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.

Well.

With two marathons out of the way  by the first half of 2019, I’d always intended a rest & a change in training after the plan was over and done with. I had no idea what kind of change was coming.
Finishing the Edinburgh Marathon with a glance to the finish line & the beginnings of a smile. Stressing afterwards about my slow time, which I’m now firmly pinning on the new knowledge that I’m nearly six weeks pregnant in this photo. I had absolutely no idea. After a very strange couple of months, it’s quite easy to look back now & think how could I not know.
Well, tiredness, nausea and hunger are also pretty common in marathon training & the days following a race. When my period didn’t show up I thought that was due to stress. I didn’t fancy a glass of wine after finishing Edinburgh but I assumed that was tiredness and sunburn. (The more I write this, the more it seems like classic denial…)
But something clearly wasn’t right. Similarly to Kelly, my heart rate was up for quite a few days after the marathon, which isn’t normal. My resting heart rate is quite low, but was still 10bpm higher than usual over a week later. It’s remained around that ever since. I am more obsessed with my Garmin stats than ever.
My menstrual tracking app sent me a helpful notification to think about maybe doing a pregnancy test. I put it off for a few days until realising I had social events coming up that would involve drinking so it might be better to know beforehand.
I took three tests over two days, & reader, they were all positive within what seemed like seconds. Like any millennial with questions, I immediately began googling & figuring out what the hell had happened  & what my options might be. I’ve never been remotely broody or maternal, but since hitting my thirties I had been sliiiiiightly more curious about the potential of children, as well as facing up to the reality of ageing. And always envious of those who seemed so sure of what they wanted, whatever it was.
I’ve discussed these feelings so many times with friends of similar ages and stages who feel exactly the same way – happy as we are, but apprehensive about the future and continually fearful of making the wrong choice. That’s not the same as specifically wanting to have a child, though, which has never appealed strongly.

Nothing like having the choice made for you, then.  Once the initial shock had worn off, which took a good few days, I surprised myself when continuing the pregnancy seemed like the right thing to do. The status quo usually appeals to me, although this has the highest of all stakes attached to it.
A few things happened, then: I tentatively went for a 5km run at a very steady pace, & enjoyed it. I stopped drinking coffee & the crushing tiredness set in & I had to go to bed at 9pm most days. ‘Morning sickness’ was more ‘daytime nausea’ & only relieved by constant beige snacks – mostly salt & vinegar peanuts and Babybels – but was luckily quite mild compared to some horror stories I’ve heard.
I read some good books & started drinking small amounts of coffee again. Plenty of other irritating early pregnancy symptoms appeared, but I’ve never done this before & there was always a vague feeling that this was some sort of elaborate joke, or my body playing tricks on me.

Then, there it was.

going from ‘pregnant, apparently’ to THERE’S A BABY THERE

So, yeah. Truly the next level.

The whole summer so far has seemed like limbo, & punctuated with fleeting thoughts of “I wish I’d known that was the last time I would do x/y/z/whatever”. I’m pleased that 2018 was so good in so many ways. I know it seems a bit fatalistic to assume everything will be less good from now on, but as someone who’s never had any broodiness or soft-focus daydreams of parenthood, it’s difficult to change perspective, & I really like my life the way it is. I’m apprehensively happy about where I’m headed, but there’s no void to fill, no emptiness, no desire for change that women getting older are supposed to have.

Luckily, I do have good role models in real life and online. Those I’ve known for a while but didn’t think their situation and experience would ever be relevant to me; those who I’ve recently discovered following this change in trajectory; those who are in the same boat, or have been, but I didn’t pay attention at the time. Reading and listening is good, especially now life must slow down & I am taking more time to rest & relax rather than prioritising exercise & socialising. I’ll never not be honest about how unexpected and unplanned this has been, because I have no idea how things will progress & how I’ll feel further down the line.

Right now, 4 months in, I feel podgy, bloated and hungry. I can still lie on my back comfortably & it’s only then that I notice a bump. Happily, I can still do my usual training, although running is slower & the weights are lighter. I am being sensible, taking advice from the correct sources, & getting used to rest days & naps in a way that has never appealed before. This time it’s serious, though. We need the energy. It’s not just me any more.
Change can be good. Except the change to decaf coffee. Twenty five weeks to go!

Week 12

Ups and downs, physically & mentally, but this week has seen a mileage peak and some good speedy runs as part of that. Didn’t quite split the mileage as the plan specified, but it all evened out by the end of the week.

 

Monday: Cyclebox for the cross-training day. Legs felt strong & weren’t burning during the cycling, which was good as I was hitting the levels each track. Left shoulder is still a little sore when boxing, which has also happened when shoulder pressing/push pressing/anything involving arms over the head. This niggle moved down my back over the next couple of days & was mostly fine when easy running, but I could feel it a bit when going faster. It seems to have resolved itself but back injuries scare me so I am keeping a close eye on it and stretching a lot.

Tuesday: 10x400m sprints with 2ish minutes recovery in between and a 1 mile warm up and cool down. Did this on the skillmill as my recovery time can be really variable and I don’t always want to faff around with the treadmill settings. Skillmill solved that, but 45 minutes of me being VERY LOUD in the middle of the gym was probably not ideal for the morning crowd. Worked for me, though, and the sprints were at a good pace.

Wednesday: Working in London, & the intention had been to hit up London Frontrunners for their Regent’s Park loop, as it’s my favourite run of theirs & my favourite social afterwards. The last few times I’ve been it has been too dark to take in the Primrose Hill views, so I wanted that. But circumstances happened & work was very busy & I would have struggled to fit everything in, so I moved rest day & went for dinner with my dad instead.

Pumpkin & sage gnocchi: nice work

I did get stressed again about changing the plan at last minute, but managed my expectations/got over myself quite quickly. Also made sure to turbo-charge rest day by having a very early night. Spending time with my loved ones was awesome too.

Thursday: 6 miles steady, & the impromptu rest gave me the energy for a bit of fartlek to keep it interesting. Needed the company & good chat of GFR to keep a decent steady pace, & it worked.

Friday: lovely rest Not a proper rest day, but kept the should-have-been-Wednesday’s 8 miles very easy. Ran home from work, with daylight & podcasts all the way, and I made it home before the rain started AND dinner was ready when I got home.

enjoying the lighter evenings too

Saturday: 7 miles, split into 4 miles easy & 3 miles of parkrun at race pace. Pleased with the parkrun time of 25:49 – it felt nicely challenging but not flat out, which bodes well for a sub-25 soon when I am less tired.

Sunday: The second of three 20 milers in this plan. Last time I did this it was livened up with a race as well as a hailstorm, but I was happy for this effort to be a steady plod and not feel too exhausted by it. Time on the feet is more important.

Apprehension for this distance sets in quick but the run turned out excellent, mostly because of the company and a good route through the Southside. I’ve not been very adventurous with running routes for various reasons so exploring some different bits of the city is always nice.

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team thumbs up

Kept a pretty good pace, slightly slower than what I wanted but there was a lot of rain & headwind so I’m knocking off a few minutes for that. Cake at the end, obviously:

Total miles: 45.6. I definitely have the energy for a 400 yard jog…

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On Sundays we run far

Nutrition: very good, even when travelling. Made aneffort this week to stay off the trash snacks, & it’s been good – lots of pasta and lots of protein. As always, prep is key.

I had no resolve when invited to Stack & Still, though I did choose the protein pancakes.

Exceptional pancakes

Feeling: good enough. Achy calf, shoulder & back at various stages of pretty much every run, but I stretched lots, slept well (although not always enough hours) & work was so busy that getting out & running was always a relief. Rooted to the sofa binge-watching Fleabag for a couple of evenings was good for resting too.

I got really down for a while on Wednesday when I wasn’t able to go for my planned run because of travelling for work, but was able to get through it OK. Being away from routine and home in a high mileage week isn’t good, but things improved. Mood swings are a bit too frequent at the moment, & tiredness is probably compounding it.

With 5 weeks to go, I also got new trainers. A few easy treadmill runs will be necessary to settle these in, but I am fairly brand-loyal & have never had any problems with Brooks.

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These are the updated version of my current shoes which have done nearly 500 miles. I like the colour the way these feel so I’m sticking with them. Great service at Run4it, as usual.

Next week is more speedwork and less mileage again, and fitting in more strength sessions will be good too. Meticulous planning is required.

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