Does Getting Pregnant Make You Faster?

(Photo by Stewart Dawson/Wikimedia)

On Monday, the New York Times ran an article on elite track athletes who have had kids mid career. Anecdotally, the Times story presented a mixed picture: Kara Goucher is running well after giving birth in September, and high jumper Chaunte Lowe is struggling.

I've always assumed that the question of whether to postpone childbirth was a tradeoff between a very legitimate concern for a runner's performance and a very legimate desire to have a child at a reasonable age.

But it occured to me that I know almost nothing about how pregnancy affects elite distance runners. Does the tradeoff exist as I imagined it? Do women who have children end up slower?

I had guessed yes, to both questions: After all, women are less able to train and compete in the later stages of pregnancy and for several weeks following childbirth. That means a forced absence from competitive racing at the height of both their speed and earning power. (The tradeoff is striking in the business world, where women's earnings begin to fall behind men's around age 31. Not coincidentally, that's also the median age for childbirth among college-educated women in the United States.)

On the other hand, physiologists have noted that hormonal changes following pregnancy may allow some women to train harder. It's also possible that extended rest allows a type-A runner time to heal and recover.

The real question, though, is whether women who give birth mid-career ever again return to their pre-pregnancy levels of competition. My gut reaction was "no."

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