Thursday, March 23, 2017

Children and distance running: the running dad's dilemma...

This one's for all you new dads and Mom's out there still struggling to find balance a midst that special kind of chaos that is parenthood. (It's important for me to state that I LOVE being a father and wouldn't trade it for a 2-hour marathon, this is simply a chronicle of my adaptations to the experience of being a father)

My son was born on Christmas morning in 2013. His birth came smack in the middle of probably the best training segment of my life. In the fall before he was born I ran the fastest marathon of my life, followed by the fastest road 5k of my life. Mixed in between were workouts that I could scarcely believe I was running, I felt immortal and it seemed like everything was finally falling into place. When our little guy came home with us we had the normal disruptions: lack of sleep, adjustments to daily life. However my wife really couldn't resume running for quite a while after he was born, so the only running schedule on the fridge was mine. And I benefited greatly. PR's in the mile,3k, 5k, 10k, and 10mile. It. Was. Awesome. Then things started to change...

I had just run a pretty significant PR in the 5k and was really excited for what summer was going to bring. As a coach I have the luxury of a 10-month contract which leaves my summers 'open'. I typically work some but not a full-time amount. With plenty of time to train and race I figured I was heading into the 'golden age'; PR's every weekend, race victories and endless good times... Many of you who have been through the early years of parenting are undoubtedly reading this with a knowing shake-of-the-head. What I was to soon to discover was that while the life changes in the first month or two of our infants life were relatively easy to absorb - as the child needed less and less sleep, it needed exponentially more attention. Coinciding with this development was my wife's return to work, meaning additional time commitment from me - picking our son up from the babysitter's, being in charge after work, putting him to bed, helping out more with daily household tasks so my wife could take advantage of nap-times, etc. By the time we moved into our first house that fall and stood at the foot of a mountain of home-improvement projects (which my DIY nature simply couldn't bear contracting for) I was in full running-despair. I had spent the summer riding the time-management roller-coaster and after watching my fitness slowly evaporate I had pretty much given up on it all-together. It was not a good feeling and I'll admit I was a little depressed about it. I spent more than a few hours wondering why couldn't I seem to maintain a groove the way I had earlier? Eventually it dawned on me: as a married man with no children I could easily follow the advice I always gave my athletes - to live like a clock. I got the same amount of sleep every night, woke up at the same time every day, ran at the same times, ate at the same times - in the same amounts, and just basically had a VERY predictable routine. Having a child changed everything, but not immediately. Initially things were still predictable. Then as Everett grew and, as I said, required more attention the daily routine subtly became less and less predictable. The energy demands varied drastically day-by-day and while previously I could count on a certain amount of time to full-recovery, there are no recovery guarantees now. Energy, mood, motivation - these all fluctuate much more now than they ever did prior to having children and it can be frustrating to feel like you're getting into a good rhythm again only to have life interrupt your climb back to the top.

So is it all over now? Is parenthood where fitness goals come to die? I'm happy to tell you that it is not. You may have to adjust to a less predictable daily schedule, and you may have to acclimate to getting less sleep, and eating when you can rather than having a regimented meal schedule - but if you learn how to work with your new schedule instead of trying to cling to the old regime you can still forge new fitness gains. One aspect of having children which most people complain about but that as distance runners we should appreciate is that kids push you to your limits and you can watch in real-time as those limits expand. I don't panic anymore if I get a less-than-ideal amount of sleep the day or week before a race. Whereas before having children I would devote months of training to very specific races, having children has randomized my racing schedule. I no longer plan for races months in advance, but take advantage of them as they come, sometimes making a morning-of decision to race. The results have been mixed, but I'm pretty sure I've been racing more often since having kids and that is something I love to do. A bonus effect of having children is that I've been able to watch the running spark reignite in my wife. Seeing the sacrifices she has been willing to make for our kids is totally inspiring. She never stopped loving running, but she hung up her running shoes during and immediately after her pregnancies and has picked right back up where she left off. She gives me hope that although the demands of life cause us to adapt and grow, that's one thing we as humans do very well.

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