Does Getting Pregnant Make You Faster?

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(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.”

Still, I looked up results for ten world-class runners who have taken time to have a child, then organized the results pre and post pregnancy. What I found is below.

To my surprise, six (or maybe seven) of the ten women I looked up have raced significantly faster following the birth of their first child than they ever did earlier in their careers.

Lest readers draw any firm conclusions, I would caution that my sample isn't perfect. I may have remembered only those women who sucessfully returned to racing and forgot about those who were unable to. But I'd be thrilled to learn that the tradeoff between career and family—at least for runners—isn't what I imagined.

–Peter Vigneron

Deena Kastor, daughter Piper born February 2011 (age 38)
Pre pregnancy: Olympic bronze, bests 14:51 (5,000), 30:50 (10,000), 2:19 (marathon)
Post pregnancy: Good question.

Kara Goucher, son Colt September 2010 (age 32)
Pre pregnancy: World 10,000 bronze medal, bests of 14:55 (5,000), 30:55 (10,000), 1:06 (half marathon), 2:25 (marathon)
Post pregnancy: fifth at Boston Marathon, second at USATF 10,000. Bests of 31:16 (10,000), 1:09 (half marathon), 2:24 (marathon)

Paula Radcliffe, daughter Isla born January 2007 (age 36)
Pre pregnancy: Two world XC titles, bests of 14:29 (5,000), 30:01 (10,000), and 2:15 (marathon)
Post pregnancy: 2007, 2008 NYC marathon champion, best marathon of 2:23:09
Radcliffe also gave birth to a son Raphael in September 2010. She has raced only once since then, a sub-par 33-minute 10K in May.

Shayne Culpepper, son Cruz born April 2002 (age 28)
Pre pregnancy: 2000 Olympian. Bests of 4:08 (1,500), 9:17 (3,000) and 15:31 (5,000)
Post pregnancy: 2004 Olympian, bronze medal world indoor championships. Bests of 4:05, 8:54, and 15:01

Sara Vaughn, daughter Ciara born September 2006 (Age 20)
Pre pregnancy: 4:58 (mile)
Post pregnancy: 2:03 (800), 4:11 (1,500)

Florence Kiplagat, daughter Aisha March 2008 (age 21)
Pre pregnancy: world junior silver medal, bests of 4:09 (1,500) 14:40 (5,000), 31:06 (10,000)
Post pregnancy: World XC, half marathon champion, bests of 14:40 (5,000) 30:11 (10,000) 1:07 (half marathon)

Magdalena Lewy Boulet, son Owen born May 2005 (age 34)
Pre pregnancy: bests of 32:40 (10,000) 1:15 (half marathon) 2:30 (marathon)
Post pregnancy: 2008 Olympic team, bests of 31:48 (10,000), 1:11:46 (half marathon), 2:26 (marathon)

Carrie Tollefson, daughter Ruby Anne born April 2010 (age 33)
Pre pregnancy: 2004 Olympic team, bests of 4:27 (mile), 8:44 (3,000), 15:04 (5,000)
Post pregnancy: Not much, but Tollefson has dealt with major injury problems since 2004.

Derartu Tulu, daughter Tsion, born in 1998 (age 26)
Pre pregnancy: Olympic gold medal, bests of 14:50 (5,000), 31:08 (10,000), 1:08 (half marathon), 2:30 (marathon)
Post pregnancy: Olympic gold medal, NYC Marathon title, bests of 14:44 (5,000), 30:17 (10,000), 2:23 (marathon)

Colleen De Reuck, daughter Tasmin born 1994 (age 30)
Pre pregnancy: Half marathon best of 1:08
Post pregnancy: Two Olympic teams, a world 10-mile record, and a 2:26 marathon.

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