born. Not that butterflies are bad – they are getting your body “UP” and ready to race, I just haven’t been able to pay them much attention anymore!

I think part of the reason is that having little ones like I do doesn’t give me the time to sit around and ponder what the race means or think about what competitors I will be up against – I rarely have time to even bother looking up the start list before a race! If I think about the reasons why being a mom is a great cure for race jitters, I can relate it to some of the things I try and teach athletes about mental performance such as:

1. Staying focused on what is in your control. When I think about the day before a race and the morning of a race these days I’m so busy getting my equipment ready on top of feeding and organizing my family, that race weekends allow no time to dwell on anything outside of my control like the weather, the competitors, what could go wrong, any doubts over my readiness to race etc. So I just stay focused on my race before and after the gun goes off.

2. Having a routine to follow. Race routines with kids have taken some trial and error. For one Xterra race in 2009 that JF and Zoe traveled with me to I was the last one to set up my transition and barely made it to the swim start line on time! It was scary, and now my pre-race routine checklist always allows for as much time as possible to get everything done and get in a decent warm-up which is always a plus, ha! Following a routine I know works will allow me to focus my best once the race begins. Of course, “mom race routines” have to be flexible and add some “go with the flow” room too!

3. Keeping emotions in check. Like most athletes I know I start to get a little edgy as a race approaches. And my family will be the first to notice me getting a little more impatient for example as a race approaches. However, kids remind me not to take myself or my races too seriously, they keep bringing me back to the present moment, and keep me laughing right up until it is time to focus on the race – and for me that is when the warm-up starts! And since I find that little daily joys with kids by far trump the emotional highs and lows of competitive sport, they keep my perspective in check too!

4. Staying in the here and now. As related to all of the above, children are amazing teachers at how to live in the present! They don’t care if I have a race in an hour – they are hungry now! Or need a diaper change now! Or just want some mommy attention now! They can have a temper tantrum one minute and being showering you with hugs and kisses the next, they don’t hold grudges or worry about what will come tomorrow. They teach me to enjoy every moment before, during, and after a race. During the race I can focus 100% and it is my time to do so. Before and after the race I can allow myself focus 100% on everything else!

Overall, although bringing my family to races can definitely take my stress level up in a negative direction at times, most of the time they are a positive distraction in the sense that they keep me busy enough to stay focused on just one thing at a time, and in the present moment, a practice that is also a positive for racing, to focus on taking it lap by lap, or section by section, until voila, I’m across the finish line and back to being a mom again!

Pros of Being an Athlete Mom #1: Procrastination, what is that?!

When I compare my life as an athlete before and after having children it is easy to focus on the disadvantages like less time to train, less than ideal recovery, and difficult travel logistics. But there have also been many positives, and I would even say advantages, so this is my first installment of the pros of being an athlete mom – no time to procrastinate!

In my pre-kid days of being an athlete, I could find plenty of reasons to delay getting out the door to do an important workout – I could hit the snooze button one more time, wait for the weather to warm up , sit out a thunderstorm, surf the web a little longer, have one more snack so I won’t bonk…and the list goes on.

Wasting any time putting off training has been a thing of the past since becoming a mom. When my kids were newborns I’d sometimes seize a moment to do a little yoga or core while they napped or of course seize the moment to also nap when needed! When Zoe was a baby I remember one particular winter day where I even managed to get a 2h30 trainer ride in one day while she took an unusual marathon nap – bonus!

Now that I depend on others for help the majority of the time in order to get my training done, I have to be super organized when I know I can only get training done between X amount of time during the day or it won’t happen at all! If my babysitter is coming I have to have bags packed, and gear all ready to go before she even arrives so no dilly dallying even getting ready anymore! When I’m committed to get out and do my training at a particular time each day, its starts off my training in a better mindset – “just go out and do it now!” – no time to even complain or feel sorry for myself if its going to be a tough day at the training office! When I know it is now or never I don’t procrastinate because if I do I will loose valuable training time and even the ability to complete the workout properly. Another plus is that I don’t take the ability to go out and train for granted anymore. Having the time to workout each day is a privilege and a treat these days so I also feel more committed to getting the most I can out of it as well!

And on a related note, I rarely even procrastinate going to bed anymore! I don’t know if my alarm clock’s name will be Zoe or Nico in the morning. I also don’t know if my alarm will go off at 7:00am or 8:45am so better get to bed at a good time just in case!