Smashing the ‘maternity penalty’

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Smashing the ‘maternity penalty’

Having a baby is not a game changer for female athletes, who return fitter, faster and stronger, writes Jessica Salter


Serena Williams has come back to tennis on top form after the birth of her daughter. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
Serena Williams has come back to tennis on top form after the birth of her daughter. Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Taking centre stage on Court One, with biceps bulging and brow furrowed in determination, Serena Williams thrilled the crowds at Wimbledon yesterday as she got back in the game a mere eight months after giving birth to her first child.

Having missed last year’s Wimbledon because of her pregnancy, all eyes were on the 36-year-old following the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia. By the star’s own account, it was a traumatic experience, resulting in complications that nearly killed her and left her bed-bound for six weeks. Responding with characteristic grit, she posted a defiant picture on her Instagram page (liked by nearly 700,000 people), with the caption:

“For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy — here you go. If I can do it, so can you.”

We’re not all racing round on the tennis court in a bid for Grand Slam glory less than a year after having

a baby, but Williams is part of a new wave of female athletes who are not just returning to their field after motherhood, but coming back stronger, faster, and more determined.

If it was once thought that childbearing signalled the beginning of the end of a woman athlete’s career, Cork marathon runner Lizzie Lee can testify that’s far from the truth. The 38-year-old, who ran in the 2016 Olympics, was back in training just six weeks after the births of both of her two children, Lucy, four, and one-year-old Alison Kelleher.



Serena and her baby daughter. Photo: Serena Williams/InstagramSerena and her baby daughter. Photo: Serena Williams/Instagram

Serena and her baby daughter. Photo: Serena Williams/Instagram

“Pregnancy can help a woman improve as an athlete,” says Lizzie. “For one thing, she has more blood volume, which increases cardiac output, and carrying around two extra stone for so long builds strength,so a woman can perform better after having a baby than before. It can totally be done, but I tell women don’t plan anything, or you’ll end up disappointed and frustrated.

“I ran for Ireland in the European cross-country marathon five months after Alison was born, but I was lucky because I had straightforward pregnancies, and both babies slept through the night after 12 weeks.

“I found myself more motivated and efficient in training after giving birth. My time was limited, so I gave it my all. And I was happier too. Having children gives you a sense of perspective. Little niggles never got to me, because I knew I was going home to my baby.”

But while she counts herself fortunate, Lizzie is conscious that things don’t run smoothly for every woman who’s expecting, and says the most important thing for new mums is not



Catherina McKiernan after winning the London Marathon in 1998. Photo: AFP/Getty ImagesCatherina McKiernan after winning the London Marathon in 1998. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Catherina McKiernan after winning the London Marathon in 1998. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

to put themselves under pressure during or after pregnancy, which in itself is the ultimate endurance challenge. 

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“You can’t plan pregnancy,” she says. “You might want a natural birth and end up with a C-section, and similarly, you won’t know how you’ll feel after giving birth. So take it day by day and don’t beat yourself up.”

Her view is echoed by one of the biggest names in Irish athletics, London marathon winner Catherina McKiernan, who also has two children, Deirbhile (16) and 12-year-old Patrick O’Reilly.

“I urge women to listen to their own bodies. I think it’s a good idea to get out walking as soon as you can after giving birth, as it’s good for you physically and mentally, but your own mind will tell you when and how much physical activity you can take on.”

However, the former international long-distance and cross-country runner says that in her case, motherhood marked a definite change in her career.

“I was 32 when I had Deirbhile and by then I had achieved nearly everything I wanted to in sport, and there wasn’t the same hunger I’d had previously,” says the 48-year-old who retired from competitive athletics in 2004 and now coaches people in ‘ChiRunning’ techniques for health and performance.

“Some people feel stronger after having a child, and perform better, but I had a lot of miles on my legs,” she says. “Once you hit 30, if you’ve been competing for the previous decade, the bulk of your career is over. A sporting career has a fairly short life span.

“I’d been so busy with running at such an intense level since I was 18, and now, 14 years later, I had a beautiful baby that I was besotted with. The same was true when Patrick came along four years later. I was very active through both pregnancies. I ran up to a few days before my children were born, and went back to training a month afterwards, but my priorities changed.

Being an elite athlete is hard work. It’s different from team sports. Physically and mentally, I had put a lot of effort into running, and I was looking forward to a change. Running had taken over my life. Now I had a new focus, with two children to look after.”

The youngest of seven, Catherina grew up in a rural part of Cavan, where she says there were so few amenities children were challenged to make their own fun.

“Now I live beside the Phoenix Park where I run every day and take part in 5km and 10km races. It’s a social outlet. I started running for the love of it, and I still love it.”

While motherhood marked a whole new direction for Catherina, having a baby does not have to end an athlete’s career, according to physiotherapist Mark Buckingham, who treats elite athletes at his Northamptonshire-based practice Witty, Pask & Buckingham.

Certain physiological aspects of pregnancy can even help athletes. As Lizzie Lee discovered, one benefit is the amount of blood pumping around the body, supplying oxygen to the muscles.

“Due to the needs of the foetus, blood volume and red blood cell mass increases during pregnancy,” Buckingham explains. “Cardiac output increases by between 20 and 50 per cent from week five, and all four chambers of the heart become enlarged, particularly the left ventricle, which can be as much

as 50 per cent bigger in the third trimester. Muscle growth can be seen as a result in training in high-level athletes, particularly in endurance sports such as running and swimming, as well as tennis players.”

It’s not permanent — effects begin to reverse from two weeks post-partum and can take up to six months to get back to normal — but it can give athletes the advantage they need during training, as Serena Williams will no doubt have experienced, with her return to competitive tennis this summer having been meticulously planned. She pulled out of the Australian Open in January, saying: “Although I am super close, I’m not where I want to be.”

Which is, simply, the best.

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