October 29, 2021
CHAPTER THREE: BEING BOTH MOM AND ATHLETE; RETURNING TO TRIATHLON AS A NEW MOM
Orca pro triathlete, US Olympic athlete, and new mom, Sarah Groff shares her journey and training tips for managing life as new mom and triathlete!
SARAH TRUE - Professional triathlete
When I reflect upon my expectations of how my return to triathlon training would be following the birth of my first child in July, I fully realize that I might have been a bit naive. I felt ready for the journey ahead, knowing that I would have to allow myself time to heal and adjust physically to life as a mother. How my return is unfolding, however, is equal part easier and more challenging than I expected.
As a lifelong athlete, I felt mentally prepared for the physical demands of being a new mother. I recognized that healing from labor would take time, as would the physical adaptations following childbirth. Everyone warns you about adjusting to a newborn's sleep schedule and the challenges of breastfeeding. Compared to many, I've been very fortunate in these areas: my labor was straightforward, and Haakon is a terrific eater and sleeper. With the physical demands relatively under control, I should have returned more quickly to structured training. Nope.
While my body adjusted to having and caring for my child, I was not prepared for motherhood's hormonal and lifestyle changes. Although I intellectually understood both, the actual shifts are far more significant than I could have imagined. As a very independent person, having a tiny human depending on me for life has completely upended my identity, forcing quite an adjustment. Right now, everything centers around caring for Haakon, and I continue to struggle with my loss of freedom. Thankfully this dependence is also paired with a tremendous surge in oxytocin. Being flexible with my training is much easier when I can hold my child, and feel the abundance of love I have for him.
As much as I love my job, I recognize that I have to continue to work around my baby's schedule. Staying grounded in the present and mindful make this period easier, knowing that he will begin to have more of a structured and predictable schedule as he grows older. I am deeply grateful to my years as an athlete for providing me with the tools to navigate this new experience. We learn to stay focused on the moment through sport, and that discomfort passes with time; if I hadn't internalized those lessons from sport, I think that I would feel far more anxious and stressed. This new way of life is a joyful period, but also one that is incredibly difficult. While I crave being back in full training and race preparation mode, I know that I will be able to do so with time. For now, however, I must be kind to myself and allow for a return when my body and my baby are ready.
The return to training after birth is vastly different for every woman, given her medical, personal and professional situation. While some women can return more quickly, I recognize that I am definitely on the faster end of the spectrum for various reasons. As with my blog on my training during pregnancy, I will provide a sample week, not for comparison or as a guide, but rather to elaborate on issues that many of us face. Below is my training from week ten postpartum:
Overall, I am not on a formal training plan, as Haakon and I are still figuring out our daily schedules. I can get occasional childcare help, but I'm primarily at the mercy of a baby regarding how much I can train and the external stress I am balancing. An effective training plan is a stress management plan; we seek to find the right amount of physical stress to adapt to while adjusting for non-training stress. As a newborn introduced many new and variable pressures, it makes more sense to be flexible and aim for consistency and gradual gains, rather than a fixed training plan. Over the past two months, my overall volume increased weekly, and intensity returned, letting my body dictate training. If Hawk and I sleep poorly, we have an easy day. If we both feel good, I do a bit more.
While I hoped to return to swimming sooner, I did not get cleared to swim until after third week postpartum. Of the three sports, swimming currently feels the best. Being able to rotate properly and do flip turns is incredible after the frustrations of the third trimester! I would love to swim more, but childcare is a more significant issue for swimming than cycling and running; I can't have Haakon with me, and it is less time-efficient, given that I have to drive to and from the pool open water swimming venues.
Thank goodness for indoor riding! With my bike trainer, I can be at home and get in some riding. The downside is that it leads to some disrupted training, as I might have to stop riding to nurse, change a diaper, or attend to a fussy baby. I've also been able to ride outside when childcare allows, although the duration isn't as long as I might like. Regardless, I'm grateful for every moment. I started making some short efforts on the bike recently. Before doing so, I had to regain strength and symmetry, relying on some low cadence work. In the weeks following childbirth, I felt as though my pelvis wasn't stable or symmetrical on the saddle. Once I began to feel more even, it seemed appropriate to start with some intensity in training.
A huge challenge for many runners and triathletes is knowing when to return to running after birth. While many specialists recommend waiting until 12 weeks postpartum, I began running sooner, starting with run/walks and gradually increasing toward full running. I am working closely with a pelvic floor specialist who cleared me to run when my body is ready. Most of my running is either on the treadmill or outside with a stroller. I slowly integrated intensity; starting with some uphill strides, progressing to flat strides, and finally incorporating fartlek runs the past couple of weeks.
I am currently doing a 12-week postpartum strength program focusing on pelvic floor health. I will return to more standard strength sessions in the upcoming weeks, but I've been grateful that these rehab programs exist.
As the weeks' progress, I am confident that I will continue to approach training with a flexible and humble mindset. Although some issues, such as childcare, will always be a challenge for athlete parents like me, I look forward to finding more balance between being a mother and an athlete. I love Haakon, and I also love triathlon. Although pursuing the elite sport as a parent isn't easy, I relish this new role and challenge.
ABOUT SARAH TRUE
American triathlete Sarah True began her career in the ITU series, where she competed for 12 years and won several placements. During this period, Sarah participated in two Olympic Games; then in 2018, she decided to challenge herself and began competing in long distance. In her first year as a long-distance triathlete, she won several races and was able to compete at Kona, where she came in fourth place. Her grit and tenacity have elevated her to the top of the podiums and her fight to bring visibility to mental health issues in athletes has made her a role model for many fans and lovers of sport.