by Christine Avelar
Ladies (and gentlemen interested in the info for their ladies), this has been a tough blog to write.
Every time I sat down and wrote anything, I quickly got overwhelmed and deleted it. Everyone’s post-partum journey is hard in different ways—and many of the same ways. I’m in no way unique in my struggle, but sometimes I felt alone and hopefully sharing what I went through can help someone else feel like what they’re not alone, what they’re going through is common. I wanted to write “normal” there instead of “common,” but it feels like we shouldn’t be normalizing what this is like. Maybe if more of us spoke up about the urinary incontinence and ligament and joint changes and post-partum depression and sexual health challenges, then we all might get help sooner.
I also don’t have the luxury of putting my daughter in daycare while I train. We don’t have family in the area to help; it’s just my husband and I. That means finding harmony between taking care of ourselves and meeting our family’s needs is a constantly evolving art form that we, as parents, must maintain—for our health and and to set an example to our kids that we have worth too.
The biggest hurdle in my recovery and return to training has been post-partum urinary incontinence. I think this is more of an athlete-to-athlete conversation, because my incontinence is not something someone who isn’t as active would notice. I can do most things without experiencing it, except running.
At first, it would be immediate when I ran. It got slightly better over time, so that I would get maybe 10 min into a run before I would urinate on myself. I always wore tri shorts or capris while running and I didn’t realize how bad it was until the first time I tried to wear running shorts. I was on the treadmill at the gym on my lunch break from work and my thin running shorts were soaked within a few minutes. I was so mortified, I ended my work out. And that was still about six months post-partum.
I started asking around in some women-specific forums on Facebook. Everyone pointed me in the direction of pelvic floor physical therapy. Wait, what? I’d never heard of pelvic floor physical therapy despite my regular post-partum checkups with my OB/GYN and my complaints about the problem. All I had been told was it’s a “normal” post-partum complication and it would improve. At this point, I went to my general practitioner and he immediately referred me for pelvic floor PT.
So ladies, advocate for yourselves! Ask other women if you’re not sure, even if your doctor tells you it’s “normal.” After months of PT, I recovered to the point where I could run 30-40 minutes without urinating. I recently had my yearly check up with my OB/GYN and she is referring me to a surgeon for further evaluation and possible bladder sling surgery. I love running and it’s a huge bummer I can’t do it without peeing on myself. I’m not necessarily stoked to have surgery, but I want to be able to run again.
My second struggle was that I think I tried to come back to triathlon too soon. I was signed up for Cabo 70.3 five months post-partum, because I thought I could be one of those women who was back at full speed after only a couple of months. My body unfortunately had different capabilities than my mind.
My body did not want to lose the pregnancy weight and so I felt sluggish and run down. As a result, I didn’t enjoy exercising and would dread some sessions because I knew how terrible I would feel. I think this also had some to do with the fact that having a new baby is freaking exhausting! And piling on by trying to train and race like I did two or three years ago was a recipe for anxiety and disappointment. In retrospect, I wish I had taken it a little slower and been more patient with myself and my body.
Finally, I just want to mention a little about post-partum mental health. I didn’t have post-partum depression, per se, but I did have regular old depression. I’ve battled it my entire life and only in the last few years when I’ve found talk therapy and medications have I really felt like I’m living better.
After giving birth, I fell into the trap of pushing myself into being who I was prior to being a mother. To some degree that’s good, you should stay true to you, but on the other side of the coin is the reality that you and your life will never be the same. I couldn’t accept that, and for a long time I tried to fit my little girl into my life without giving in a little too. I couldn’t understand why I was technically sleeping the same amount as when I worked full-time and raced professionally, but I seemed so much more exhausted. I mean, I was just staying home all day, so why couldn’t I keep training like before?
But the mental energy you’re using when you have a baby at home far outweighs that of working and training full-time. As difficult as it is to work 40+ hours and train 15-20 hours, you can get a break from those things. You can rest and binge watch Netflix on your days off. The only quiet time I have for myself now is after everyone else is asleep—so about 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. (depending on if my husband is working late or traveling). I know I should go to sleep, but I often stay up until 1 a.m. just to recharge my introvert batteries. I read a book or play games on my iPad or watch a show on Netflix. I feel guilty about it, but it’s what I need to survive, and survival is sometimes all you can ask for when your babies are little. I’ve also taken a step back from structured training and racing. It was such a hard choice to make, but I’m happier now that I’ve accepted I’m not someone who is going to win an Ironman six months after giving birth. I’m just me and if it takes me years and years to get back to Ironman, that’s OK too.
Christine Avelar is a Kona and pro-qualifying ironwoman who, in addition to raising daughter Isla, works as a veterinarian in her day (and night!) job.