Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Charles River Running Ambassador Lauren Leonard Weighs in on Motherhood and Running

Recently, more and more prominent female runners have openly embraced motherhood. Olympic hopeful and new mom, Laura Fleshman, has taken her own experiences as a first-time runner to pen a popular blog, The Fast Life, for Runner’s World.  Other moms like Kara Goucher, Deena Kastor and Paula Radcliffe are famous for blazing up the running circuit post-baby and setting new records. For us mortals, groups such as Another Mother Runner and are fostering communities that make running accessible to moms nationwide. From within these running communities, relationships are built, obstacles overcome, and victories won. As each of these stories is shared, an ancient secret is unveiled. There is a deep wisdom women share that is becoming clearer to me as I move further along in my own pregnancy.

This secret is one that has empowered women for years and, when applied to running, makes women more resilient and powerful. The truth of the matter is that motherhood allows women to tap into an infinite source of collective wisdom, strength, and courage. Lessons learned through pregnancy (and motherhood) offer invaluable insights into running and vice versa – here is what I’ve learned thus far:

Get Intimate with Your Intuition:
It is easy to give into the trepidation surrounding both motherhood and running, but our bodies are designed to do both and when left to their own devices – they know what to do, and even excel when not disturbed. 

In terms of childbirth, there are endless books, movies, and classes on the topic, but physically, there is very little to teach women. One can be taught about the stages of labor, positions that may ease labor pain, and listen to anecdotal evidence from other women or healthcare professionals. But when women surrender to the process of childbirth or to motherhood, for that matter, then fear organically dissipates. By having faith in one’s innate ability to birth, mother or run… you can let go of the emotions that are holding you back from performing at your best in any of those arenas.

Regarding running, there are a few techniques one can use to tweak physical form to prevent injury and improve performance, but any healthy child can naturally run… just like any healthy woman can give birth. If we put trust and faith in our training, if believe the body knows how to perform it will far exceed our expectations. It is not until we let go, that we can tap into our full potential as a female runner.

Love Thy Body:
More so than any other time in a women’s life, pregnancy evokes an overwhelming volume of unsolicited advice about what to do with our body, ranging from sexual activity, food consumption, birthing positions, and, most of all, exercise – specifically the notion that running and pregnancy don’t mix. 

This mess of conflicting, unverified advice can be overwhelming and intimidating, especially to first time moms. Luckily, we women come set with an internal compass and strong intuition that, together, can guide us down the right path.  Our bodies tell us what we need to know. By honoring the body’s wisdom, we can learn what is right for our pregnancy, our children, and our running.

I had always planned to run throughout both of my pregnancies. However, by about 6 months into each, I could not ignore my body’s cues to stop. Many viewed my decision to run while pregnant as dangerous. But, in my opinion, it would have only become dangerous had I continued to run despite the fact that it didn’t feel right anymore. It was clear to me that the baby was getting agitated for a reason and the stress on the body had become more of a risk than a benefit.

Just as I had to honor my body’s innate wisdom while pregnant, so, too, do runners need to listen to signs of fatigue, pain, and discomfort when training. In each case, the stakes are too high to ignore. But it is truly the experience of motherhood that reinforces this important life lesson. Love Thy Body, and it will do incredible things for you.

Motherhood is the TRUE Marathon:
As labor approached in my first pregnancy, my husband helped build my confidence by reminding me that I was a runner. He would say, “You run marathons, you can do more that just endure the mental and physical efforts of natural childbirth, you can triumph over it.” He was right!

Now at 8.5 months pregnant with a toddler running around me, I realize that motherhood is the actual marathon and labor is just an intense interval workout! Literally, each contraction is like a set, with intense effort and concentration, followed by a brief pause to catch your breath before the next round.  And when the “workout” is complete, the euphoric runner’s high is intoxicating --- difference being that only labor produces that precious baby!

While interval training is a necessary part of any good training program, marathons require something special – why else would they be on so many people’s bucket lists? Marathons require a true commitment. You are in it for the long haul and must pace yourself accordingly. You need to keep replenishing yourself with good nutrition, exercise, sleep, and enjoyable activities to counteract the stress of the training. You must be flexible, willing to adjust goals, and overlook daily hassles keeping the bigger picture in mind. The same is true of mothers!

Food is Thy Medicine

Pregnancy is one of the few times that women truly commit to eating well. Most women are willing to make sacrifices for nine months seeing the research is clear that there is a direct relationship between what the mother eats and the health and safety of their growing baby. In fact, most first time Moms can rattle off a long list of the foods and drinks they’ve been told them were off limits.  Conversely, most women can use food to better manage their morning sickness, fatigue, and ensure the baby is getting all the required nutrients to develop properly.

Likewise, if women follow the same laser-focused eating regimen when in training for a race, they will benefit from more fruitful training sessions, faster recovery, and stronger performances. In essence, your running becomes your baby. So you should honor your training and your body the same way you do during pregnancy, using food to support your desired outcome. No matter what the goal, if women commit to healthy eating habits, they will be rewarded by clearer focus, more energy, and greater gains. Make good food a priority and everyone wins!

The Power of Visualization:

As I get closer to my due date, I find myself thinking more and more about this very active baby growing inside the womb. Who is he/she? How do I want to bring this baby into the world? And how do I foresee myself parenting two children? To mentally prepare for these big questions, I find myself turning to a technique I learned as a competitive runner –visualization! 

When used correctly, visualization is a powerful tool to getting the very most out of yourself, both as a mom and runner. Preparing our minds for the task at hand is just as crucial, if not more so, than the physical training. Whether talking about an upcoming labor or race, visualization can build confidence in the last weeks before the event. By visualizing how you’d like the event to unfold and how to respond to a variety of what-ifs, the “pressure” or “fear” dissolves and the desired outcome becomes increasingly more achievable. In effect, you have already run the race a few times and succeeded!! You learn where to focus and those external distractions fade so that you can better monitor important signals from your body.

Having used this technique racing countless times with much success, I’m preparing for the upcoming labor in the same manner. I have some context to pull from with my first pregnancy, but, just as each race is different, so, too, is each pregnancy. Thus, this time I will envision myself tapping into that collective strength and courage innate in all women. I envision letting my body be my guide, honoring its cues and wisdom, and taking advantage of each pause to gather myself for the next phase.


When I originally wrote this article I was eight months pregnant enjoying a heightened state of intuition and intimacy with my body.  While I missed the catharsis of my regular runs, I was able to draw from both my experience as a mother and a runner to conquer yet another natural pregnancy – this one being even smoother (and faster) than the first. Now just 4 weeks post-baby, I’m a wiser, stronger more resilient version mother runner training for a half marathon in June. Honoring my body, by skipping runs in favor or sleep, eating better than ever and visualizing how sweet it will be to complete my first race post-baby #2, I’m eager to share my discovery and honored to be representing this secret society of women runners.