The challenge of fitness for mothers

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Pregnancy, giving birth and the post-natal biological, physical and mental demands of motherhood can create all kinds of issues when it comes to regular sport and exercise.

Body shape changes, hormonal changes, blood pressure and glucose changes, and schedule changes, not the least of which is usually the sleep schedule, means that if once there was a regular exercise routine, in all likelihood this will need a strategic plan to ensure it can continue.

The number one concern heard from mothers as the reason they find it difficult to return to pre-child exercise, are the time constraints. That, and being knackered all the time.

As an athlete, the body changes across the course of a season or two, energy levels fluctuate according to training levels and the time of the year, and sleep gets disrupted with travel or nervousness or late nights after training.  Being knackered all the time forms part of the job description. Fitting in work, cooking and study, as well as maintaining relationships, also feature in most athletes’ lives.

So it begs the question whether strategies that athletes use as coping mechanisms to ensure they maintain training levels could be applied to child rearing?

Understanding the probable timetable in the first few years of a child’s life could theoretically be used like periodisation in an athlete’s annual training plan.  Over the course of a year for an athlete, there is an off-season when there are less or no competitions, and a pre-season where training is intensified as it gets closer to major events and so volume sometimes drops.  There are certain competitions that need to be prioritised in the in-season and the mental demands that accompany this can create a measurable increase in stress. This periodisation plan has to include some level of flexibility to cope with illness, injury or unforeseen circumstances.

Training modalities and intensities may need to change to ensure as consistent a training regime as possible.

When a baby is at its smallest, and presumably sleeps a lot, this might allow time for higher volumes of uninterrupted exercise (off-season).  As the child grows, becomes more dependent and is often awake, this becomes pre-season when the exercise might become lower volume and higher intensity to fit into a shorter timeframe yet still achieve training objectives.

Of course strength training is arguably built in to a child rearing regime as the child gets heavier over time (progressive overload).

As the child becomes more mobile, agility and reaction times may also improve, however strength training may now need to be supplemented.

As for athletes, crockpot and 15 minute recipes may prove valuable strategies for main meals as demands intensify and time constraints tighten; maximising time available without risking nutritional or energy deficiencies.

In the event of illness or injury, the level of training will have to be dropped back.  To minimise any loss of form and fitness, this needs to be carefully designed to ensure adequate recovery while still maintaining a level of physical and psychological consistency with training. This may likely be an illness or injury to the child which requires this strategic intervention.

As the seasons progress and new team-mates (children) may be added in to the mix, this may require new strategies and additional resources (baby-sitters/crèche at the gym). The now more experienced team-mates (older children) may also prove more effective training partners as their physical capability increases and more joint training sessions could be included.  A new coach may also be required to deal with the change (an in-home personal trainer to effectively maximise training time and that can also hold the baby).

Relaxation strategies and mental skills training need to be included on a regular basis to build coping mechanisms for times of pressure and stress in-season (two-year-olds), and over several seasons worth of training (as the child grows) the routine becomes more familiar and manageable and the extended support team (family) can work more seamlessly together to achieve the performance outcomes.

So some would perceive the life of an athlete a dream one and the life of a mother a very challenging one and both with just cause.  However perhaps the training strategies, time management skills and physical demands are more similar than you might first think and the sharing of theoretical and practical sports science strategies into motherhood may prove valuable.

And then there is Andrea Kilday, a 34-year-old mother of two who has recently been named in the New Zealand Olympic Team for Rio in taekwondo, yet somehow manages both motherhood and high performance sport and deserves the respect of us all.

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