After wrapping up my own racing season at the end of November, I spent much of the final month of 2013 not only reflecting, recovering and planning, but also (and perhaps more importantly) returning some of the love I felt this year by rooting on fellow runners as they rounded out their respective seasons.
And in the Bay Area, as I’ve come to find out, that usually happens at one particular event: the California International Marathon, a popular race with a flat, fast course that serves as a focal point in many a runner’s calendar.
On that day, aside from me having some major anxiety while tracking friends and cheering them along online, there was much to celebrate: Not only did Stephanie (a new blogger friend) finish her first full marathon in an impressive 4:09, and Pavement Runner (my trusty training partner & all-around amazing dude) rock an 11-minute PR to finish in 3:37, but Page (a fellow Coeur lady) also snagged her own PR — at a blazing 7:22 pace, no less — to finish in 3:12. Congratulations again, guys!
But there was one other success story from CIM that, when spotted on Twitter, stopped me in my tracks:
Wait….what?! I had to meet this rockstar runner and hear her story.
So thanks to the power of social media, the rest is history. Her name is Sarah Evans, and she’s one of the most down-to-Earth, no-nonsense, inspiring and motivating athletes and (new) mamas you’ll ever meet (oh, and did I mention she’s an Ironman, too?).
Below is our conversation, which I promised her will be continued (when I eventually work up the guts to join her) on the trails…
Kinetic Fix: Congrats on your recent PR/BQ at CIM! You’re just four months out from having a baby; what was your game plan going into the race & to what do you attribute the awesome result?
Sarah Evans: Thank you! It was a great day, and I’m so proud of my PR and Boston qualifying time! The last four months have been a whirlwind adjusting to life as a new mom.
My game plan for CIM was to push myself, see just how fast I could go and, ultimately, just enjoy being out there. It was important for me to have a goal time, as well, since I am very competitive with myself. Having a specific race to train for after having my baby girl was important to me so that I could still maintain my identity as a runner.
I wasn’t sure how I would feel or what kind of pace I would be able to hold until I started actually training about a month after giving birth. My husband knew how important it was to me to get back to running, so he was very supportive in helping me achieve the balance between new motherhood and having some time to myself, which for me meant tying up my shoes and going for a run. I seemed to feel stronger and stronger as the weeks passed from having my baby girl and almost relieved to run “solo” so I could see how hard I can push myself.
Achieving a PR was not really a priority at first, but as I started training again, my speed work splits and endurance told me that my best time might be within reach. That fueled my long weekend runs on the trails to build my base and helped me turn up the tempo on my short, interval-based workouts on the treadmill. While I would consider the treadmill to be my least favorite method, it was a great way to work out and still keep an eye on my baby. The fact that I was in running shape throughout my pregnancy also gave me a great foundation when it came time to train specifically for the marathon.
KF: You’re definitely no stranger to a tough workout; tell us a bit about your pre-pregnancy training, accomplishments and level of fitness.
SE: My pre-pregnancy fitness was at an all-time high due to the volume of runs and the type of running I was doing on the trails. In the recent years, I fell in love with trail running and believe it’s responsible for a lot of my endurance, strength and, ultimately, my success with road races.
In addition to speed work during the week, every Sunday I meet up with a small group to run the Marin wilderness. Discovering more about my abilities as a runner, as well as taking in nature’s beauty each week, refuels my spirit and gives me confidence – but it also gave me my most significant running injury to date, a broken foot before the 2012 Northface Challenge.
Six months after breaking my foot in Muir Woods, I toed the line at Northface and completed my first trail marathon, which gave me a real sense of accomplishment. But that race will always mark a more significant event in my life because I found out I was pregnant the next morning! So I was lucky enough to go right into my pregnancy in marathon shape, which meant I was trained and healthy enough (with the support and consent of my OBGYN) to continue running and training up to a marathon distance.
While I have maintained general fitness since my college track and field days as a sprinter, I have focused on training for endurance events starting in 2007. Over the past six years, I’ve done six marathons, seven half marathons and six triathlons, including Ironman Lake Placid in 2009. My marathon and half-marathon PRs are 3:26:23 and 1:35:30 respectively, and I am a three-time Boston qualifier, running it in 2013.
KF: Wow, finding out you were pregnant the day after your marathon must’ve been an exhilarating few days, to say the least! So, what was your attitude toward working out with baby-on-board?
SE: I was excited to be so fit at the beginning of my pregnancy because I knew that would put me ahead of the curve for being healthy and staying in shape. I’m very much a “no-excuses” kind of girl, so during the first few weeks, even though I felt a bit nauseous, sick and exhausted, I got myself out the door to exercise every day. It actually made me feel much better, once I got halfway through a workout, and gave me more energy afterwards. There were some workouts I had to fight through, but I knew it would do my body good in the end so I embraced the discomfort.
“Hurts so good” is definitely a mantra I embody, but I was, of course, cognizant of my baby’s health and made sure anything I did was approved by my doctor. I also recognized a fact that I believe is universal for all expectant women: Running while pregnant is typically more cumbersome, uncomfortable and induced a bit more soreness than usual. But as long as that discomfort was within the realm of what my doctor and I considered to be safe, then I was determined to continue to run.
KF: And run you did, all throughout your pregnancy, including completing the Boston Marathon. Can you tell us what was it like doing 26.2 with a “passenger?”
SE: I feel fortunate that I had no complications during my pregnancy and was given the green light by my doctor to continue to run. In fact, her main concern was that I would suddenly stop running, which I was told might be more detrimental to my health and pregnancy than anything. I continued to run a lot of trails, which helped build strength and balance and gave me more cushioning for my joints and back than the road and pavement.
Running the Boston Marathon with a baby on board was really a coincidence, as I had qualified and booked the trip before I knew I was expecting. It had always been a dream to run this race, and relaying that desire to my OBGYN was among the first topics of my first appointment. With everyone’s support — including my husband, who initially thought that this might be too much — I set myself a goal of sub four hours (realistic and challenging enough, but allowing for some fun along the course) and finished feeling strong and healthy.
Despite finishing 30 minutes slower than my qualifying time, I felt fortunate. And the day’s tragic events helped keep everything in perspective.
KF: What surprised you most about running while pregnant?
SE: That I lost my speed quickly! I know it sounds ridiculous, but I thought carrying a few extra pounds wouldn’t slow me so fast, but to be fair it wasn’t just being pregnant that slowed me down. Bouncing back after I broke my foot was not as easy as I thought because I had a fair amount of apprehension starting back running on the trails on a healed foot AND being pregnant at the same time.
So I built up the miles gradually at the new slower pace and found that even warming up took twice as long as before. Easing slowly into a run was new for me, as I was used to taking off quickly, and I had to challenge myself not to turn back after two miles because I wasn’t “feeling it,” knowing that my growing situation meant that I had to be patient to find my running happy place.
There were plenty of times towards the end of my pregnancy when I felt like skipping my runs, but in the back of my mind I had to remind myself that these times running solo would soon be limited. Mostly, I was anticipating the period after birth when I couldn’t really exercise due to having a C-section (my stubborn little girl was breech and couldn’t be flipped). And any running, however slow and uncomfortable, was going to beat being on bed rest for a while after birth!
KF: Can you share some of your favorite tips for moms-to-be who want to follow your lead and keep up with their running?
SE: First and foremost, clear it with your doctor. While a few are still old-school enough to recommend just sitting on the couch and resting, thankfully most will assess your current fitness and exercise level to suggest what effort you can take on.
Next, realize that it might not always feel comfortable but no matter how bad you feel, just lace up your shoes and get out the door – if only for a mile. You may (and most likely will) find yourself running longer than you anticipated and enjoying the fresh air, which can really invigorate you and make you feel better. The only special “equipment” I got was a bellyband that supposedly helped support my mid section along with providing some back support.
Finally, and especially for first-time moms, remember that you might not have this kind of freedom after baby is born to run and be active. Trust me, as tired as I felt while pregnant, it doesn’t compare to how exhausted being a mother can make me feel. And there is no better excuse to skip a run than to cuddle with your sweet baby – thankfully I can make time for both, but it does take its toll. Another huge benefit that you should keep in mind is that keeping fit will prepare your body for labor, help speed things along, give you the energy you will need, and ultimately make it easier to bounce back.
KF: Did you do anything else to stay in shape throughout your pregnancy?
SE: Throughout my pregnancy I tried to change as little as possible about my routine and exercise habits, though I did avoid outdoor cycling on the road, as well as skiing and winter sports (doctor’s recommendation). What I found was that I could still do my usual variation of cross-training activities, but just at a lower level of exertion.
I did a lot of strength training to keep some muscle tone, and spinning was one of the best exercises to relieve the pressure on my joints. It gave me some time off of my feet, and I think it’s one of the best ways to keep in cardio shape during pregnancy if running gets to be too much. I also did more power and vinyasa flow yoga classes, which helped me relax, feel one with my body, and stretch out my sore ligaments.
During my maternity leave (two weeks prior to birth), I also took advantage of the extra time by pampering myself, which meant spending some additional time working out! 🙂 I was lucky enough to get in one last run and yoga workout the morning the day my water broke and my baby girl arrived, so I held on to the end!
KF: Sounds like it! And then you were able to get back on the trainer and go running a few weeks after your C-section; how was the transition back to your usual activity levels?
SE: Having a C-section was not my plan, as I really wanted to have a drug-free, “natural” birth, but my little one was stubborn and turned breech so I was relegated to a C-section. It did slow down my recovery and my return to running, but what felt like an eternity only ended up being a limited timeframe.
My OBGYN gave me the green light to start exercising 18 days after I had my baby girl, and the first thing I did was 40 minutes on my bike trainer that very afternoon! I eased in carefully the next day by walking uphill on the treadmill for 30 minutes and the following day by doing intervals of slow jogging and walking uphill on the treadmill. I did these kind of workouts for the next 10 days, and exactly 4 weeks after having my baby girl I went for my first run outside: a lovely, solo six miles, and it felt amazing! I couldn’t have been happier (if a bit sore) to be running again – especially without the extra weight on my frame!
I think I bounced back so quickly because of my mental drive and strength – it didn’t hurt that I also went into my pregnancy in top shape. I was resolved, as much as I could, to stay in running shape and continue to run up to the day I gave birth. I really pushed hard to get back to running as soon as possible, and I was also lucky to have no complications other than my unplanned surgical procedure. The support of my family and husband, who knew how important it was for me to get a little piece of myself back after giving birth, also aided in my quick turn around and recovery.
KF: Now that you’re a few months out, how do you think having a baby has changed your running, currently?
SE: Honestly, I feel like having a baby has made me a stronger runner. I have a quickness in my step that wasn’t there before (maybe it’s getting home faster to hold her!), but I also think it comes from the extra weight load I’m not carrying and an increased mental toughness from going through pregnancy and birth.
While it’s nice to be able to head out the door for a run, I’ve learned that efficient and quality runs are now much more important since I don’t have all the time in the world to be out and away from my family. When I’m struggling on a run now, I think about how I felt right after giving birth, hobbling to get to the kitchen or feeling sore after a 20-minute walk. The fact that I’m now able to exercise again encourages me to pick up the pace and not take for granted how quickly I bounced back.
I think that if I could handle the pain of pregnancy and birth but still love and enjoy every minute of it, then I can handle the physicality of the last miles of an intense running effort. Many athletes understand the odd enjoyment with the pain of a marathon, racing, or pushing yourself on a run, but to experience the parallels between exercise and pregnancy is particularly rewarding.
KF: With baby girl in the picture, how have you adjusted/will you adjust your routine going forward?
SE: My routine has definitely changed! I can’t wake up on the weekends and head out the door whenever I’m feeling up for a run or come home from work early and go for a 5pm yoga class.
Now I wake-up earlier, especially during the weekdays before my husband leaves for work, if I want to get in a solo run outside. Otherwise, I know I will be running on the treadmill (it’s a blessing and a curse to have the option of a treadmill in my home). Most recently I got a BOB Ironman running stroller, which is a good option to get out on a slower run with my daughter, but race-specific training is best done without my adorable companion.
I do have my standing day, Sunday mornings, when I trail run with my group. My husband knows how much I enjoy getting out on the trails, so we make Sunday my “free mama” day! For me, being able to run and have some solo time makes for a better, happier and saner person and mom at home. I think it’s important to have a set day and time every week that’s just for you, no matter what you feel like doing with it!
Another big adjustment is working out from home a lot more. I’ve had a long maternity leave and worked from my home office a lot before I went out, so I get in my workouts whenever I can in my little fitness area (which is set up in our garage). That relieves any stress of getting out the door and preparing baby for a gym daycare. Working out at home has really given me the best way to stay in shape and get it in when I can!
KF: Speaking of — can you share your favorite exercises for toning up and getting your core strength back post-baby?
SE: Getting my core strength back was probably the toughest part of recovering from baby. I didn’t start any specific core workouts until about six weeks out from giving birth, and when I did I started with planks — both regular and side planks. I also added in leg throws, v-ups, planks with a twist under and roll-ups. Then I added in a P90X ab workout (a quick 15 minutes of intense abs; perfect to do on a yoga mat in your living room when baby is rolling around on her playmat!).
I’ve recently added in some cross-fit type work (specifically called IronStrength that I found on RunnersWorld) that incorporates so many mixes of activities that you don’t realize work on your core. All of this is done at home in my living room on a yoga mat with little equipment needed, and it’s something you can do while your baby is awake and incorporate them into the routine.
I do a lot more core work and abs now than I did before pregnancy because I feel that area was the most difficult to tone while pregnant, and it didn’t quite bounce back like everything else. I also need the extra stability in my back to carry around baby, car seat and lug everything around. So I would say planks and incorporating a short 15-minute ab workout 2-3 times a week would be a good combo to building that core strength back!
KF: Great advice! Finally, do you have any other best practices you can share with new moms who are finding it a struggle to get fit again?
SE: Schedule it into your day! Like anything else — a meeting, a doctor’s appointment or lunch with a friend — try to schedule your workout. On the other hand, you have to be very flexible, too, so be willing to fit it in when you can.
I have recently canceled my gym membership and am solely working out at home between naps, feedings, etc. I have a mix of free weights, a treadmill, bike on a trainer, yoga mats, exercise ball, Pilates ring and bench all set up along with some of my favorite workout DVDs and a few online yoga sessions that I follow.
Many times I’ve had to end a workout early to get her up from a nap or change a diaper, and I just pick up the workout later in the day. So I piece together my workouts…or if all else fails, I go for a long walk.
I also try to wake up early a few times a week before she awakes if I want to run outside solo or fit in a worry-free workout before my husband leaves for work. This is obviously much more realistic once baby is sleeping through the night, which I am thankful to say is now happening!
Another thing I suggest is to get on the floor with your baby while they play and roll around. You can do abs, a little yoga session or stretch. I get my baby girl involved with my workouts, holding her or carrying her while lunging or doing squats, or laying her on my legs while we do crunches or lifting heels to the sky. And right after she was born (and before I could be too active), we went for a lot of walks! A more recent “bonding” exercise is running with her in the BOB stroller, which has been an additional challenge to my running strength!
Make your baby and your health a priority, and schedule in time for yourself – for me, that time is almost always spent on a run or a workout, which helps me maintain my old identity as a runner, but also embrace my new role as a mom!
Thanks to Sarah for taking the time to chat! And you can find her here on Twitter, if you’d like to follow along on her adventures in training, racing — and motherhood.