Baby steps: postnatal running and mental health

There are many standout memories from the first few weeks of my son’s life: the first walk in the sunshine, the first time he met his grandparents, my first Mother’s Day card. But one thing I won’t forget is sobbing hysterically whilst trying to sterilise and assemble a breast pump, terrified that touching it with my hands would contaminate it.

There was another incident, around the same time, where I was trying to catch up on sleep one afternoon but (again) couldn’t stop crying. My eyes refused to close despite the exhaustion, and I realised I now hated my bedroom, once a peaceful and comfortable sanctuary but now strewn with screwed-up muslin cloths, half-drunk glasses of water, and piles of stuff that I couldn’t imagine finding the time to put away.

Remember when there wasn’t stuff everywhere

The baby blues come on suddenly and pass after a few days, says every book and website, and it’s a normal response to hormones. But it went on and on, up and down, some days wonderful and other days an absolute pit of despair and regret where I ignored my friends, snapped at my mother and resented everything. I felt stupid, incompetent and ungrateful, and even more so at 4am when alone with my thoughts. Social media was no relief, full of people’s achievements, or their hobbies, holidays and tidy houses. Night after night I sat on the sofa, wondering if I’d ever sleep again, and then deriding my own problems as petty nonsense, scrolling news websites reporting the rise of a new virus sweeping the world.

Time moves on and everyone’s lives have changed. My son has spent half his life in lockdown, seeing his extended family on a phone screen and being primarily entertained by me hanging up the washing. There are benefits, of course – everything is still new to him, so it doesn’t matter that we read the same books and walk in the same park every day. Zoom and FaceTime catch-ups with pals can be muted if he starts to cry, which wouldn’t happen in the pub. And my partner now works from home most of the time, which has good for us all and has been key to helping me return to running quickly and consistently.

I exercised throughout pregnancy and was lucky to have a straightforward birth with no complications. After a couple of weeks I was feeling physically good when walking several miles and was convinced that getting back to exercise would improve my mental state. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to everyone, but circumstances aligned – enough sleep, feeling physically ready, and decent enough weather – to get me out for a run 5 weeks after giving birth. Buoyed by cheering on Glasgow Frontrunners‘ Couch to 5km graduation run a few days earlier, I’d set no expectations, heading out on a 5km loop near my house that I’ve run at least weekly for the past few years, with enough hills to challenge me and enough traffic lights to allow a brief rest if needed. No longer sure of my physical capabilities, I was apprehensive, but I (slowly) ran the whole distance. For the first time in months, I felt like myself again; like all the extraordinary, irreversible changes in my life hadn’t altered my sense of self so much that running didn’t feel the same. There was still that freedom, that wonderful way that the brain fog clears with every stride.

Cuddles after that first run

It took a week or so before I was recovered enough or well-rested enough to try again, but each time got easier and I’m now running multiple times a week and working on increasing distance as well as pace. I’d entered a few summer 10k races which have all since been cancelled and although it’s disappointing, it would possibly have been too soon for racing and I would have been frustrated at my slower times. But with nearly three months of no running, and a stone and a half heavier than when I was marathon training, it’s going to take a while to get back to where I was. Talking to other Jog Leaders about their experiences and getting their advice has been very useful, and Jog Scotland’s facilitation of a Zoom chat as part of Maternal Mental Health Week was a great way to share stories and talk about the ways in which running has changed for us all recently.

Chatting to women who’ve been there and done that, or who were going through the same things I was, was useful to hear. In some ways, the current situation has made it easier for me – I can run when it suits me and the baby, no longer having to fit in with my partner’s work hours. Likewise when I return to work in a few weeks, I’ll be working from home, and making time to head for a lunchtime run as often as possible.

My mental health is still changeable; I can’t unravel the postnatal hormones from the stress of lockdown and that’s probably not unusual. I haven’t been diagnosed with PND or PNA, but my GP check-up and ongoing health visitor support have both been cut back significantly due to Coronavirus, like a lot of community health services, so for now I’m generally OK. Almost everyone is struggling a bit at the moment, and I am so lucky to have what I do and be in the situation I’m in. Most of all, I am grateful to be back to running, even if it’s slow and there’s no training plan or upcoming races, as it so clearly helps me. Getting out in the fresh air has always been a great mood booster and it’s even more important to make time for that now, whilst staying safe and appreciating the little things in life.

I’m here

It’s just 40 days to go until the London Marathon, and 70 days until Edinburgh. This week and the next are going to be difficult. Long runs and speed work stack up day after day, rest days and cross-training days are over far too quickly. Trying to fit enough running around work, family, friends and sleep doesn’t always go well, but it’s important to balance sticking to the plan and getting the miles in with listening to your body.

Most people who run – most people who exercise, probably – will tell you about the positive effect it has on their mental health. There’s something about those endorphins, or the sense of achievement from pushing further and faster than last time, that can often help with clarity, challenge negative thoughts, & just generally make you feel good. Or at least feel a bit better. Whenever things aren’t going that well for me, getting out for a run is usually the thing to do. Running in a club or with a group can make it even better, especially with JogScotland groups that have Jog Leaders.

JogScotland and SAMH work together to promote the mental health benefits of jogging, and the beginning of this year saw the launch of I’m here – a campaign to promote open and honest conversations about mental health. Participating Jog Leaders undertake specific mental health awareness training to increase their confidence to start and participate in conversations about mental health, and know where to signpost people for more support.

I haven’t done this training yet, but it’s on my list of things to complete in 2019. I have had some great chats with people when running, and I am so very grateful to my running pals who are honest and open about their struggles, both in real life and online. Short runs and long runs are equally good for motivational chat, whether it’s getting through that last sprint finish of a 5km, or a half way through a marathon training run when you feel like your entire body is disintegrating and your mind will follow. Company and motivation is so necessary in the difficult moments or when self-doubt sets in.

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Real talk: I don’t have an entirely positive relationship with running & it doesn’t always keep me mentally or emotionally healthy. I compare myself to other people too much, and get frustrated with my limitations. I don’t take criticism well most of the time, & I can be extremely moody if something’s not gone quite right for me (This includes at work or in other professional situations where that kind of behaviour isn’t appropriate, & it’s been noted on several occasions by colleagues.)

A bit of introspection leads me to believe that this is very misguided perfectionism – I don’t want people to think I don’t care or am not taking their criticism seriously, but this manifests as being at best, withdrawn & at worst, rude. It happens with running if I’ve not had a good run, and sometimes I can  get through it quite quickly but an other occasions the darkness takes over and it takes time to get back to me. I’m always willing to be honest about these feelings when speaking to other runners, particularly new runners or those who are struggling – it’s OK to be frustrated, even at something which seems fleeting or trivial. The I’m here campaign builds on the ethos of how jog leading and coaching is all about learning from each other and providing the right support at the right time.

Instagram’s great, truly. Three of my most inspiring follows are Jordan, Bethan and Penny. They’re all much faster runners than me but their drive, discipline and skill is extremely motivating & I enjoy their insta posts & blogs. But in the past couple of weeks, they’ve all posted about self-doubt, bad days and the effect this has on their confidence and motivation. I am glad when people are willing to share their low points as well as their successes. It can be difficult in an environment where everyone’s insta is full of motivational slogans, and everything must be about beating a challenge & training every day for hours and giving 110%. Life’s not always like that, and it’s easy to get caught up in other people’s projections of what they want their lives to be like. I panic about the mileage that other people are logging, or the weights they’re lifting, or the achievements of someone ten years younger than me, and I feel distinctly average. Knowing that everyone has a low point or several is a good reminder that we’re all human. Marathon training is tough stuff, and it’s fine to sometimes struggle with it. I listened to this episode of Jogging Shorts for part of the weekend’s horrible wet training run and it was a good reminder about listening to what you need.

Whatever happens in the next 40-70 days, I am going to try my best, enjoy every km & be happy for the opportunities I’ve been given. If I manage a pb, even better. If it sparks a desire to become a six star finisher I’ll need to get richer as well as faster, but we’ll see. I’m nearly old enough to move from ‘senior’ to ‘veteran’ category  (this in itself is not great for mental health…) – & I’m glad to be getting a couple more marathons in before this move. But mostly, I need to remember that I’m good enough.

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Old but a fave – always run with your squad