18 Jul 2017

Being an endurance athlete under the microscope

What pregnancy can teach athletes, both male and female.

So, the second trimester of my pregnancy has come and gone and I am now in the home stretch. For me, the second trimester was far easier than the first, however it did teach me a lot about myself as an athlete. I have learnt quite a few things that I will be implementing on my return to full training. I thought that I would share some of the things that I have learnt while being pregnant, because on reflection they are lessons that can help all endurance athletes become better athletes.

At times during pregnancy it can feel like your body and everything you do is magnified. Every ache, every movement, fatigue and so on all become more noticeable. This can be frustrating at the time, but it makes it easier to analyse what is going on and learn from the experience.

One of the things that I have noticed as the weeks have passed, and as Baby Forrest has grown bigger, is how differently my body can feel and function depending on whether I am actively focusing on my “core” and good posture or not. When I now run I sometimes get a few aches in my glutes and lower pelvis. However, the minute I focus on my breathing and activating/lifting my pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles I can run more comfortably as well as faster. This makes me think that this must be the case with non-pregnant athletes too, it is just not as immediately noticeable.

Our “core” is the foundation for all movements that occur in our body. Without a strong foundation our arm and leg movements become less efficient, less well controlled, and are likely to result in injury in the longer term. As a Physiotherapist, the majority of injuries I see and treat in endurance athletes are essentially self-inflicted.  Or to put it another way, they are completely preventable. Athletes need to spend time developing a stronger foundation (core) so that their arms and legs can move in healthy movement patterns. When I talk about “core” this includes the scapula and shoulder girdle, hips and pelvis, diaphragm (breathing muscle) and pelvic floor, not just the transverse abdominals and obliques as some people believe.

I have also been focusing on good technique with my strength training in the gym and I am also focusing on breath in conjunction with each exercise more than I have in the past.  Did you know that the pelvic floor muscle contracts and rises on each exhalation, while it relaxes and descends on each inhalation. It is therefore best to exhale on the concentric (usually most difficult) part of the exercise as this will drive the unconscious activation of the pelvic floor and also assist to activate the other muscles of the ‘core’. This is beneficial during all strength training and I have noticed that it makes my exercises in the gym significantly easier as muscles are unconsciously recruited to assist in the movement.

During pregnancy I have definitely been forced to run slower than I would like. I do think it is beneficial however to keep running as long as I feel comfortable, regardless of how slow it may be. The bones and tendons in our body are highly responsive to the load placed upon them, and consequently weaken in the absence of load.  Maintaining a consistent load will help to prevent bone and tendon injuries on my return to full training post birth. This is an important point that athletes often fail to remember. A 16 week Ironman campaign is often followed by winter sitting on the couch. Inevitably, on your return to training in the spring, bones and tendons will have weakened and may not be ready to tolerate the load you place upon them. You therefore have 2 options – maintain a more consistent load year round, or factor in the need for a longer and slower build up before races in order to prevent injury.

Something else that I have learnt while pregnant is that you really can’t fight your hormones. As much as I would love to stay in race shape throughout pregnancy, that just isn’t going to happen. Your body knows what it needs to do in order to properly prepare itself, and so it lays down some extra fat that is then used to help the baby grow in the later stages of pregnancy and also when breastfeeding.

As much as we all try to control and manipulate our bodies with training and diet in order to get leaner and faster I think it can be a good reminder that at the end of the day our hormones often reign supreme. If you are training hard or perhaps over-training, missing sleep in order to fit training sessions around work, or are stressed at work or home, then likely your cortisol and other stress hormone levels will be high. This is hardly conducive to good recovery, muscle building or improving endurance. Cortisol reduces bone formation and down-regulates the synthesis of collagen. It also negatively affects the immune system and electrolyte balance in our body, just to name a few of its roles. Don’t try and fight your body in order to get faster, be kind to it, give it the recovery time, nutrition and hydration it needs following training and it will get stronger for you.

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