by Jennifer Szende
I am a recreational climber. I bouldered through both of my pregnancies. As my pregnancy advanced, I gained weight and muscle mass in proportion to each other, or so it seemed at the time. My center of gravity shifted forwards, and my body shape pushed me farther away from the wall, but I was still able to move my body in this familiar way, in a familiar setting, even as my body became less and less familiar. I primarily shifted to traversing (climbing sideways, rather than upwards), and I down climbed rather than jumping on the few (very easy) vertical bouldering problems that I still felt comfortable on.
My first pregnancy was in parallel with Beth Rodden’s pregnancy, so from my second semester onwards, I was following her blog for posts about climbing when pregnant, and fortnightly interviews with climbers and mountaineers about their pregnancy experiences. The interviews gave me some previews of what postpartum climbing or climbing with kids might be like. I read about professional and amateur climbing mothers from around the world, and the variety of ways that climbing became part of their postpartum and family life. It gave me a little preview of the different ways that it might be difficult, but might still be possible to keep climbing once I had kids. The differences and diversities were as important as the similarities.
Even so, I was still surprised to experience a complete loss of technique and muscle tone postpartum, with both of my pregnancies. My climbing gym had a mother and baby climbing group with an instructor, which was a very positive experience for me, but essentially required me to learn how to climb all over again with what felt like a third unfamiliar body. Although I had climbed all through my pregnancy, I still experienced a significant loss of core and ab strength. Basically, stretching your abdominals outward for a prolonged period of time, or adding a substantial amount of weight that sits on your pelvic floor, changes those muscle groups one way or another. Climbing postpartum was difficult in unexpected ways. In terms of the logistics of climbing, there were two primary changes:
(1) I couldn’t use lower abs to raise my legs, especially on an overhanging climb, and
(2) I found it difficult to use core strength to keep myself on the wall.
Essentially, I had to learn how to climb with yet another new body (although this time it was on very little sleep and a base level of constant exhaustion). I found some resources to help me out. Beth Rodden’s postpartum posts continued, and chronicled her very difficult postpartum recovery. The relevant part of the blogosphere has grown in the past several years, and I think this advice is really sensible. Especially this: keep making plans, and keep trying, because “The more times you try, the more times you will actually get some climbing done”.
Here are some of the techniques that my mom and baby climbing class helped me develop:
- Concentrate on volume rather than difficulty to begin with. I would aim to climb all of the easy climbs in the gym (V0 and V0- especially), and potentially climb them twice.
- Climb as many (easy) problems as possible within a very short timer (e.g. 5 minutes) then do active rest for longer (7 minutes), and you will avoid ‘cooling down’ between climbing reps.
- Reps on an easy climb (up and down) to build endurance.
- Do some core and conditioning during rest periods (e.g. plank for 1 minute, V-sits, squats holding a baby, wall sits for 1 minute, piston squats, etc). Or, just do some kegels, if that works for you.
- Mostly ignore overhanging problems until other techniques are back, although using overhanging problems for lower ab workout (basically reps of hang from straight arms and try to raise one or both legs) was a way to check in with conditioning.
Somewhere along the way, I read and heard about a number of people who took parental leave trips to climbing destinations. Two or three families in my climbing circle did extended road trips through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Colorado, Utah, California, and other climbing destinations in the US. My partner was able to take an extended parental leave, and we ended up spending most of it in a series of climbing destinations. The highlight was spending nearly 2 months in Fontainebleau with an 8-9 month old, and it was motivating from the moment we booked the flight. Climbing with a baby in Font is such an absolute delight. (It was also an excellent lesson in comparative European parental leave policies.) There are guidebooks that rate climbing areas around Fontainebleau by stroller friendliness, list rest day activities by children’s ages, and highlight gites with high chair and crib availability. It was such a delight, in fact, that we have been back to Font 3 more times over the last several years, and we are not alone.
I think, essentially, that climbing postpartum made me feel like I was part of a community much more so than any other postpartum activity I did. I attended mom and baby yoga, caregiver and baby story time at the library, and a couple of different parent and baby community health groups. But climbing was the one where I felt the most connected to the other adults in the group. And, it turns out, that climbing with kids has given me access to another supportive community.
Jenny Szende is a philosopher, writer, climber, cyclist, and mother based in Toronto.