The Olympics may be underway but for Toni, Jess and the team it’s a long day of travelling. For all the reasons documented previously it was decided the best way for Jess to prepare was away from Brazil. It’s never easy being an elite athlete, it’s even harder being an elite athlete after becoming a mum. Just read some of the media coverage to see what I mean.
Given that everyone is in transit for the day, now seems an ideal time for the blog to look at the topic of ‘post pregnancy’ Jess.
Jess has enjoyed (I use the term loosely) significant interest from media and public alike in relation to her return from pregnancy.
It’s hard to remember now that many within the sport wrote Jess off after she’d given birth to Reggie. For Toni that was ‘red rag to a bull’. It was exactly the type of challenge that he relishes. His response was, “Watch this”.
Having the ambition and determination to prove the doubters wrong didn’t make it any easier. Jess, understandably, found it hard to come to terms with her post pregnancy body,
“We had a lot of times where I said ah I’m rubbish – I can’t do it. I cant run like I used to, I cant hurdle like I used to and he’d just say to me, you know its going to take time, it’s not gonna happen straight away, just stop comparing yourself to who you were in 2012” – Jess
That’s where Toni introduced Post Pregnancy Personal Bests, or PPPBs, as he refers to them. It helped Jess redefine her view of herself as an athlete. Here’s Toni’s perspective,
“I’ve said it several times and I’ll keep repeating it. An athlete who returns after having a baby is not the same athlete. It is not the same as coming back from injury. It’s so much more than that.
I had the same conversation with Jessica three times a week every week for six months of ‘I’ll never get back I don’t think I’ll get back, I’ll never do this, why can’t I do this’. The frustration and the anxiety … every week, at least three times a week or daily because she would always measure herself against the athlete she was because physically she wasn’t the same person. It was really tough mentally. Her body was changing month to month”
They worked on it together, tackling the challenge in the way that they had refined over the previous 15 years. As usual the team had a significant role to play, particularly, Alison Rose, Jess’ long-term physiotherapist.
As Alison explains, enabling a post pregnancy body to perform again requires patience, persistence and significant attention to detail,
“The abdominal muscles can become stretched and the tendon in between the two sides can split during pregnancy. It has less impact if you’re doing middle or long distance straight line jogging events because you’re just moving in one direction. That said, it should be addressed in all athletes because long term it will have an effect.
But if you look at the nature of the heptathlon, there’s twisting, turning, jumping, so for Jess it really was a case of specifically strengthening and waiting for the abdominal muscles to function as a unit which draws the central split together”.
“That sounds painful. How long does it take?”
“It can take six months. For the first three months with Jess this meant a very limited range of activities and especially those requiring rotational control, for example javelin”.
“And after that?”
“Abdominal training started at six weeks and at the very lowest level. Initially this meant lying on the floor with her knees bent, contracting the correct muscles and monitoring the split in the middle of the abdominals with the fingers to make sure it did not widen. As she was able to correctly recruit the right muscles we could progress exercises to involve limb movements, rotational control and other specific, functional movements that she would require returning to sport”.
“I’d imagine that a lot of women think there’s a need to hit the abs hard. What should they avoid?”
“Even with Jess at that point high level exercises like planks and abdominal crunches were completely out of the question. The key is patience and persistence with appropriate exercises”.
“at that point high level exercises like planks and abdominal crunches were completely out of the question.”
“I’m guessing the abs aren’t the only thing affected?”
Alison generously avoids commenting on my ‘doctorly’ insight,
“During pregnancy the body releases a hormone called relaxin. Your ligaments and tendons loosen so the baby can come out. It can take a year for the body to return to being close to normal even though we started seeing progress earlier”
“What about now?”
“Some of the increased joint mobility that occurred with pregnancy have remained. For example, her hips and feet are more mobile. This will require greater strength in the muscles around those joints to support the extra mobility.
In some areas this can be positive as she had very stiff ankles whereas now she has greater range which is better for performance”.
Back to the history lesson. Toni persuaded Jess that her training performances merited competing in Beijing. This time, no-one outside of the team expected her to be truly competitive but Jess still delivered. She became World Champion.
Since then she has not only achieved PPPBs but also an all time Personal Best in the Long Jump at Ratingen.
Ratingen All-time Personal Best in Long Jump
Toni sums it up,
“As long as there are not significant medical complications you can come back from pregnancy to compete at the highest level. We’ve proved that already. The critical thing is and this applies to every woman; be patient, take it slowly and really listen to your body. You need to learn to be a new you”.
For any new (ish) mums reading, congratulations and good luck. Take care of your baby and take care of yourself. Those PPPBs will come!