Why Athletic Challenges are Not Like Childbirth (Guest Post)

Before having experienced natural childbirth (by which I mean, childbirth without any pain medication), I thought that it could be compared, at least in terms of pain, to extreme athletic challenges. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about how, prior to giving birth, I thought that I could draw on my experience as an athlete and train for it.

But was I ever wrong.

As I explained, soon into my own labour I realized that all of my training (or better, “training”) was in vain. It became painfully clear to me that one cannot physically train (as an athlete would) for what one faces during labour.

That is why I was struck, this week, by a comment that Sir Bradley Wiggins – the 2012 Tour de France winner and London 2012 gold medalist – made after breaking the world hour distance record in cycling, a challenge that some consider to be one of the oldest and most difficult. Wiggins stated that his win is “the closest [he] will come to knowing what it’s like to have a baby.”

I do not want to deny the obvious: namely, that in breaking this record, Wiggins experienced a great deal of pain. Nor do I want to deny that this pain was extreme and extremely unpleasant for him. But what I do want to question is the similarity or closeness between what he experienced and what childbirth is like for many women (after all, how many women give birth in an hour?). I also want to question the claim that in having experienced the pain that he did that he came close to knowing what it is like to “have a baby” (by which I take him to be referring to the experience of childbirth).

Here’s where I think the crucial differences lie, and it is not where one might initially think.

The differences I have in mind are not primarily in the degree or even necessarily in the kind of pain at issue in these two types of experiences (although I do think that there are important differences there). Rather, I think that the key differences are psychological in nature and have to do with bodily agency, control, and the ability to prepare oneself (or in the case of childbirth, the inability to do so).

Let me explain.

In training for a cycling challenge (or almost any athletic challenge), one can do precisely that, namely train. In this case, one can get on one’s bike everyday, ride the course (or a similar course), and improve one’s endurance and time. One can train the precise muscles one will be using and one can train as hard and as much as one likes. Crucially, one can for the most part create in advance the very conditions of the challenge.

One knows what to expect and most importantly (although this is not what any athlete wants to consider), even on race day, should something not go according to plan or should one get injured or sick, one can pull out of the race mid-course or not even compete to begin with.

Labour and childbirth are not like that.

Very little is within one’s control, very few things can be done to prepare oneself for the kind and degree of pain, and crucially, if one decides that one wants to stop once things have gotten started, this is not an option. Even if one wants to forego a natural childbirth mid-labour, in many cases, that is not possible (depending on how far along one has progressed). This is because there are certain points past which an epidural cannot be administered, since it would not have time to kick in before the birth.

So in the one case, one has trained the precise muscles, one knows almost exactly what to expect, and one has control over one’s body; in the other case, none of these conditions hold.

The main psychological difference here is tied to the difference in agency, or better, lack thereof. In the case of an athletic challenge, one can set the cadence, push oneself further, or pull back if one has crossed the threshold of pain that’s just too much. Basically, one can turn on, off, or up the energy.

In labour and childbirth, however, this is often not the case.

For many, there is a sense in which there is almost a complete lack of agency, a sense in which one’s body is in control and is calling the shots and one’s will almost entirely vanishes. So whereas one can amp it up or turn it down in biking, one can do no such thing in childbirth.

This psychological difference between the two activities and the lack of control that many women experience in childbirth, makes me question Wiggins’ claim that in breaking the world hour distance record, he has come close to what it is like to have a baby. It is also telling that Wiggins’ wife – the mother of their children – did not respond to his comment. It is my hunch that she was not even asked.

Running From Mosquitoes (Guest Post)

I don’t know about your summer, but mine – most of which was spent on a lake north of Toronto, Canada – was not much of a summer at all, weather-wise. For the last part of June, all of July, and most of August the temperature did not rise above 30 degrees Celsius (86F) and many days, it barely hit 20 (68F). Most of July was spent under dark clouds and rain. Not ideal conditions for outdoor running (or outdoor anything, for that matter). Compounded with this was the rampant mosquito problem. This year they were positively vicious. Not only were they out in dense swarms, they were also quadruple the size much hungrier than other years.

 

But I was determined not to let this weather hiccup prevent me from doing one of the things that I love most, namely, running on long, winding, hilly, tree-lined country roads. The problem, however, was that I had to deal with these hungry little beasts. Rummaging through a closet, I found a full body bug suit, which included a zip-up over-the-face hood (see photo). The only part of my body that was not shielded by a dense screen of net were my hands, but the suit was large enough that I could fit my hands up into the sleeves, put the excess material into my fists, and be entirely covered. Zipped up, zipped in, and protected from the vicious pests, I was ready to go.

 

And off I ran.

 

Now indeed, the bug suit protected me from actually getting bitten. But even combined with some good old bug spray, it didn’t keep the bugs away. Few things are more irritating than the sound of mosquitoes buzzing in your ears and all around you. That high pitched sound is enough to drive anyone batty. So at my usual pace, I found myself running and at the same time flailing my arms around to keep the bugs out of my path. I must have been quite the sight. What I found, however, was that the faster I ran, the less the bugs bothered me. Apparently mosquitoes either don’t like, or can’t keep up with speed (probably the former since I’m not that fast).

 

I set out to go for regular, relaxed-paced runs where my goal was simply to avoid getting gorged by mosquitoes. But my July runs turned into impromptu interval training sessions, not in order to increase my speed or endurance, but really just to keep the bugs away. And it was a success (in terms of keeping them away, and maybe even on both fronts, but as I’ve written here before, I don’t track my speed).

 

What came to mind while performing this act was the last time I was forced to sprint against my will. In that case, the context was quite different. I was living in Cambridge, MA and it was winter. The temperature was sub-zero and I was dressed accordingly in my winter running pants, an over-sized windbreaker, a neck warmer that covered most of my face, and a large, warm hat. I was on my daily morning run along Mt. Auburn Street, en route to the river. I saw a man walking toward me. As I passed him, he gave me a penetrating stare and told me what he wanted to do with/to my body.

 

My heart started to race. I was horrified, petrified, and so taken aback that I just kept running, faster and faster, to get away from him as quickly as I could. As the pit in my stomach grew, I thought of all sorts of witty comebacks that I could have said, but of course, they came too late (as they always do).

 

As my heart returned to normal, I came to the point in my run where I turn around and head home. And on my way back, I saw him again: again, walking toward me. There was no side street onto which to turn and nowhere to cross the busy street, so I sped up, heart racing, all of the witticisms escaping from my mind. My goal was to pass him as quickly as possible without making eye contact. A part of me wanted to shout, but that would have required giving him a response (which is clearly one of the things he wanted) and more attention than he deserved, so I started to sprint, which I guess he liked because again, he repeated what he wanted to do to/with my body.

 

I sprinted home and never saw him again.

Alone on a quiet Canadian country road sprinting to escape the bugs brought this other involuntary sprinting exercise to mind. Both were obviously unpleasant, though while one is manageable and tolerable, the other is not.

 

One thing goes without saying: if ever I’m forced to sprint, I’ll take sprinting from bugs any day over sprinting from predators.

 

 

 

 

On Training for Labour…And Failing (Guest Post)

 

A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from http://cyclinguphill.com/hill-climb-photos/

A look at hill climbs through the eyes of a photographer. from http://cyclinguphill.com/hill-climb-photos/

Recently I wrote a post for this blog about my daily running routine, which I think of not as training but rather as a non-negotiable, necessary, therapeutic part of my life that allows me to function well. The minute I see exercise as training it becomes an added stress, which is the last thing I need.

 

In light of these strong anti-training convictions, it struck me as odd that toward the end of my first pregnancy, I thought that somehow I could successfully train for labour. As an athlete, this made perfect sense to me: labour is a physical activity, one improves at physical activity by training (physically and mentally), therefore, by training for labour, I would be able to improve my performance during labour.

 

This light bulb went off for me about five weeks before I was due. I was at the gym on the elliptical machine and the television was showing the Giro d’Italia, a three-week annual bicycle race through the Alps. As I watched these world-class bikers perform athletic feats of Herculean measure, I was struck by their focus, their stamina, and the fact that they didn’t seem to be flinching even while performing the most grueling (and no doubt, painful) of climbs. I began to draw certain parallels in my mind between what these bikers seemed to be experiencing in terms of pain and perseverance and what I thought labour might be like.

 

(Note: in keeping with my very hands-off approach to pregnancy and childbirth, I read virtually nothing about either so I had no expert testimonies against which to compare my own intuitions about what I thought it would be like).

 

What I did know was that I was in excellent physical shape for labour since throughout my pregnancy I continued my daily running and yoga routine, but with my due date quickly approaching, I realized that I had done nothing to prepare myself mentally for the pain. In order to prepare for this part, my doula recommended that I put myself in very uncomfortable positions (like sitting in a semi-squat position against a wall and holding it). But this and her other recommendations did not seem sufficiently challenging or painful to me (I like holding that position). As a marathon runner and as someone who is accustomed to pushing myself physically, I wasn’t worried about the physical pain as much as the mental side of things.

 

So my idea was this: for the month leading up to the birth, while at the gym doing my physical workouts, I would also begin to prepare myself mentally by watching world-class bikers pedal through grueling terrain. I thought that somehow by attuning myself to their focus, stamina, and perseverance, I could train myself to focus through pain.

 

Now for anyone who has experienced the pain of labour, you are probably laughing right now. And rightfully so.

 

But for a neophyte who had read nothing about ‘what it is like’, this reasoning made sense to me. And my dear partner, doula, and midwives were all so supportive of me in every way that when, very excitedly, I told them about my plan, they encouraged me and told me that they thought this was a fantastic idea. With all of my enthusiasm, I don’t think that any of them had the heart to tell me that training (or, “training”) for labour doesn’t quite work that way.

 

And so not only did I get my daily dose of Giro for three weeks (my son arrived a week early), but I also solicited videos (“bike porn” as one of my biker friends called it) of impossible climbs and unimaginable races to help build my mental stamina even more.

 

The one person who vociferously objected to my training regime was my osteopath. After having told him about what I had been doing and planned to continue to do he laughed to himself and responded with four simple words that flew in the face of my strategy and that also turned out, in during labour, to be the most helpful advice I received.

 

“Surrender to the pain,” he said.

 

He continued: “In the moment, that is all you can really do. If you try to fight it, you will be fighting against your body. Just surrender to the pain and let your body do the work.”

 

My osteopath – who specializes in pregnancy and birth issues – is a wise man, both in issues of the body and also in reading characters. He knew me well enough to know that I thrive when I am in control of physical situations and he had the foresight to warn me that this would not be the case in labour. When we spoke about labour and birth, and even leading up to these events, I did not want to believe him. I could not conceive of a physical situation that would so completely overtake me.

 

But during labour, I very quickly learned that he was right.

 

All I could do was surrender to the pain.

 

No amount of mental training could have prepared me for the pain I was to experience (I gave birth at a birthing centre where medical interventions and medication were not options). There was no sense in trying to “fight” or “power” through it, for my body was in control, not I.

 

(Here I realize that I am making a false distinction between “body” and “self” but there is a real sense in which during labour and birth, I felt a split between my “body” and my “self” in that my body was doing work that my self was in no way willing).

 

In the end, surrendering to the pain was what I did. It was the best advice that I received.

childbirth-15

 

 

On Being Kind to Ourselves and Succeeding in Physical Activity (Guest Post)

 

In line with Kate Norlock’s recent post on this blog that highlighted the importance of being more self-forgiving in the domain of fitness, I’d like to continue on this theme and discuss the way that I exercise with the hope that others will come to love physical activity (to whatever degree they do it); learn to be easier on themselves about physical activity; and at the same time, not give up on meeting their goals and becoming more fit.

Since I began university, I have been an avid runner and fitness enthusiast. I run 4-6 days per week and on days when I don’t run, I cross-train either by spinning, rowing (on a machine), doing the elliptical, and sometimes biking. In addition to my daily running/cardio, for the past five years, I have been building my ashtunga yoga practice seven days per week. Exercise is an non-negotiable part of my daily routine for which I am entirely unapologetic and I am lucky to have a partner who understands how important it is for me and who supports this. To many, so much exercise may seem excessive, but for me, it is what I need in order to function well in every other facet of my life (as a professor/teacher/writer, a partner, and a mother of a 22-month old child). In the last ten years, I have run 3 marathons and countless half marathons, but really, what I love the most are my daily runs, which set a rhythm for my days and for my life.

What many find odd about the way that I run, is that I don’t “train” in any standard sense of the term. That is not to say that I don’t push myself (sometimes) or that I don’t accomplish goals (I do!) or that I don’t improve (I definitely do). But I don’t train in any systematic or scientific way. And that is intentional.

You see, I find that in my professional life (which at the moment and for many academics, comprises a large portion of my life), I am always competing with others: be it in terms of getting a permanent job (which, after four years, I just did), getting papers accepted into conferences, publishing, etc. I find all of this terribly grueling, terribly tiring, and often, terribly off-putting. So exercise, and running in particular, is a way for me to escape from the competition (with others), the sitting, the deadlines, the stress, and the pressure. It allows me to clear my mind, to be alone, and to move.

As a trained philosopher, most of the things I do I do in a systematic and scientific way. Running, however, is perhaps the biggest exception. And I have found that I’m an anomaly in this way. I don’t read about running (although perhaps I should), I’ve never written about running (although this is fun!), I certainly don’t theorize about running, and I don’t even talk much about it. I just do it.

Although running is a non-negotiable part of my life, it’s not something that I track or chart. Often, when I come back from a run, someone will ask me: “how far did you go?” and to this question, I can only ever give a time, but never a distance. I never know how far I’ve run, only how long. Often during the week, I run for around 40 minutes, but some days I cover much more distance than others. On weekends, I try to run for over an hour. On days when I’m feeling energetic, I’ll run faster and harder and I’ll seek out hills; on days when I’m feeling less so, I’ll go at a slower pace on flat terrain. And that’s fine. You see, running is one of the only areas of my life where I don’t beat myself up if I don’t do well (that is, if I don’t have a “good” run), and if I do have a good run, well, all the better.

Now don’t get me wrong: just because I don’t chart my runs, or set out any systematic, training plan, does not mean that I don’t improve, push myself, or accomplish my goals. I remember many years ago wanting to run my first half-marathon. At the time, I was running around 5 days per week but I had never run for more than 35 minutes (but again, I had no idea how much distance I would cover in that time). About a week before the marathon, I pushed myself to run for 45 minutes. I felt pretty good afterwards and thought, “might as well try the half marathon.” The goal was simply to finish.

Race day arrived and I finished in exactly two hours. I was ecstatic. But what made me the happiest was that I didn’t pressure myself, I didn’t get anxious or nervous, I just did it at my own pace and let whatever happen happen.

For me, the most important goal of running is the daily enjoyment that I get from it. I know that the moment I start setting strict goals, if I don’t meet them, I’ll get down on myself, chastise myself, and feel like a failure. So the solution that works best for me is not to set too many extraordinary goals, but rather to just do what I love as much as possible and let the success naturally follow. Keeping up and most importantly, enjoying the daily routine is the goal. I know my body and I know what it is capable of. I know that many days it works really well and that some days it doesn’t, and that’s just fine. I also know that if I really want to achieve something, because I keep up a basic (and relatively high) level of physical fitness, I’ll be able to do it. Most importantly, I know that I’ll be able to do it on my terms, in my way, and in my own time.

When I’m asked how I trained for marathons, I say: “I don’t.” Now that isn’t exactly true, since by the standards of someone who does no exercise, my daily routine is a rigorous form of training. But for me, it’s just what I do. I don’t think of it in terms of training because the minute I tell myself that I’m “training,” it becomes stressful and it puts a kind of pressure on me (and I don’t work well under pressure). I don’t like to fail and especially with running, I don’t like to make any part of it unenjoyable. Setting standards (like, I must run X km in time T) and systemizing what I love would make it unenjoyable.

So in order to prepare for marathons, I continue my daily running routine, I do a few longer runs (an hour and a half run, an hour and forty-five minute run, and usually one two-hour run about 10 days before the marathon) but that’s it. And of the three marathons I’ve done, each time I’ve cut between 5-10 minutes off my previous time.

None of this is to say that I don’t push myself. I do. But my point is that for me, preparing works best when I don’t set specific goals, but rather when my goals are relaxed (run for 90 minutes at whatever pace feels good). This way, I can always meet my goals. This way, I can feel good about my body, my level of physical activity, and my success. I do know, however, that this way of running is not for everyone.

Ever since I was around eight, one of my biggest goals has been to do an Ironman. I have given myself ten years (from now) in which to accomplish this goal. I imagine that my relaxed way of preparing for marathons will not work for this particular and much more challenging goal. And that’s fine. Nevertheless, I hope to find a way of training that will continue to allow me to improve, to succeed, and to accomplish my goal and most importantly, to do so in a way that still allows me to take pleasure in physical activity and to feel good about myself while doing it.