The keys to managing time, be creative, communicate, and build your fitness after childbirth
Female triathlon training is complex and should account for significant life milestones and how these changes take a different toll on women than men, physically, mentally, emotionally, and athletically.
Giving birth to a child is a life-changing experience that impacts you in many ways. At the same time, you’re still your own person, with your own athletic goals, which you’ll want to return to when the time is right.
How can you embrace your new role as a mom without sacrificing your athletic performance or your family and relationships? What are the best ways to balance training and life once you’ve become a mom?
The great news is that you CAN balance commitments and responsibilities with time for yourself and your sport after childbirth.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Proper day-to-day and training nutrition for females;
- How to return to exercise once you’ve had a baby;
- Creative ways to work out without sacrificing family time; and
- How to build your busy mom workout schedule (including two amazing tools for new moms working out at home).
How to eat right while breastfeeding
While many women find it easier to justify weight gain and consume additional calories while training during pregnancy, female triathletes tend to put pressure on themselves to lose weight and tone up as soon as they’ve had their baby. But the female triathlete diet also needs to account for the changes your body goes through immediately after giving birth and during the breastfeeding period.
Adapt your training to breastfeeding by either feeding the baby or pumping before going on a long run
Make sure that you are eating enough to provide nutrition for your baby. Dr. Priya Bhave advises that breastfeeding athletes, in particular, need to ensure they take on enough fuel. Did you know that nutritional requirements for a breastfeeding mom are higher than those for a pregnant woman(1) ? You need almost 800 calories extra! “In pregnancy, everybody encourages you to eat for two. But the moment you deliver, you forget that actually, the nutritional requirement for a breastfeeding mom is higher than that for a pregnant mom.”
To stay healthy, eat whole foods, have fruits and vegetables, and make sure you get enough protein while avoiding junk food.
Returning to working out once you’ve had a baby
Being a new mom starts with a honeymoon period where your top priority should be just that: being a mom. Pro athlete and coach Jenna Seefried recalls: “For the first couple of years after having [my son], the focus was on just being a mom.” As he grew older and more independent, she felt she just needed some time for herself and her personal goals. She gradually went back to training, then did a few local triathlons, won her age group, and qualified for the world championship.
So, how can you start postpartum triathlon training safely? Can you actually participate in a competitive triathlon after you’ve had your baby?
The key steps of returning to triathlon training postpartum
An essential aspect of going back to training is to assess where you were beforehand and be aware that everyone's body is different. What worked for a friend, a pro athlete, or a celebrity, won’t necessarily apply to you and your performance. And we’ve already established that your priorities and time availability will change, so it's critical to find ways to balance all of these, all while training safely and healthily.
Beyond the time scheduling challenge, there are also physical and biological challenges to consider, and exercises that can help you get back in shape, to be faster and fitter after becoming a mom.
Pro triathlete and multiple Ironman 70.3 Champion Jackie Hering recalls becoming a mom and learning key lessons from a physical standpoint.
Especially as a new mom, don’t pressure yourself to achieve a specific amount of training hours or other performance goals. Do what you can when you can and start with more restful activities such as yoga (pre-and post-natal yoga classes are an excellent idea). As Jackie says, “Some days, you might not know what it is until you get started.”
Be mindful of your body’s needs while breastfeeding
As we said above, it’s important to keep in mind that while you breastfeed, you also need to replenish your fuel and add more to support the baby. Can breastfeeding mothers exercise? Absolutely, especially if you were exercising before you became pregnant. But don’t make it into a calorie-burning device or put pressure on yourself to return to your pre-pregnancy body while training AND breastfeeding.
Don’t rush back to form
Many female triathletes ask how long before they are in top shape and how much time they will exercise once they become moms.
Again, the answers vary, but the experience of top athletes has shown that it can take up to two years to compete fully. However, as you focus more on quality than quantity (more on that later), athletes like Jackie and Jenna have found that they became stronger and fitter as moms.
Dr. Bhave advises being mindful of how your body reacts, too.
If you want to know how soon after a C-section you can exercise, it’s important to take the time to rebuild your weakened areas. In general, the uterus goes back to normal six weeks after birth. So, it’s definitely okay to start training after six weeks BUT consider your particular case and experience.
Triathlon and strength training after baby: Key exercises
We’ve established that exercising before and after giving birth is safe and beneficial for your physical and mental health. Specifically, what are some essential exercises to include in your strength routine to get you through most of the challenges you’ll encounter as a pregnant triathlete?
Dr. Bhave advises focusing on three key parts of your body: core, hips, and pelvic floor.
Strengthen your lower back and core muscles
You may have been focusing on core strength before being pregnant, as it’s essential for stability and endurance in running and on the bike. But, when it comes to pregnancy, you should be aware of additional forces and tensions. For example, Dr. Bhave advises that problems with the lower back come from how women walk when they’re pregnant, sometimes pushing their spine forward. The spinal muscles then go into spasm, resulting in back issues.
As lower back issues arise from bad posture during pregnancy, you can combat this by continuing to work out your lower back, being mindful of your posture, and then returning to back exercises after pregnancy with your physical therapist.
The lower back is also essential to look after as it can trigger knee and leg pain through the kinetic chain. Remember that having a strong core also includes the lower back and, if possible, adding some exercises targeting it during pregnancy.
One of the questions that comes up when discussing triathlete training is how to prevent and heal diastasis recti. This is a condition whereby a partial or complete separation occurs with your rectus abdominal muscles. It’s more common than you think: 60% of women(2) experience it during pregnancy or postpartum.
The key things you can do to prevent this are:
- Practice good posture as much as you can;
- Avoid straining or heavy lifting during advanced stages of pregnancy and until after you deliver;
- During recovery, bend your knees, roll on your side, and support yourself with your arm when getting up from a lying position;
- Talk to your doctor about doing pregnancy-safe exercises such as these.
Work on your hips
Staying strong and fit during pregnancy is all about maintaining your routine, as discussed above, and focusing on key areas. Hips come under a lot of strain as your belly grows, and ensuring they are strong to support your legs and your whole kinetic chain will help you stay fit and healthy.
Consider doing side leg raises, hip flexions, and hip extensions, as shown here. These may look a lot easier than your standard strength training exercises, but they will be great in the later trimesters when your mobility and ability to use weights have decreased.
Don’t forget pelvic floor exercises
Perhaps some of the best-known exercises for pregnant women target your pelvic floor muscle strength, which is essential pre- and post-delivery. These muscles come under great strain throughout pregnancy, especially during childbirth, so it’s great to give yourself a head start by incorporating them into your routine.
Learn how to do them here or speak to your doctor.
How to get creative with workouts
Creativity is key to optimize your post-pregnancy triathlon training while also enjoying your newfound role as a mom. When you’re in a time crunch, working out with the kids in tow achieves two things: you continue to build fitness, and they get to spend more time with mom.
While searching for solutions to combine time spent with the kids and exercise effectiveness,
Excellent training tools for new triathlete parents
- Jogging stroller
The jogging stroller (along with some training partners, we hope) will become your new best friend. Pushing the added weight in front of you is sure to burn extra calories and makes for a challenging workout. There will be “a lot of time at the jogging stroller,” says Jenna.
You may not realize it, but a jogging stroller offers you the opportunity to work on your endurance and strength training, all the while spending time with your baby. Pushing a loaded stroller uphill is great exercise for leg strength.
However, be careful to moderate your volume intensity when using the jogging stroller because you’re put under a lot more stress than running on your own. It'll feel great to experience the difference between running with a stroller and without one, but you need to keep a balance!
- Band work
Using resistance bands for your strength workouts at home allows you to spend more time with your baby while easing yourself back into lifting weights after pregnancy. Jenna noticed that using swim band workouts at home when you don’t have access to the gym is very effective, especially for those who don’t keep weights at home. Not only can you do a broad range of exercises to strengthen your whole body, but you can also become a source of entertainment for your little one as they watch you and maybe even join in.
This is a great, easy way to spend time with your baby, work on yourself, and avoid putting too much stress on your body too soon after pregnancy.
How to get what you want out of training and parenthood
Jackie Hering recalls that she became a better athlete after becoming a mom, as it forced her to “whittle away the unnecessary things.” Razor-sharp focus on workouts when the time was available for them became the new norm. However, it’s not all about time management. How can you get the most out of being a mom while also progressing as an athlete, creating your support team, and nurturing your family relationships?
Jenna says that one of the most common things she hears from women wanting to get back into triathlon training after having kids is that they feel they don’t have support from their spouses. They feel like they’re already fighting an uphill battle, and without the support, it feels impossible. This is why finding a balance between being an athlete and being a partner (and a supported partner at that) is absolutely essential before going back to training seriously for competition.
Through conversations with these ladies, we’ve found that the support is there; they just haven’t adequately expressed what they need.
Here’s how to create that support system you didn’t even know you had:
Tell your spouse what you want to achieve. Sometimes simply letting them in on the secret you’ve been keeping about wanting to improve your health is all they need to get on board.
Jackie found that asking for help was essential as a mom: “Ask for more help and accept help.” It does “take a village” to raise a kid, after all!
If you update your partner and anyone else who’s supporting you along the way on your progress each week and show off how excited it makes you, they’ll notice. Never stop asking for what you deserve.
Jackie found that having a daily check-in with her partner about their goals for the day ahead was very useful. This includes how much or what type of training she planned to coordinate with other activities and/or her husband’s schedule. Keeping track of goals and staying flexible was essential to get them to both enjoy parenthood and support each other.
Set specific goals - but stay flexible
Only you will be able to set the goals that are right for you. Some days, this might mean some gentle exercise, while on other days, you’ll be ready for more.
You can also change how you decide to race. For Jackie Hering, being a mom meant she switched to the 70.3 distance to ensure more time for her family while still enjoying her sport.
Ultimately, triathlon training can require a shift in mindset after pregnancy. A lot of athletes are driven and committed, and that’s fine before they have a baby. However, as a mom, you’ll find that you need to adopt a more flexible, adaptable approach to setting goals and fulfilling workouts.
Make the most of the time you have
One of the great things about triathlon training after you’ve had a baby is the variety of exercise options, as Jenna and Jackie have experienced. We’ve talked about using the jogging stroller to build endurance and strength in your baby’s company, but here are more ways to make the most of your exercise time while enjoying the family:
- Go to baby swimming classes/swim while your baby is at the pool. Babies LOVE the water, so you know they’re having a wonderful time while you get your swim workouts in;
- Pull the baby on the bike for extra weight to make your cycling more challenging;
- Run with your family. Once kids are older, you can set fun challenges, like Jackie’s attempt to visit all of the parks within a 5-mile radius of home (running to each and back).
If you have a home set-up, before your baby becomes mobile, you can spend time with them while training: cycling on the indoor trainer, working out with bands, anything works. But, remember, if you plan to work out during a nap and they wake up earlier than expected, don't get frustrated if you only got 20 minutes of your hour workout in. It’s still better that you've done 20 minutes instead of nothing… it’s all about staying flexible with your training goals.
Finally, if you’re able to coordinate with a few other moms, try out playdate kid trades. You can bring your baby to your friend’s house, where the two babies have a playdate, and you can go running or doing a workout while both kids are being watched. Next week, it’s your turn!
Build Your Busy Mom Workout Schedule
Every mom’s circumstances are different, and we all have access to various support networks, whether professional or family and friends. However, the key learnings from speaking to pro athletes and coaches who’ve navigated motherhood successfully can also help you build your busy mom workout schedule so you can carry on doing triathlon training after having a baby.
To recap, here’s how to build your busy mom workout schedule:
- Stay flexible
Be open-minded about how much time you have on your hands and where and when you can train. If plans need to change, or your workouts get shortened, remember that something is still better than nothing!
- Coordinate with your partner and support network
Use your support network! Be open and honest with them about needing help and communicate upfront what you want to get out of your days and weeks.
- Get creative with your workouts
Use our advice above to develop new ways to strength-train post-pregnancy, spend time around your baby, and work out at home. Mix your workouts outside with family time, whether you’re pushing your new bundle of joy in a jogging stroller or swimming together. There are so many options to try out.
- Be efficient
Follow Jackie’s example and whittle away the unnecessary. When you have time, favor quality over quantity with your workouts, and you may soon find yourself getting faster and fitter than ever before.
- Fuel right
Don’t underestimate your body’s need to refuel after having a baby, especially while you’re breastfeeding. It’s not time to “snap back to pre-baby weight” or some other media headline. You need to replenish your calories after exercise and ensure you offer adequate nutrition for your baby, too.
With all this advice and the real-life examples above, you can become a fitter, faster, stronger triathlete after becoming a mom, all while maximizing time spent with your family and making the most of your new role.
- Strapped for time? Build in bike training on your commute to work.
- Listen to Jenna Seefried talk about her journey into triathlon.
- Get more tips on how to exercise as a parent from Jackie Hering.
About the contributors
Jenna-Caer Seefried went from no background in sport and 50 pounds overweight to an AG World Champion, Ironman AG winner and Kona Qualifier, thanks to triathlon. As a working mom she works with athletes to find how triathlon training fits into their lives. It’s not the hours of training that count so much as what you do with those hours. Connect with Jenna on Instagram, her website, and learn more about her coaching services here.
Dr. Priya Bhave is a Reproductive Medicine specialist based in Bhopal, India. She has expertise in reproductive medicine, minimally invasive reproductive surgery, and gynecology. Connect with Dr. Bhave on YouTube and her website.
Jackie Hering is a happily married mom of 2, dog mom, professional triathlete and event director living in Madison, WI. She has completed 24 full distance Ironman races, including 4 times in Kona. She is an Ironman and Half Ironman champion in her 11th year racing professionally. Connect with Jackie on Instagram.