I awkwardly bend down to tie my shoe laces with a strong sensation of butterflies in my stomach. A year ago, stiffness from heavy training and nerves about my upcoming Marathon in Toronto would have been the cause. Today it is belly obstruction and a little human having a morning stretch inside.
Given the great physical and mental challenges associated with childbirth and running a Marathon it is no surprise that comparisons are often drawn between these two feats. Over the past eight months however, I have found myself relating aspects of my Pregnancy experience to Marathon preparation. From mental preparation and nutritional considerations to some of the physical symptoms, I feel that my sporting background has helped to bring familiarity and helpful strategies to this new stage of life.
The psychology of managing discomfort.
In the days and weeks leading up to a Marathon I prepare mental strategies to help me through those moments of extreme fatigue and inventible discomfort. Throughout my twelve Marathons to date, this handy tool kit has expanded to include visualisation techniques, positive affirmations, breaking down the goal into smaller parts, cues to help me focus as well as methods of distraction, mindfulness, mantras and relaxation strategies. When reading JuJu Sundin’s ‘Birth Skills’ and learning about ‘Childbirth Hypnosis’ through the Bump & Mind Global Online Program, I was intrigued to discover that similar mental practices are encouraged for women during labour. It makes sense…. Focus on your breath. Relax your upper body. Stay present to avoid feeling overwhelmed by what is still to come. Direct your energy to where it is needed most. Think of the pain as ‘productive discomfort’ that is getting you closer to your end goal…. Whether you are mid-Marathon or in the intense stages of labour, these cues can be a powerful asset!
Where did I park my car again?
Over the years I have noticed that as training ramps up and my physical fitness sharpens, my brain capacity tends to do the opposite. This is even more prominent mid-race when other functions of the body become a priority - I have never felt so average at Maths as I did during my first Marathon, when trying to work out 5km splits. Whether it be due to fatigue, oxygen availability, distraction or hormonal changes, brain fog has accompanied me at some point throughout most Marathon preparations and has also featured during the later stages of pregnancy. I have found myself opening cupboards and forgetting why, walking up and down the rows looking for my car, mixing up words and needing to refer to my calendar more often - I can’t start imagine what I’ll find myself forgetting once sleep deprivation is added into the mix!
In my first trimester, those all-too-familiar training carbohydrate cravings hit. During a Marathon-specific training block, which typically lasts for about ten to twelve weeks, I sometimes wake up at odd hours feeling hungry. Whilst the reluctance to climb out of my cosy pillow nest is always high, the urge to eat generally wins. I eventually find myself rolling out of bed and feeling my way along the walls in darkness to the fridge. Over the past 8 months I have managed to only whack my knee on furniture once : ). My comfort foods in pregnancy have been the same as those during heavy training – muesli with milk, toast with banana and peanut butter, home-made energy bars and rice crackers.
Ticking off the weeks.
I love sitting down on a Monday morning after gym and filling out my training journal for the past week. I find it highly motivating to reflect on what I achieved in training and to count how many weeks I have left until race day. A similar sense of satisfaction buzzes through me when that weekly email notification pops up to say that I am a particular number of weeks pregnant. This reminder that our baby is stronger and more developed than the previous week and that I am that little bit closer to my due date is incredibly motivating and exciting!
Food as Fuel and Medicine.
In order to maintain a healthy approach to nutrition as an athlete, I like to think of food as not only fuel but also as medicine. During pregnancy I have felt an even greater responsibility to nail the nutrition side of things for my baby’s health and have found the mindset above very empowering. Rather than place emphasis on the treats I shouldn’t have, I focus on what foods I can get inevery day to help my body and mind function at their best. Creating meals and snacks that not only satisfy my tastebuds but contain an appropriate balance of carbohydrates, proteins, good fats, vitamins, dietary minerals, anti-oxidants and pro-biotics is a fun challenge. I find it easier to enjoy the “less-healthy” snacks when I know that I have obtained plenty of nutrients elsewhere throughout the day. I have also learnt to always respect my appetite and trust that in return, my body will do the right thing by me. These fuelling strategies help me to maintain good energy levels and a strong immune system, optimise training and recovery and uphold a positive mindset throughout any physical and mental fluctuations.
Tapping out before the dance floor draws me in.
Recently I have paid particular attention to how much rest I am getting, as I do throughout heavy phases of training. In addition to aiming for consistent and quality sleep, I have made a conscious effort to avoid over-committing or overdoing it, only to pay the consequences later. Sometimes this means leaving social events earlier than I would like to and having to peel ourselves off the dance floor at Weddings - unless "I wanna dance with somebody" comes on! I know however that my physical and mental status in days to follow will be better off for the extra rest. Consistent sleep patterns help me to maximise productivity and I have enjoyed making the most of this opportunity recently, knowing that unbroken sleep will be hard to come by in the months and years to come.
It’s not unusual to notice every little niggle, sniffle and sensation in the lead up to a Marathon, when pressure and stress hormones start to rise. Emotions can sway like a sail boat in rough seas and simple decisions suddenly seem complex. Similarly, I have noticed a heightened awareness of my body and feelings during pregnancy. Sinus congestion, skin changes, strange smells and random dreams to which I wouldn’t usually pay much attention, are suddenly a greater focus. Whilst it must drive Dylan nuts to hear my random observations, I appreciate that this acute awareness is one of the body’s many protective mechanisms to facilitate a healthy pregnancy.
Before any Marathon I gradually back off my training volume to freshen up both physically and mentally. During the final few days I look over the course map with my coach Adam Didyk, attend a Marathon briefing, prepare my hydration bottles and discuss my race plan. At some point during this taper period the reality of my goal usually hits me, resulting in a mix of emotions such as excitement, curiosity and nerves. During our first Antenatal class (which I liken to the Marathon briefing) I experienced a similar ‘reality’ moment, which was accompanied by a rush of adrenaline. I expect more of these to occur over the coming weeks as I start to wind down the work commitments and prepare for birth.
There are so many more comparisons I could draw between pregnancy and running, such as muscle cramps - referred to by Dylan the other day as “Hixton Bracks” contractions ; ), the body’s higher demands for iron, energy fluctuations, appointments with health professionals, team work and the great sense of anticipation.
My Marathon experiences have taught me a diverse and valuable range of life skills for which I am very grateful. The examples above reinforce that what we learn through sport can prepare us for a lot more than the race, match or game in focus. Over the coming weeks I will remind myself that any nerves are the sign of an upcoming opportunity to experience something very special!
Thanks for your ongoing support : ).