Sage Advice From A Marathon Mom
How I bounced back from Pregnancy and into Marathon Training
Spoiler alert: I didn’t.
I am a runner. Through and through, I absolutely love the challenge of a long run, a track workout, you name it. If it involves running, sign me up.
There are certain, undeniable truths that come with being a runner; I have little patience, I want fast and instant results and I like to push myself way past my comfort zone regardless of how badly it hurts.
I ran my first marathon in 2019 just a few months before the world shut down. I spent the duration of training for this with absolutely no scientific knowledge about running. I thought it was normal to be running six days a week, sometimes hitting 60 miles a week, going out there and running as fast as possible for every run. I was pretty happy with my marathon results, given it was my first one, but my goodness did my body hurt.
After becoming pregnant with my second child in July of 2020, I cannot count the number of times I heard “Oh, you’ll bounce back!”. Truth is, I was really worried about how being pregnant, having a cesarian section and caring for a tiny human would affect my running- not necessarily my body. But they go hand and hand and as my belly grew I found myself hyper-focused on what life would look like post-pregnancy, how I would return to my attained level of fitness and what exactly it would take for me to run a marathon- with a defined goal in mind- nine months after giving birth.
I considered myself quite lucky to be pregnant, seeing as how I’ve suffered with infertility for years and was able to conceive naturally. Not only that, but as an avid lover of all things running and fitness I was also able to maintain a decent level of fitness throughout 34 weeks of my pregnancy (something I was not allowed to do during my first pregnancy due to IVF and being high-risk). I rode 100+ peloton classes (shout out to Cody Rigsby for that) and ran 300 miles while carrying my baby girl. It was right around 32 weeks pregnant where I became too uncomfortable to continue running but was able to do some slow biking and walking.
Miss Carolina made her debut just shy of a month early in February, 2021.
Confession: I 100% was certain I’d walk out of that hospital and be able to fit in my pre-pregnancy jeans, feel like a million bucks and hit the pavement (once I was cleared) with the same speed and strength I had before. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Cesarean sections are no joke. I had had one before but as the saying goes, parents forget everything they’ve already done so they’ll do it again. This was certainly true for this. I could hardly walk for three or four days post-surgery (and because of Covid guidelines I was given 36 hours of hospital care instead of the minimum standard of 4 days), my stomach was swollen and looked as though I was still rather pregnant, and due to being muscular in my abdomen (this might have been the only time I wasn’t happy about having abs) my incision extended just shy of two extra inches on my right side to make it easier for my big baby to be lifted from my womb. Healing was a long, slow process and it required a lot of patience and a lot of grace. It also required a lot of sleep, and that was something I wasn’t going to be getting any time soon.
April 2021: My 1st Run post-birth. When I was cleared to return to the pavement at my five-week post c-section mark, I legitimately left the doctor’s office, changed into my running clothes and headed out for an “easy three miler”. I could run three miles in my sleep before and during pregnancy, how hard could it really be?
By mile 1, I could feel my heart rate skyrocketing. By mile 2, I had to dramatically slow my pace. By mile 3, I was crying and could hear my internal organs screaming “what the hell are you doing to us?!” My stomach was still wildly swollen, my second-round c-section scar hardly had time to heal. I could feel the lack of core strength through every step of that run. But there I was, seeking those instant results. I went home, cried more and told my husband that I was contemplating giving up running all together. Apologies for the dramatics, but that was the most logical thought I’d had after averaging two hours of sleep a night for the last five weeks.
My accountability bud looked at the analytics of my dumpster fire of a run and texted me to ask me if I had any idea what my heart rate had been. 207 bpm. He informed me that my heart rate had skyrocketed to a number I honestly didn’t know it could get to without imploding. I laughed about it, but he urged me to slow the hell down, and insisted my body and my pace would thank me later.
Flash forward through two months of mostly dumpster fire running with little regard to heart rate and proper pacing, Ken convinced me to test my aerobic threshold at the NYPD Police Appreciation run. I was told to lay it all out there and pace as fast as I could without fainting. I agreed to the challenge and ran at a speed that felt like absolute torture yet was still slower than my pre-pregnancy abilities. I’ve never been so close to throwing up at a finish line of a 5k.
Luckily my accountability buddy is a numbers guy and loves learning the science behind running (information I not once ever thought to consider three years into running) and he was able to really school me on the importance of pacing, heart rate, and all the details of an 80/20 training plan. With a marathon training season a few weeks away, I agreed to give it a whirl. Note: this requires checking your ego at the door and trusting the process- something you will have to remind yourself to do on a daily basis.
I calculated my proper HR zones and committed to running through my marathon training season referring to them as Bible.
I started out my marathon training running 12-14 minute miles, monitoring my heart rate to ensure I stayed within the proper zone. For track workouts, I could “push” into the nines, causing my heart rate to skyrocket. I focused a LOT on the recovery that would follow, monitoring how long it took for my heart rate to return to level ground.
I also learned the importance of strength training and stretching. In fact, I’d dare say those components are just as important as running during a marathon training season and beyond. Ken designed monthly strength challenges for us, which are great because they take up no more than 30 minutes of the day and can really be done at any time (insert me squatting while I rock my baby to sleep). Within the first month of marathon training, I felt a huge difference in my endurance because of strength training. I also wasn’t experiencing my usual nagging injuries like runner’s knee or planter fasciitis.
The irony of an 80/20 plan is that it is more a mental challenge than a physical challenge. Slowing down your pace is easy; accepting that you are now running at a pace- for the duration of your entire run where you’re fully convinced turtles can pass you on the sidewalk- is the hard part. It takes a lot of motivation to stay committed to a plan that feels so backwards and unnatural to what most of us are used to doing. But I committed to trusting the process, and I was all in.
Here are a few of the most important things I’ve learned about the 80/20 training plan:
1. There is no point in going out for an easy run and running well beyond your aerobic benefit zone. Through 80/20 I discovered zone X; a heart rate range where I am personally gaining no benefit from my run and welcoming more chances of injury. Turns out, I was in that zone for roughly 95% of runs before and during pregnancy.
2. Running in low heart-rate zones is beneficial to your endurance and your overall muscular skeletal health. Long gone are the days of wishing I could go to sleep at 11am or feeling like need to take an Epsom salt bath after a track workout. As for the larger training blocks, I now welcome the long runs knowing I won’t feel like a total trash bag in the hours or days following.
3. Running slower will help you get faster. I fully believe this to be true after four full months of following an 80/20 plan. I’m hitting paces I never thought I could during track workouts even before my second pregnancy and am maintaining paces for 15-20 milers I’ve never been able to hit for those distances.
I’m just over three weeks away from my second marathon and this time I’m entering it with way more knowledge about myself and my capabilities as a runner. Coming back after pregnancy felt like I was starting all over again, but it was also an opportunity to learn proper training to become a better runner than before. My life goal is to be able to do this, well, for life. I don’t feel like the same runner I was, but I feel different in positive ways. There’s a ton of factors that go into any race day that are out of my control, but whatever the day may bring I feel very confident that I’m going to hit my goals because of the work I’ve put into my 80/20 training. And if I don’t hit my goals- well I’m going feel good and have fun trying.
I look forward to doing it all again for NYC Marathon, 2022.
*Epilogue - Written By Ken Junior - Givin_It_A_Tri"
I first met Katie Bell through a friend at the Suffolk County Marathon event in 2019. We were again introduced at a Merrick Bicycle Tri Team AM Track Workout. Shortly after, the world shut down. Quickly we realized how close we lived together, and in a world of uncertainty, we developed our own running cohort. As people stayed away and life was hinging on uncertainty, we found normalcy in our early morning runs. Fast forward a year and a half, and I have watched Katie develop into a seasoned runner with discipline and focus like no other. She has been a huge supporter of the Givin_It_A_Tri community since its inception and we cannot wait to see what is in store for her in the coming months and years! Go Crush it in NYC!