Monday, December 3, 2012

Does having a baby enhance athletic performance?

There I was, the Monday morning after the National Track Cycling Championships basking in the glory of my two medals from the weekend.  I was a bit dazed. This was out of character for me. I didn’t win stuff at national championships. Or at least I used not to until I had a baby! What the hell was going on? On that Monday I wandered around (with a big grin on my face) and pondered it all. The most shocking win at the weekend was the bronze medal in the pursuit after riding two personal best times – I knocked a whopping 14 seconds off my last recorded competitive pursuit (6 weeks previous in the Olympic Omnium) in the first round and the time was good enough to see me into the bronze medal ride off – this had not been part of the plan! My coach had said to me beforehand that was the worst thing that could happen – that I’d get into a bronze medal ride off against someone I had no chance of beating and would have to grind out another 3k at my limit – it would ruin my chances to win any of the match sprinting. Which I had spent most of my time training for. Whatever the plan was it went out the window and there I was in the ride-off. And I hadn’t just scraped in. I had qualified third, just 1 second ahead of my opponent. It mightn’t have been the plan but at that moment I decided to hell with the sprinting – this was the medal that counts the most to a track rider. The pursuit is a true test of personal endurance and character. You have to push hard and dig deep during those 4 or so minutes of hell to keep the wheels on the cart or should I say on the pursuit line!

The pursuit is about a perfectly measured effort, and the best riders ride every lap in exactly the same time. I had done this and stuck to my schedule rigidly in the first round –a near perfect 6 x 37 second laps. But the adrenalin and emotion had me all over the place in the ride off. I went out like a rocket and my first lap was 35 seconds – way too fast to sustain – I had to wind it back rapidly and hope to god that burst hadn’t depleted my tank. I wanted it so much! At 2 laps to go my legs were screaming stop, but I gritted my teeth and just dug deep for that last kilometer. When I crossed the line I didn’t even know I had it – I was seeing stars! It turned out I did have it – by a comfortable 3 seconds in the end – and not only that, but a new PB a whole second faster than the 1st round! I collapsed on the grass in the center of the track and tried to soak it all in. And yes the sprinting was a write off after that! My elation was complemented nicely on day 2 by a beautiful silver medal in the 500m time-trial. And another personal best time to boot.

I wondered why I was all of a sudden doing so well considering my training had been seriously interrupted by pregnancy, and having the baby by emergency C-section. Was it post pregnancy hormones? Many female athletes claim that after you go through childbirth your pain threshold increases and this helps performance – sure I didn’t feel a thing with the section! I hadn’t even had one proper contraction. So I have discounted that. Perhaps it’s the hormonal changes related to pregnancy and postpartum. But on investigating this there doesn’t seem to be too much good evidence to back this up. I did a lot of training right through my pregnancy, but not so much high intensity stuff and I had to completely go cold turkey on exercise for afew weeks after the section to allow my body to heal. I’m sure the training during my pregnancy kept a nice base fitness going for me but this wasn’t enough to fully explain my improved performance. Its part of it for sure – I believe the body is under a serious physiological stress as a consequence of all the pregnancy related changes, therefore and kind of training while in this state is probably akin to training at altitude. But more importantly there’s something else – being on maternity leave basically allows you to behave as a full time athlete! As a mom minding one baby, you get to hang out a lot. Resting those legs, allowing them to recover. The biggest stress in your day is trying to figure out where to go for coffee or what to have for dinner. So quality rest and lack of stress is a natural occurrence in your day. Secondly, you have plenty time to train. And I’m not just referring to when your hubby comes home in the eves and you fire the baby at him in a speedy handover and have cycled down the road before he knows what has hit him! A young baby sleeps a lot during the day. No matter how bad they are at sleeping anyone can get a good hour at least to do something. From two weeks post birth, my first priority when Tori went asleep was to jump up on my bike on the rollers (a form of stationary trainer) and grind out all sorts of bike related workouts. A yoga mat and a medicine ball was good for some core work after.

On hearing this Emma, a sporty friend said to me in exasperation “ I don’t know how you mange to get the time – every time I got the turbo and bike set up Molly is awake and crying again! Its military precision and focus I informed her.  You must prioritize the exercise session over everything else! Attention to detail must only be applied to exercise related paraphernalia. The house may be falling down around your ears, the dishwasher may not be emptied, god knows what that thing is living in the drain in the bath preventing the water going out ... Just put on those blinkers and get moving! Get up on your bike! Workout done hey presto.  There are unfortunate casualties to this approach of course. Just ask my poor husband!

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