By Sarah True, Olympian triathlete & Ironman
What does holding a screaming newborn have in common with racing an Ironman? On the surface, the two experiences seem to have no overlap. And yet, to my surprise, doing one has absolutely prepared me for the other.
Prior to giving birth to my first child, I assumed that my background as a professional triathlete would be most helpful during pregnancy and labor. I approached pregnancy like training for a major race: I spent 10 months focused on being prepared for the physical demands of my growing baby, the exertion of delivery, and the postpartum recovery. Instead of exerting myself to achieve a race outcome, my focus was on staying fit and fueled for an easier pregnancy and a healthy baby.
And while my athletic background may have helped me with the process and recovery, there’s been a far greater positive impact on managing the stressors of life with a newborn. While we’re fortunate to have an easygoing baby, any child introduces a new set of daily challenges. I’m constantly discovering new and unexpected applications for lessons learned through sport, but here are a few that have been most useful in recent months:
Discomfort isn’t forever. When I’m in the midst of a particularly rough patch in a hard training session or race, I repeat the mantra “This too shall pass.” It helps me to remember that the physical discomfort that I’m experiencing is temporary; even the worst physical sensations will not last. Life with a baby has similar rough patches, whether it’s a sleepless night or the surprisingly loud shrieks of a tiny human. Picturing the discomfort as a wave makes such moments more manageable.
Focus on the basics. In sport, it is really tempting to fixate on all of the details. From all of the possible exercises and drills to the range of recovery modalities to the multitude of gear options, the small aspects of sports are seemingly endless and can be overwhelming. Instead of placing too much attention on these details, however, I try to focus on what makes the biggest difference. Nailing the basics leads to consistency over time and minimizes unnecessary anxiety. For both a baby and an athlete, the basics are the same: good sleep, food, exercise, mental stimulation, and support.
Stay mindful. Much of the anxiety that athletes experience comes from playing out hypothetical situations or fixating on things that are out of our control. By staying present in the moment and mindful, it is easier to filter out the mental noise and focus on the task at hand. Paying attention to how I’m racing is more productive than jumping ahead to possible race outcomes. Likewise, staying in the moment allows me to appreciate my baby as he is, rather than excessively worrying about future developmental stages. (That said, why do they grow so quickly?!)
Humility is powerful. When I was a younger athlete, I felt shame about how little I knew about the sport and was loathe to admit my ignorance. It took me years to recognize that such a mindset impeded my development. By opening myself up to what I didn’t know and seeking help from others, I reached a new level as an athlete. As a new mom, I’m constantly learning and approaching the role with humility. I don’t know what I’m doing and that’s to be expected — I’ve never been a mother before, after all! I will never be an expert, but I will learn more, especially if I continue to stay receptive to information and receive help when needed.
Keep perspective. As a professional athlete, I take my career seriously but I don’t try to take myself too seriously. Even if sport is my passion and my income, I am just running around in a bathing suit for my job, after all. Keeping everything in perspective and having a sense of humor helps keep my ego in check during the easy times and bolsters me during the rough patches. When I start to worry about my parenting, I try to think in a larger scale than my own household. If I can’t see a blow-out diaper as a source of humor rather than stress, it’s time to recalibrate.
There’s no question that being an athlete has made the past few months easier. When we think about the benefits of exercise, most of us normally focus on the physical: how it affects our cardiovascular system, improves our muscle and skeletal strength, and the impact on our overall health. What often gets overlooked is something just as important: being an athlete has the potential to shape how we react and respond to life stressors. Does being an athlete help me pick up and carry a growing kiddo without too much strain? Sure! But more importantly, being an athlete has given me the mental skills to cope with challenges, whether on the race course or in the nursery.
Follow Sarah True on Instagram for more on balancing life as a professional athlete and new mom.