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Are mothers better athletes? Science vs Experience

There’s no doubt all the world’s mothers have superpowers when it comes to feeding and caring for your little ones, one sleepless night after the other – but does it really give you extra athletic powers? 

Many times, I have heard that you get special super powers when you get pregnant, and that mothers have some kind of special force that helps them in their athletic endeavors. Can this be true? I am not sure, but I will share my experience in this post along with relevant research I could find on the subject. 

Changes in the body during pregnancy and post-partum 

Let’s first look at all the physical changes that occur in the female body when we are pregnant, during the birth and afterwards and evaluate if these changes could contribute to athletic performance. 

Increased blood volume: During pregnancy, women start to produce more blood in their bodies to support the needs of the developing fetus. It is measured that the total blood volume increases around 45%. In theory, this increased blood volume can potentially enhance oxygen-carrying capacity (similar to how blood doping works, when you simply inject more blood into your body). But blood volume only starts to increase from 18 weeks of pregnancy, and it is primarily blood plasma that increases (not the cells in the blood that actually carry oxygen). Several studies have debunked the myth of increased oxygenation during pregnancy to be considered performance enhancing, primarily because the exercise capability is decreased for other reasons when pregnant. Moreover, when the child is born, blood levels go back to their normal levels quite quickly and any benefit would be lost. 

Hormonal changes: a million things happen in the body when we become pregnant, and several hormones change levels. The female body definitely becomes stronger overall. Some studies have investigated whether some of these hormones whould have a performance-enhancing effect on women, but no notable evidence has been found to support this claim. On the contrary, hormones like relaxin cause ligaments to loosen up in the body during pregnancy to prepare for labor, which can increase risk of injury in some sports activity. 

Pelvic strength and flexibility: again talking about relaxin, this hormone can possibly make it easier to stretch and move freely. Also, after carrying around 30/40 extra pounds for a few months, you will strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. This can improve balance and coordination with the right exercise and recovery after birth. 

Vo2 Max benefits: this study measured Vo2 Max effects by comparing two groups of women during and after pregnancy. One group reduced exercise and the other continued similar activity as before pregnancy. Their results indicate that “pregnancy is followed by a small but significant increase in VO2max in recreational athletes who maintain a moderate to high level of exercise performance during and after pregnancy”.

It has been determined in various studies that pregnancy is putting the body to the ultimate test – the energy expenditure required to grow a child in the womb can be compared to running a marathon or ultra race. But although pregnancy demands about the same level of energy as long athletic endurance events, I think it is a bit naive to think that you can count on your pregnancy to stand in for your bulk training block… 

Asking mothers themselves, some athletes have reported positive physical changes after pregnancy, like Jo Pavey, elite long-distance runner, in an interview with The Guardian:

“I’ve always had problems with my blood sugar going really, really high when I race which makes me feel ill but that seems to have settled down since I’ve had children,” Pavey says. “And my menstrual cycle is also not as disruptive to my running as it used to be. It’s no longer encroaching on the whole month and that’s definitely helped especially this season. Your body definitely seems to calm down once you’ve reproduced.”

Mother’s mindset – psychological changes related to athletic performance 

Being a mother certainly makes you tough. One sleepless night after the other you keep showing up for the most important person in your world, no matter what. A few (too few!) studies that reviewed women’s experiences reported that many have translated this greater resilience, patience, and responsibility to their athletic careers and see positive effects in their sports from developing a stronger mind.

A study made on Slovenian mother-athletes (research conducted by in-depth interviews) found that the mothers reported reciprocal advantages between motherhood and their athletic careers and that motherhood can give a whole new perspective on sports: 

“Mother-athletes in this study show that being a mother in elite sport can result in reduced sense of athletic pressure, as well as in increased capacity to cope with performance stress and increased enjoyment of the athletic activity supporting the notion that motherhood can stimulate the athlete to become a more balanced person.”

The psychological pressure from loved ones towards devoting time to motherhood rather than athleticism and the huge life change that occurs when becoming a mother presented a big challenge to get back into sports for these women. But despite this, the mother mindset made these women more efficient, which could be seen as a positive development in their athletic endeavors:

“Participants recognized devoting less time for training; however, they demonstrated a more strategic approach towards athletic work, for example, by replacing reduced time spent on athletic activities with time being spent more efficiently, taking advantage of their obtained athletic experiences and knowledge, and therefore maximizing their athletic performance.”

Real life as an athlete-mother 

Now that we’ve looked at some facts and other mothers’ experiences, let me tell you about my own. 

Training and health is a top priority in my life, and even when becoming a mother, I could not imagine a world where I would not get out and move or practice every day. It makes me me, and I feel so much better when I’m an athlete. 

That said, I didn’t even want to think about exercise the first few weeks after my son was born. I have never been that exhausted in my life. I let myself take it slow, and got back to my regular exercise routine gradually. You can read all about how I got in shape again here.  

My son is now 1 year old, and I would call myself a hobby mother-athlete. I find time to work out almost every day. I swim 3 times, run 2 times and do a gym workout 1 time per week. Sometimes, I throw in a little yoga to calm myself down and stretch out. This is manageable and I can keep in good enough shape to train for a couple of fun Open Water and Swimrun races. I’m happy. 

Challenge 1: Total Training Time

As many mothers said, this stage of life does give you a much larger perspective on life. Every time I work out I have to choose between taking that time for myself and my health or spending that time with my husband and son. It is not an easy choice, because the time flies – especially the time you have together as it gets eaten by the time you each want for yourself for different things. Therefore, I do not want to do any 3-hour runs or 5-hour multi-sport sessions anymore. I am perfectly happy with an hour swim or run. My long workouts are 2 hour tops and that is once a week. I make every one of those shorter workouts count.  

I would say that this trade off between less training time and efficiency sort of evens out my training load. I train less hours, but I am so much more efficient. So in that sense, it has not changed since becoming a mother. 

Challenge 2: Recovery

The real challenge is recovery. When you have a baby, sleep is never guaranteed. With a few bad nights in a row, I can really feel my recovery declining and sometimes I have to take one or two days off just to cope and have enough energy for my day job. On the positive side – when my baby sleeps through the night and I also get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, I feel totally invincible the next day. But all in all, the inadequate recovery is a minus in the mother-athlete equation. Of course, you can have a totally different scenario if you get lucky and have a baby that sleeps unusually well. That is not Will…

Benefit 1: Perspective

As I mentioned above, being a parent shifts your focus. Sports become something less important in your mind. Being a mom is the most important thing, always. This limited supply of sports in my life has a positive effect though. I truly enjoy every moment I get to train and race, and really take full advantage of this time. I have always tried to have a relaxed perspective on my sports nowadays (after my elite swimming career) – it is something I do voluntarily and for fun. But motherhood amplifies this perspective and also makes me more relaxed and focused at races. It is hard to explain, but it’s something there. 

Benefit 2: Efficiency 

It’s crazy how efficient you become as a mother. When my baby naps or is in daycare, I’d estimate I get about 50% more done in the same amount of time. There’s no BS, just DO mode. This applies to everything: work, cleaning & cooking. For the sake of training, I make sure each workout is done well and for its purpose. If I do running intervals, it’s 10 min warm-up and a 20-30 min grueling set – it doesn’t need to take more time than that. 

Benefit 3: Mindset 

If you’re a mother, you can do anything, pretty much. Being a new parent is wonderful, but it’s hard. In comparison, life’s other challenges – whether it be a marathon or a tough work problem to solve – seem less daunting. I feel very powerful as a mother in general. And knowing that I have been able to grow a human with my body and walked around with 30 extra pounds on me for several months, makes me feel strong. 

Are mothers better athletes? 

So to answer the question: yes, I believe mothers are better athletes if motherhood were to be considered in isolation to its side effects. With the benefits of greater efficiency, perspective and mental fortitude you certainly can apply motherhood abilities to your athletic career and draw benefits from it. BUT, being a mother is often taking a toll on the body physically through sleep deprivation, which is detrimental to an athlete’s recovery. In addition, finding time to exercise and prioritizing it can be difficult. 

I think a professional athlete that has the means to hire a night nurse and a nanny, and is not working a day job has a good chance of actually improving athletic performance by maintaining good sleep and getting the hours to train every week. But for me, as a regular working athlete-mom, it is a challenge to keep up and I think holding a little bit more of a relaxed approach to athletic endeavors during the early baby years is a sane decision. With that said, I do plan to use my mom superpowers in every upcoming race finish, so watch out 😉