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.

The end is in sight

Reflecting on 2019, I am feeling a bit melancholy at the moment. I think it’s pretty common at this stage, even though my physical aches and pains are still quite mild and my sleep has improved a lot recently. That marathon training cycle seems like it happened to someone else.

still here

I stopped running in early December, around the 33rd week of pregnancy. Keeping my heart rate low was becoming more and more difficult, and the pace was barely above walking pace, so it’s easier to just walk. Except up hills, they are now difficult. My hips and joints are fine so I don’t have to move to the elliptical yet.

Early on I was committed to staying at work until the last possible moment – I’m still keen to do this, but having the free time and energy to train & stay healthy would also be nice. Work is taking up too much energy, and logistical problems like no longer having a gym near my office have made training consistently a bit more difficult. Xmas is coming at a nice time for a break though. I’m a little envious of people who seem to have unlimited energy to do everything. End-of-year Strava stats don’t help

Although it’s interesting to note that I am at similar fitness levels to two years ago. This year’s training cycle was clearly better than I thought. But I’m getting serious envy and FOMO of everyone’s end of year mileage stats, winter races, 2020 plans.

Lifting is still good, though. I’m down to about half of my 1RM weight, and going for 10-12 reps per set of 3-4, usually doing a full body workout rather than a push/pull/legs plan. Barbells are also mostly out, so I’m reacquainting with the trap bar again.

After the birth, my ideal is to walk a lot, as soon as I can, provided everything is straightforward. I keep swinging wildly between panic that I’ll never leave the house again and over-enthusiastic grand plans to walk for miles every day to improve my mental health and cardio fitness. Realistically I imagine that somewhere in between will suffice, depending on how it all goes. The pram is good for walking, and might be good for running too in the future. The baby box arrived a couple of weeks ago (See my post here about unpacking) and I’m looking forward to giving the included sling a try as well, as it’s basically a weighted carry and must be good in the same way for your core and back muscles (I confidently strapped on a more complicated carrier at antenatal class and was swiftly told it was on backwards, which doesn’t inspire much confidence, but we all have to start somewhere…)

goals

But for now? I will miss Xmas Day/New Year’s Day parkrun, and mulled wine, and the good cheese, and staying up until midnight to see in the New Year. But there’s really no time at all to go now before my life’s turned upside down, and I’m determined to enjoy myself as much as I can regardless.

Have a lovely Festive break, however you spend it 🙂

I’ve stopped counting

(Inspired by, and complementing, this post by the excellent Penny as well as the countless tweets, blogs, articles and books that highlight & call out this sort of thing.)

When out running, I’ve been harassed by adults, teenagers & children. When in groups & alone, from groups of men & from lone men. Sworn at, sexually harassed, told to run faster, told that running is bad for you, told to cheer up, called fat, called a bitch, & fairly often it’s just random noises.

I don’t know any women who haven’t experienced this. 32 per cent seems a bit of a low figure.

Two occasions that stick in my mind are when it was from people in their works vehicles – & it sticks in my mind because I reported it to their employer both times. Did it make a difference? No idea. It’s not the sort of thing that gets followed up. Because it doesn’t really matter, stop being so sensitive, get over it, just ignore them.

Sometimes they don’t say anything but physically try to block your path or push you or make you jump. This is sometimes worse, & it’s difficult to not over-react when kids do it because the instinct is protecting yourself & it can happen too fast to tell. (I feel relatively bad about one time I decked a girl of about 12, but maybe it’s stopped her from arsing about & being an idiot to strangers.)

Again, I’ve heard a lot of excuses: they’re just being silly, get over it, they’re not trying to hurt you. But there’s a lot of articles like this one, about how to defend yourself when out running if you need to, which doesn’t quite fit with that attitude.

It’s often a difficult choice between an isolated route where I’m less likely to see anyone but generally less safe, or a busier route where sheer volume of people means harassment is more likely but it’s fundamentally safer. It can happen anywhere though. I do as much as I can to keep myself safe. I always tell someone where I’m going & how long I intend to be, or I send a link to Garmin Livetrack. I only wear headphones in daylight & on reasonably populated routes. I run with friends as much as I can. But most often, I modify the route I take, running down busier main roads rather than quieter canal towpaths, or going out earlier or later than I’d like. I change my behaviour based on the potential behaviour from others.

This does happen to men too, as Penny’s post notes. It’s something I’ve discussed with folk at Frontrunners a few times, & I know several men who have been assaulted or harassed when out running (or walking) who as a result don’t use certain routes or go to certain places. Part of what I like about Frontrunners is that we keep each other safe by default & I’ve been able to explore some more isolated routes on club runs, or run in the dark or the early morning & feel a bit more safe. But the entire point of running as an exercise/hobby is its simplicity and ease – I should be able to wake early & head out for a run before work, or explore a new area when I’m working away or on holiday, without weighing up the options & deciding how much of a risk to take.

People still make comments when we’re running in a group, but the increased numbers usually give us a bit more power. Sometimes it’s complimentary comments/supportive noises – and there’s definitely something about the dynamic of interacting with a group versus interacting with a lone (female) runner – but I will generally not acknowledge any type of comment because the tone is generally not the point. There is no need for anyone to comment on the activities of a stranger who passes them in the street, whether it’s positive or negative.

I don’t owe anyone my time.

As the Runner’s World article states, There’s no immediate, easy solution, because sexual harassment is a complex societal problem. But open and honest conversations about the issue—ones that include men as well as women—are a step in the right direction.

A good start is:

  • Don’t minimise people’s experiences. A comment or incident that could be shrugged off on a good day is completely different on a bad day. People respond differently and feel differently.
  • Don’t suggest things that women can do differently or change about where they run, what they wear, how they respond to harassment. I feel like this should go without saying but I have heard some well meaning advice that is ultimately misunderstanding the point. Being generally aware of your own safety is one thing, avoiding random hassle shouldn’t be necessary.

Yes, it could be worse. Penny’s post notes that this kind of thing happens on a very frequent basis and it’s easy to get used to it. The same day I started thinking about writing this post, this happened on Twitter:

 

Twitter for women, particularly prominent & well known women, is pretty much an endless trash fire on a daily basis, but I think anyone will struggle to deal with that level of vitriol. It’s the steep end of the scale, but it’s why dealing with the more minor end  is still important. “Patriarchy chicken”, as the New Statesman article describes, challenges the way that many men feel entitled to public space. Harassing runners is an extension of that, making women feel uncomfortable in a particularly vulnerable space & often preventing them from running when and where they want.

There is no immediate, easy solution. But there are conversations to have. I like to say it with badges & pins, mostly:

Badge from @penfightdistro