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Why Babies Are the Next Big Performance-Enhancing Drug

This month, Liza Howard ran the Umstead 100-mile race in North Carolina in just over 15 hours, setting a new course record for women.

She did it just six months after giving birth. And she stopped three times during the race to breast pump.

“It was my best race performance,” Howard said. “I was surprised.”

While most new mothers are simply struggling to keep their eyes open all day, Howard and a select group of athletes come back stronger than ever. Numerous anecdotes exist on recent moms turning in top race performances. Ten months after giving birth, Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon. Seven months after having her son, Kara Goucher ran a personal best at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Some mother-athletes say they feel fitter than ever after giving birth. Goucher said her legs felt stronger post-pregnancy because she’d become accustomed to running with extra weight. She also found her breathing was more controlled, and wonders if that could be a result of increased blood volume during pregnancy.f

“I just felt really good aerobically,” Goucher said.

Howard speculates that the forced distance running break she took during pregnancy actually helped her post-partum. Due to her training and racing volume, she often feels small twinges or muscle aches in normal years, but this time around she felt rested.

“I was not over-trained,” Howard said.

But despite anecdotal evidence from women such as Howard and Goucher, no real research has been conducted that can point to any physical advantages for female athletes after pregnancy. James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, has studied the exercise responses of women during pregnancy.

“You won’t find any studies because there aren’t any,” Pivarnik said. “Only a lot of very amazing anecdotes.”

For those select women who do set athletic records quickly after giving birth, Pivarnik can only speculate about whether pregnancy could have provided some physical edge. He’s studied blood volume before and after pregnancy and doesn’t believe the increase would last long enough after giving birth to give female athletes much of an edge. But the extra strain of carrying a baby during pregnancy might lead to strength gains after birth.  

“There’s also the feeling of ‘If I can deliver a baby, I can do anything,’ or other psychological reasons,” Pivarnik said.

And while Goucher, Radcliffe, Howard, and other elites make headlines with post-partum race performances, Pivarnik said that they are decidedly rare. Far more women struggle to bounce back athletically, Pivarnik said, but those individuals don’t make the news.

For Howard, her recent success at Umstead 100 came as a total surprise. She thought she’d aim for a time of around 18 to 20 hours, but ended up finishing in 15 hours and seven minutes. Howard’s 100-mile triumph comes after a moderately active pregnancy. She kept running short distances up until she was six months pregnant, and then switched to hiking on a treadmill due to lower back pain.

After the October birth, however, Howard didn’t waste any time strapping her running shoes back on. Her doctor instructed her to do absolutely no power walking for four weeks. So instead, Howard joined a 100-mile relay race and jogged her 25-mile leg. Her husband met her with the baby at the halfway point so she could stop and nurse.

“It was a slow jog, but it was jogging,” Howard said. “I felt no pressure or expectations. It was awesome.”

By January, Howard felt ready to race the Bandera 100K. She was so tired from being up all night with her baby, she took a 15 minute nap mid-race at an aid station. Even with the snooze break, Howard claimed second place for women.

During Umstead, Howard stopped and used her breast pump for 10 minutes three separate times during the race. Though the breaks could be seen as a disadvantage, Howard figures it wasn’t a bad thing for a run that long, as it forced her to stop running and sit down for a bit. 

Howard isn’t sure if the benefits of pregnancy outweigh the challenges of giving birth and coming back to athletic form. She’s still heavier than she was before the baby, and she often struggles with getting enough sleep.

But she feels more durable now than she did before giving birth. In addition, since she’s usually caring for a baby and her six-year-old, racing seems more like a break than it ever did before.

“When you have little kids, alone time is precious,” Howard said. “The fact that my race was pleasurable and enjoyable made such a difference.”

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Why a Downhill Runner Will Always Win Boston

As accomplished and legendary a U.S. marathoner as has ever competed, Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon gold medalist in 1972) never won Boston. In fact, he never even cracked the top three. On the other hand, the equally legendary Bill Rodgers won the Boston and New York City marathons four times but finished a disappointing 40th in the 1976 Montreal Olympic marathon. And since 2002, either a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won Boston—with Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai setting the course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. 

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t.

“Bill Rodgers was made to run Boston because he’s a downhill runner,” says Shorter, 66. “And what Mutai has shown is that he, biomechanically, moves in a way that allows him to run downhill really well.”

Biomechanically, downhilling involves greater ground reaction forces and therefore induces more stress on the tissues of the leg; it also requires less metabolic energy. Meaning, “the energy required to support any speed is substantially reduced when running downhill,” says Peter Weyand, associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness. Basically, figuring out a downhill pace that feels best for you is the best way to avoid wear and tear, and hence, fatigue.

Physiologically, the bigger you are, the harder you hit the ground. “Since the force at any running speed and incline is set by the body’s weight, gaining or losing weight will increase or decrease the forces on the ground and therefore also experienced by the tissues of the feet, joints and legs,” explains Weyand. “So, if all other factors are equal, being lighter would tend to lessen the pounding a runner sustains at any downhill running speed.”

One of the Boston’s biggest challenges is that its downhill sections come late in the race (the net drop from its start in Hopkinton to the finish is 400 feet), when the legs are more susceptible to stress-induced damage from all the prior miles. Weyand therefore hypothesizes that “the better downhill runners are more willing or able to absorb the pounding—or both.”

More willing and able because they train that way. “My training is very up and down all the time,” says Mutai, who feels it helps to have strong upper legs but whose training probably isn’t all that different from his Kenyan and Ethiopian peers. “So running on hills is normal for me.”

As it was for Rodgers, whose high school coach told him to lean forward and use his momentum when going downhill. “It’s also a time many runners assume is a recovery period—after an uphill—so strategically it can be a decisive move many runners do not want to follow,” says Rodgers, 66, who has always viewed racing as psychological as much as physical. “Breaking way is the name of the game if you’re competing, and in road racing, hills play a crucial role.”

Still, it’s not all psychological. As Weyand says, “The physics cannot be fooled—the ground forces involved are set by a runner’s body weight and speed. The faster one runs, the great the ground forces. The steeper the downhill, the greater the forces are at any speed.” 

Which is why Boston is so physically taxing. “Boston left my legs more sore than any other marathon course,” says Rodgers, who doesn’t see any particular body type as being better suited to hills than any other.

“There are so many grades and hills, but I saw them as key opportunities,” says Mutai, who won’t be running Boston this year. “Think of them in a positive light. As a chance to shift gears, and a time to run away from your competition.” 

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Post-Run Cookie, Anyone?

After that long, strenuous workout, nothing sounds more appealing or more deserved than some tasty treat, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Runners need to think twice before consuming calories that are going to burn their health in the long run.

“It’s easy to pick up a pastry or cookie after burning a thousand calories because it’s fun, you worked hard, and you want to enjoy something,” says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian with a board certification in sports nutrition. “But being a lean runner doesn’t mean you can eat eight cookies—you have to dose the poison.”

When you don’t, the results can be scary—even if you’re skinny. A recent study published in Missouri Medicine pegged marathon training to increased coronary plaque, likely caused by the dietary indifference of many runners. Every calorie isn’t created equal, when it comes to your health or to performance.

Until 2007, Olympic steeplechaser Anthony Famiglietti flat-out bragged about his junky diet that consisted of sweets, fast food, and nary a fruit or vegetable. But that year, when his body broke down and he couldn’t run a single mile without a walking break, he knew his diet needed a reality check. “You have to treat your body like the vehicle it is—like a car,” explains Clark. “You put the right type of fuel in your car before you drive it, so put the right type of fuel in your body before activity.” After replacing the stromboli with broccoli, Famiglietti found himself at the Olympic Trials running his fastest, and then posting a personal record in the Games.

But for all the press the Missouri Medicine article has received, healthy eaters can have issues too. When Amby Burfoot, editor at large of Runner’s World and a marathoner, found himself in the doctor’s office with sky-high coronary calcium numbers, the 45-plus-year vegetarian was shocked. “I’d always considered my health and my diet better than most people’s,” says Burfoot. “But with all the recent news about excess artery plaque in marathon runners, I wanted to check things out.” So how do runners approach what they put into their bodies and what they get out of it?

The answer is not clear-cut. But we do know—despite exceptions like Burfoot—that diets filled with fruits and vegetables and low on processed foods have been linked with the best health outcomes. The problem, then, is our desire to look for perfect solutions (while ignoring the fundamentals) and our unwillingness to stick with the pro-vegetable plan long-term.

Which is where the daily cheat comes in. Clark contends that up to 10 percent of your daily calories can come from foods like cookies. The theory is that if one cookie can help you eat that bowl of salad, it’s worth the sugar. That said, your cheat foods don’t always have to go toward that 10 percent buffer.

“People want yummy food,” says Clark. “But yummy food does not have to be bad food.” When rewarding yourself, she recommends that you focus on what really tastes good, instead of automatically reaching for artificially flavored and processed products. “Fix yourself a breakfast of French toast and eggs, or have a few spoonfuls peanut butter,” Clark suggests.

Running is hard work, and if you can’t earn the right to eat this stuff in the middle of marathon training, then when can you?

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