Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Will Jessica Ennis get back on track after having her baby?

The athletic world is watching Jessica Ennis as she prepares to give birth to her first child. The current Olympic heptathlon champion is due any day now and much of the talk around the impending arrival is not focussed on the normal things like will it be a boy or girl or how will she cope with being a mom for the first time. It’s all about will she be fit in time for Rio, to defend her title? Will she have the ability or indeed the interest to come back to such a gruelling, time-demanding sport? Only time will tell, but there’s one thing she will have that most women won’t – unlimited professional support and help to get her back to peak fitness should she want it.

There is much debate about when you should start exercising again post baby. Some women are afraid to get back into it too soon, in case they injure or overstretch themselves. This fear is fed by the over-conservative attitude of many doctors and other health professionals.  The figure of 6 weeks is frequently touted about, but in reality no one can put a time limit on it – its one of those things that is entirely dependent on the individual. How fit they were before they got pregnant, if they continued exercising right through and at what level , how the birth went and so on, will all play a part.  However, these factors are actually only of minor importance. What really determines when a woman gets back into exercise again is what support and encouragement she gets to do so.

Like many women, I struggled with baby blues after the life changing shock that is having your first child. I wondered would I ever get back on my bike again, let alone get back to competing at a decent level. Thankfully, what actually happened was I managed to get rolling again only two and a half weeks after the birth of Tori. I suddenly felt like myself, temporarily freed from the weight of responsibility that comes with becoming a parent. I came home from my first training session, which involved me pedaling gently around the track, energised and happy with the fuzzy brain that accompanies the sleep deprivation from a new baby gone.  All of this was enabled by one fundamental thing – a supportive encouraging partner and family that went out of their way to help out.

Its important to note his type of support doesn’t always happen naturally however, and indeed in most cases the partner may need some gentle encouragement. I found standing in the doorway as the hubby arrived home from work with bike in one hand, baby in other and a swift handover was the most efficient method of exit! I did get the odd panicky phone call when a nappy needed changing or the baby was crying but I assured him that the particular skills required to deal with either were not natural female instinct but a set process that could be performed successfully by either mom or dad! 

Bottom line is every new mother needs someone close to support them in getting back to fitness. No matter what professional help Jessica Ennis has, it will in some part boil down to her partner’s willingness to help out. We mightn’t all be aiming for Rio in 2016, but whatever level we are participating in sport we should be given the chance to strive to be our best.

Next week’s blog will be about where to actually find the time and how to fit everything in

Thursday, February 13, 2014

When did Figure replace Fit? Questioning the CrossFit Revolution

Becky Conzelman - USA Cyclist turned CrossFitter and mum of two!

Something occurred to me the other day as the hubby and I walked past the window of the local college gym. It was packed with students pumping iron. Mostly guys in their early 20s working on looking buff, the aim being to pack those Superdry T-shirts with as much muscle as possible. Chin ups, barbell rows and tricep dips seemed to be king, less popular were any leg exercises like squats or dead-lifts, the bread and butter of most athletes. My hubby’s only baffled comment as he looked on was “I didn’t even know where the gym was when I was in college!” and I had to agree – in fact I don’t think there was one.
Its not just guys. A new trend has emerged in women’s fitness. Something I read the other day on a women’s fitness website got me thinking about this change. Apparently “strong is the new skinny”. As more and more celebrities get into body sculpting and pumping iron, the masses follow. Much as I think lifting weights is great for women, it shouldn’t be something they do with the sole purpose of looking good. What happened to feeling good, like enjoying the buzz of endorphins you get from aerobic exercise? It’s concerning that women are getting into weights just to enhance their optics while cardiovascular and functional fitness, which is so much more important, seems to be taking a backseat.
This shift is epitomized by the recent phenomenon of CrossFit, a workout regime based on Olympic weight lifting and other strength exercises. It purports to be about getting fit, but when you scratch the surface what it’s really about is making your body look good. It’s not just CrossFit, but gyms everywhere who are fueling the craze. After all there is a lot more money to be made from people lifting weights in a gym then when they go for a run in the great outdoors at no cost.
I’m not sure if the CrossFit revolution is a symptom or the cause of this shift, but all of a sudden you can’t get a squat rack in the local gym for love or money. Olympic lifting is now considered the thing. Moves that were once a dark art practiced only by a minority of hardcore weightlifters, are now fodder for the masses. People can drop words like snatch and jerk into everyday conversations without getting shocked looks or being admonished for using foul language!

To satisfy my curiosity, I went to the CrossFit site to look at the open workouts. These are a series of routines that enable CrossFitters world-over to flex their muscles at each other. Each routine is made up of a number of different strength / weightlifting exercises, the aim being to complete as many reps as possible in a given time frame. As I watched an impressively muscled girl do push presses, dead lifts and box jumps over and over, I wondered why it didn’t sit quite well with me. After all, I did many of those exact moves as part of my routine in the gym. Then I realized what was – the driving force behind it was body sculpture.

 It made me think about my training and why I do it. What I do is functional training, every lift or plyometric exercise is about getting stronger. To go faster.  Simple as that. The stronger I am, the more power I can deliver into my bike to propel it forward. This is what I’m thinking about when I’m at the bottom of a squat in the gym trying to summon the strength to return to the start position. Each to their own, but I would like to go back to that gym and ask Superdry  guy,"what are you here for? To look good, to feel good or to be good at your sport?" I think I would know the answer.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Early Pregnancy – don’t break the exercise habit!

I’ve been talking to a number of women recently about exercise they did at different stages of pregnancy. One thing that’s come up over and over is that many didn't feel up to doing anything at all in those first few months never mind continuing with their daily run or yoga class. In fact the only sport many were engaging in was sprinting to the toilet bowl for a hug and some projectile vomiting. Better than nothing but not great for maintaining cardiovascular fitness.

It was often the case that these women planned to get back into it when they felt a little better in the second trimester. Unfortunately this didn’t always work out as planned. If you have let your routine go for a few months, you have to start from scratch, unfit and usually heavier and with all sorts of quirky pregnancy induced body changes to deal with. Another issue with re-starting exercising mid-pregnancy is the exercise during the first trimester is the best time to stimulate placental growth making it safer for the baby when you exercise later in pregnancy by ensuring an enhanced blood supply.

But there is more at stake here. If you stop exercising, a good habit is discontinued. We all have good and bad habits but this is not a habit to break, no matter how hard it may seem. Many women get out of the habit of exercising during pregnancy and sadly never go back. Anyone would find it hard to go back to exercise after such an extended break but for a pregnant woman there’s an extra dimension - you now have junior hanging out of you! How the hell are you going to get out now if you didn’t manage without this helpless baby depending on you? The answer is to do all you can not to break the habit on the first place. If your hubby is used to you disappearing and coming back all sweaty, it won’t be so much of an adjustment for him to see you to continue to do so, as you smoothly transition into exercising-mom from pregnant-sweaty-woman. You can assure him you are doing it for him, so he and junior can have quality one to one time. He won’t be so reluctant to let you out if he’s accustomed to you disappearing. Be prepared for the odd panicky phone call in those first few weeks though, where he freaks out at having to change a nuclear nappy!

If you’re finding it hard to keep up the exercise in early pregnancy try something different like going to the gym, a spinning class, swimming or back off on the intensity. For sure you will feel better for it and it will set you up for the rest of your pregnancy. So fight the urge to cling to the toilet bowl, it will be there for more hugs when you get back!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Exercise during Pregnancy - Forget the Moms, its Benefits for Baby!

Research was published last week about the positive effects of exercising during pregnancy on the brains of new-borns. It is an angle that doesn't often get covered, the focus usually being on the benefits to the prospective mums, or on the damage you can do to your baby while exercising. How refreshing to have a positive slant from the babies point of view.

The scientists gave one group of moms an exercise programme, where they had to do three sessions a week exercising at moderate intensity (where they were out of breath). The other group were told not to exercise.
After birth, as the new-borns slept on their mums knees with a special electrode cap on their heads, brain activity was measured. The brains of the babies born to the exercising mums were better at distinguishing different sounds then the other group. This is an indication of neurological maturity, or basically an indication that their brains were better developed. What’s more, studies of toddlers up to 5 years of age have shown those born to exercising mums had bigger vocabularies and higher IQs then those born to non-exercising mothers. 
This is a victory for exercising moms-to-be. On a few occasions I was accused of doing too much during my pregnancy and people said I was selfish and going to harm my baby. Yes I exercised quite a lot, at one stage during the second trimester I was doing approximately 10 hours / week. I don’t think everyone should be doing this much, but I  do think the standard recommendation of 30 minutes 5 times a week is really the bare minimum women should consider. Now we have research to prove how good it is to get out there and do it not just for ourselves but for our babies.
Tori is now 17 months old and indeed already has a broad vocabulary. I tell people it’s because of all the exercise I did. Only problem is she has also picked up a few inappropriate words, courtesy of my mother, when Tori was trying something particularly dangerous while she was babysitting!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Exercise during pregnancy – Lea-Ann Ellison challenges the boundaries

Last week a weightlifter and mum of two, Lea-Ann Ellison, sparked a bit of a media storm when pictures of her weightlifting at 8 1/2 months pregnant went viral. Opinion, as is always the case when it comes to anything to do with pregnancy, was highly polarized.  Some people thought she was great, rushing to her defense; others were absolutely disgusted and accused her of being irresponsible. What struck me most about the whole thing though was the fact it highlighted something that has been bugging me for a long time.

People think they are open-minded, and now the vast majority “support” the idea that exercise during pregnancy is beneficial. But all you have to do is barely scratch the surface and the hypocrisy emerges. It turns out that to the majority of these people think exercise during pregnancy should be limited to walking, pregnancy yoga or gentle swimming. Oh, and I did I mention, definitely not weightlifting! The benefits of moderate (not gentle!) exercise during pregnancy are numerous. It prevents back pain, reduces risk of gestational diabetes and obesity, reduces complications during labor and boosts recovery post-partum to name but a few.
The pictures of Lee-Ann horrified a lot of people attracting comments describing what she was doing as “sickening” and “a good way to lose your baby”.  The reality is these pictures were only shocking to most people out there as they are physically incapable of doing what Lea-Ann was doing, pregnant or otherwise, and have no concept of what is involved. This woman is an experienced weightlifter and this is her day-to-day stuff. The best comment I read in support of her was from a guy in a forum and said it all really: “The woman looks as strong as horse so what's the problem?”
Lea-Ann just exposed a nerve, and forced people to confront what they really think about exercise and pregnancy. When I was pregnant last year, one of the things I noticed was many people, though they supported the concept of exercise during pregnancy, were of the opinion it was only OK to do something as long as you had been doing it before you got pregnant. I frequently heard the comment “its OK for you to exercise, you are used to it”. This is rubbish! There is absolutely nothing in the scientific literature to suggest that women shouldn't start exercising during pregnancy, even if they have never lifted a finger before. The benefits far outweigh any perceived risk. The only rule women need is “listen to your body”. I myself only started weightlifting when I was pregnant – it was great for self-esteem, it prevented too much extra fat deposition, it enabled me to recover very rapidly after the birth and I ended up with a pair of toned arms to die for!
In Lea-Ann’s own words, "I strongly believe that pregnancy is not an illness, but a time to relish in your body's capabilities to kick ass."

I loved the pictures, they show a beautiful strong woman, comfortably lifting weights, with as much effort as another pregnant woman would use hanging clothes on the line.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Safer Cycling for 'Bump on Wheels'

Being a bit of a cycling nut, I was reluctant to hang up my wheels during my pregnancy. In the very early stages I continued to cycle as normal – there was nobody to tell me different and I wasn't asking. Denial actually worked very well for me for the first while. However, a bit of a scare and a near miss when tearing down a hill on my mountain bike made me sit up and take notice. At this point I decided it was time to face the music, and when the line appeared on the pregnancy test confirming that I was indeed two months pregnant as I suspected, I decided the mtb had to go, or at least riding it on steep and technical trails. Cycling safely when pregnant is about risk minimisation.

However, I really didn't see why I couldn't continue on the road bike but felt I needed some advice and support to do it. I knew the general attitude out there for pregnant woman was “anti-bike” so cunningly picked an easy target to ask for help – my coach. He was already well on board as we were working towards competing in the world track cycling masters the following October. I came clean one evening after training. Being the third person to know I was pregnant after my hubby and mother, he was a bit shell shocked to say the least and told me afterwards he felt ambushed! 

                       Cycling at 7 months - luckily I never got too big!

I convinced him I needed to keep up a reasonably amount of saddle time if I was realistically going to have any chance competing the following autumn. He could see how determined I was so had no choice but to help me. Not having a clue when it came to pregnant women let alone ones who wanted to ride their bikes he turned to a friend of his, an elite cyclist who had trained through her pregnancy for advice. 

He produced a set of guidelines to enable me to continue cycling safely which I stuck to the fridge and followed religiously.  They were common sense but it really helped to have them listed. When I stuck to these guidelines I felt I was doing something to stay safe and was happy to be on the bike. They were as follows:
  •     Safety is always about attention to detail. Risk can’t be eliminated but it can be absolutely minimized.
  •     You should always cycle in your comfort zone but be mindful that that can change week by week as pregnancy progressed
  •     Slightest hint of frost - no ride at all.
  •     Avoid cycling that involves uneven surface or where there is risk of collision with trees or rocks. 
  •     No more group rides - too many variables and we can’t put your safety into other people’s hands. Also you can’t control the pace to suit you in a big group.
  •     No rides on your own either! You need someone with you and their job is to look after you. When cycling as a pair you are more of an obstacle and safer from traffic. The rider must match your pace, whatever that is on the day. Finally your buddy can cycle behind you when you single out to allow cars to pass or if the road narrows, staying outside and a few feet behind your wheel therefore forcing any overtaking cars to take a wide berth.
  •     Nutrition - more than ever you need to have sufficient drink to stay hydrated and food for energy. You should snack frequently as you will need extra calories and also it will prevent low blood sugar and lapses in concentration, keeping you mentally switched on and safe.
  •     Means to fix a puncture would be good. Or at least bring someone to do it for you!
  •     Only cycle on quiet roads without heavy traffic. Better to drive out a few miles to the quieter roads and cycle from there if necessary.
  •     Finally don’t worry if you feel you’re going too slow, remember being pregnant is like training at altitude so you will reap benefits even from these easy paced spins.
Of course every pregnancy is different and what you can do at any stage relates to the size and position of your bump. For my part I was lucky and the bump didn't expand sufficiently to stop me and I was able to cycle right up to the end. I treated every cycle as if it was my last, not knowing whether I would able for it the following week. Time ticked by and all of a sudden I found myself out on a 50km spin on my due date! I decided at that point it was time to call it a day so it was without any regrets I said goodbye to my road bike for a few weeks. I got my sneaky fix from the odd spinning class during the ten days I was overdue! 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Why try maintain exercise regime through 1st trimester

No matter how “easy” (I use this word in the relative sense) a pregnancy is, nearly all women have had at least some nasty side effects during the first trimester. I was one of the lucky ones in that I didn’t have to spend most of it hanging over the toilet bowl but I did feel “off” for most of the three months with occasional waves of nausea thrown in for good measure. Not to mention the insane tiredness. I had always thought women were exaggerating about this until I fell pregnant – and promptly found myself falling into bed at 9 pm every night!  

Even though I really wanted to keep up my exercise regime throughout my entire pregnancy, I found the motivation to get out and do something during the first trimester was at an all-time low. I never had problems with motivation before and was always one to enjoy training, skipping out the door with enthusiasm. All of a sudden I was taking the long-cut home so I wouldn’t have to drive past the gym and feel guilty, or deliberately misplacing one of my runners.

However, the fear of losing my fitness won over and drove me out the door and I discovered something really strange as the time went on. Even though I really didn’t want to go for a spin on my bike or to lift weights in the gym, once I got going at all I felt better. And even better then that I felt normal. The “off” feeling was kept at bay for the rest of the day. Strangely I wasn’t as tired either, managing to stay up until 10pm some nights post-exercise session! 

There is a more important reason for maintaining exercise during the first trimester, especially if you want to continue with your exercise right through pregnancy. One of the effects of exercising at this early stage is that it greatly stimulates the early growth of the placenta and the extent of its blood supply. These adaptations increase the capacity of the placenta above normal, allowing the baby to cope better with any stress, exercise induced or otherwise in later pregnancy. Exercise during this early stage also enhances other facets of the maternal adaptations to pregnancy, such as improving the ability to dissipate extra heat through increased sweating and breathing rate. These benefits provide a nice margin of safety which allows women to train harder later in the pregnancy when we generally feel more up for it. 

I’m a big believer in listening to your body when it comes to exercise and used this as my main guide when I was exercising throughout my pregnancy. However the first trimester is one case where the body needs a little gentle encouragement on some days or even a sharp kick in the backside to get going!