When it comes to marathons I’d say I’ve had one “successful” experience-success defined not by the time on the clock but by how I felt during the race and after I crossed the finish line. All of my marathons have been a slow slog to the finish, the result of under training and improper pacing. Once I finally got a successful marathon under my belt I was sure I knew “what it took” to run a marathon well. No marathon is without difficulty and I certainly didn’t feel strong 100% of the time during that successful marathon, but I did feel confident that my training would get me to the finish line. And it did.
When I signed up for my eighth marathon my goal was to repeat that same training so that I could run the race with the same strength and confidence I had in my previous marathon. And I let like if I was going to train for another marathon, I was going to train for a PR. The only problem was that I was five months postpartum.
One of the biggest training mistakes I’ve ever made was training for a marathon in the first 12 months postpartum.
Many runners who run through pregnancy are eager to get back to training after baby, and I have been no different after each of my three pregnancies. But what I have found is that running a marathon in the first 12 months postpartum can have disastrous consequences.
My marathon seemed like a great idea because:
- I would be 11 months postpartum on race day
- I wouldn’t have to start marathon training until 5 months postpartum leaving me ample time to recover from labor and deliver and build a base without being rushed
- I was certain by then my third baby would be sleeping through the night by six months like his sister and brother did
- I’d already scheduled physical therapy with a women’s health PT and knew pelvic floor issues would be minimal
- I knew what it took to run a strong marathon and it would be tough, but I was up for it
On paper my plan seemed solid and was based on past experiences with my two other children. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from my third child in terms of sleep patterns and knowing how my body would respond to marathon training and breastfeeding. I hadn’t ever trained for a marathon in the 12 months after having my first two children, but I had run plenty of half marathons postpartum and felt ready to tackle a marathon. The only problem was it didn’t pan out according to my plan:
Despite doing all the ‘same thing’ when it came to our third baby he didn’t sleep through the night as we expected. In fact, he was still waking 2-3 times a night every night at 10 and 11 months old. I was up with him at night, rising early to get in my morning training and then spent the rest of the day absolutely drained. Not only was I not getting enough sleep at night, I never really factored in the energy expenditure of adding a third child to the mix of an already busy daily schedule.
And the problem with sleep deprivation is that its effects build over time:
“Those who aren’t getting the amount of sleep they need end up performing worse as the season progresses,” says Amy Bender, a sleep scientist at Canada’s Centre for Sleep and Human Performance. “Sleep debt accumulates.” (Megan Michelson, VanWinkles.com you can find more on sleep and athletic performance HERE.)
My body was being taxed on every level: I wasn’t sleeping, I was breastfeeding, I was running around after three kids AND I was training for a marathon.
Lack of Recovery
Sleep is the primary way that our body recovers from stressors like training. As volume and intensity increase over the course of a marathon training plan, it becomes even more important that an athlete get adequate sleep. Improving your own sleep can be simple. Take it from the pro’s, all it requires is a consistent sleep schedule, comfortable environment, and a quality sleep surface.
“Athletes who sleep less, like everyone else, may be more prone to injury or they may end up performing worse compared to someone who’s had good sleep throughout the season,” Bender goes on to say. (Megan Michelson, VanWinkles.com)
When you know you need sleep and you’re not getting it, going to bed at night becomes stressful. I knew I desperately needed sleep and I wasn’t getting it and that was making bedtime stressful. I in such a hurry to fall asleep that I had time relaxing and actually falling asleep.
Every workout I ran felt insanely hard, granted the workouts were hard to begin with and I was laying down PR times on the track and on the road but it felt so hard. “Most of the science suggests that athletes can still complete short high-intensity efforts after poor sleep, but longer endurance-based or repeated efforts are more affected” says Shona Halson, head of recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport. “For these longer tasks, it appears that the athlete experiences a higher perception of effort, so everything feels harder.” (Megan Michelson, VanWinkles.com you can find more on sleep and athletic performance HERE.)
Compromised Immune System
While training for my eighth marathon I was constantly sick. It seemed that I’d start to come down with a cold, my body would try to fight back and I’d recover moderately well, resume training and then be knocked back down with a cold the following week. I was constantly compromising my health for consistent training and it left me feeling rundown and sick. I battled bronchitis, an ear infection and continual cold symptoms. The rundown feeling lasted all winter long and even plagued me the week leading up to my spring marathon.
I wasn’t running very high mileage yet I was still suffering from overtraining symptoms: the week leading up to my marathon my resting heart rate was elevated by about 25-30 ppm and I continued to feel sick. I might not have exhibited the classic causes of overtraining, but the lack of sleep and lack of recovery had given me a very classic syptoms of overtraining syndrome and my marathon suffered because of it.
Going into my eighth marathon I didn’t stand a chance. I’d done the work, trained hard and posted a new 5K and 20 miler PR in the process. But the accumulation of lack of sleep, a compromised immune system and general fatigue had caught up to me. From the very start of the race I felt “off,” my breathing was labored. A pace that should have felt “easy” seemed inexplicably labored. I knew by mile three I wasn’t going to hit my PR time goal and as the race progressed my plans continued to unravel. I crossed the finish line, but I nearly walked off the course by the time race day came, I had nothing left.
The time and energy that goes into training for a marathon is extensive, and when you’re a new mom it’s even harder. If you’re eager to jump back into training postpartum you may want to reconsider those marathon plans and wait for a time when you know you’ll at least have a better chance at getting a good night’s sleep.
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