Training With Kids

Diana WhitneyJune 17, 20091

Urban legend has it that Bill Koch roller-skied up Mt. Greylock pulling his school-age daughter on a mountain bike.  A rope around his waist, Koch supposedly double-poled eight miles straight uphill with a seventy-pound child behind him.  Was this an extreme new strength-training concept, a fulfillment of childcare duties, or both?  Even if the story isn’t true, it illustrates the lengths some parents will go to get a workout.


The number one limiting factor for athlete-parents with young children is time, and they must improvise their training accordingly.  “Quality over quantity” became my personal exercise mantra after the first baby came along.  Gone were the days of three-hour over-distance trail runs; now I packed in a higher-intensity workout into whatever window I had, even if it was only 40 minutes uphill with the baby-jogger.  Running gained supremacy over skiing, sculling, hiking, biking and other beloved sports of my pre-baby life, due to its high efficiency (no transit or prep time, just lace up shoes and go).

Justin Freeman
Justin Freeman can still hammer it out despite a significantly decreased training volume.

Other skier-parents make the switch to more running once Baby arrives.  Justin Freeman, former US Ski Team member, National Champion and 06′ Olympian, says: “So far the biggest change [since becoming a parent] has been an increased focus on running instead of skiing.  This is mostly due to time issues:  it is possible to get into great running shape on 10 hours a week.  Skiing takes more hours of training and also requires a lot of non-training hours (travel to snow, waxing, etc).  Right now I simply do not have enough time.”

With two children aged 7 months and 2 and ½, Justin is clearly in the most intense, hands-on phase of parenting.  He describes the change from his former training-oriented lifestyle:  “Between my job and my family my hours are down from around 800 to not quite 400.  I train as much as I do through a mix of support from my wife, early mornings, less sleep, pushing or pulling one or both children when I run or ski, and generally being creative about when I can fit it into my schedule.”

Many parents like Justin rely on early mornings for a dependable training slot.  Former US Ski Team member and ’92 Olympian Brenda White Smith had already stopped competing at an elite level when she began her family, but she still relied on exercise as “a way of life.”  As a mother of 3 young girls (now aged 10, 8, and 5), Brenda’s running workouts were “a mental break [that] allowed me to be calm and focused on my children for the rest of the day.  In order to find time for exercise, I would get up very early and go running before my husband went to work.”

But some parents squeeze in their training at the other end of the day.  During the winter months, my husband Tim Whitney (a former National Team sculler) has a weekly training night with a competitive friend.  They run or ski up local mountain trails by headlamp or moonlight, returning home refreshed and with a healthy perspective on family life.  Likewise, Masters racer and father-of-two Dan Voisin (who ski-raced through high school and college) says:  “Skiing at night is the best way.  I can usually get on snow by 8:00 after helping feed the kids and put them to bed.  Some nights it is very hard to stop skiing.”


How was Olympic medalist Sara Renner able to return to World Cup racing barely 10 months after her daughter was born?  Because her husband and former Canadian Alpine skier, Thomas Grandi, retired in order to take care of their baby full-time.  While most of us aren’t in Sara’s situation, many skier-parents say their spouse is the number-one support system that makes their training possible.

Rebecca Dussault following her victory in the American Birkebeiner
Rebecca Dussault squeezed in a victory in the American Birkebeiner

Mother-of-two and ’06 Olympian Rebecca Dussault is gearing up for the 2010 Olympics.  Having an encouraging husband with an adaptable schedule, in addition to two grandmothers nearby, has helped her immensely.  Rebecca says it’s “a little tricky to balance family with elite athletics,” but describes her daily rhythm with her two boys (ages 7 and 2):

“In the past, my husband was self-employed full-time and would make special arrangements to keep the kids while I trained either before he went to work across town, or for an extra long lunch, or as a last resort, at the end of the work day….

Currently, my husband has a lot of flexibility in his schedule, so I typically home-school in the morning, make lunch and lay the kids down.  From then I am free to train for an hour or two.  As a last resort, I keep my road bike on a trainer in my living room so I can put the kids to sleep and ride for 45 min. and then fall into bed myself.

Dussault’s lifestyle displays the flexibility and spontaneity required to combine parenting young children with elite ski training.  “Each day is totally different,” she says.  “I usually don’t plan training even a day in advance.  I have to wake up in the morning to see how I feel and find out what else is on my plate for the day.”


When both parents are athletes, things get more complicated. Three-time Olympian and Masters racer Dorcas Wonsavage says she and her husband “do the parent tag” in order to train.  “I run in the morning, while Paul watches cartoons with Max [age 9], then Paul goes on a bike ride with his cycling team, and Max and I go out and play.”

Dan Voisin also says that he and his wife trade blocks of skiing time:

“This winter our weekends consisted of swapping ski time with family time.  We rarely spent an entire weekend day together as a family.  It sucked, but it allowed us both to get out.”   This is the case in many ski families, where both parents share the drive to get on snow-never questioning, as Dorcas says, “a lifestyle that makes exercise and time outdoors an essential part of every day.”

The Voisin Family.
The Voisin family - ready for action.

My husband and I have mastered the parent tag ourselves, but on many weekends what we want most is to ski, scull, or run together, without our precious but persistent little girls (ages 2 and 4).  For couples who used to be training partners, this is one of the hardest parts of having kids.

Hiring a babysitter for a few hours for a workout “date” has been a worthwhile investment for us.   One couple I know who both love pick-up soccer brings a mother’s helper along to watch their children while they play in a competitive local game.  This way, parents aren’t “scorekeeping” about who gets more training time, with one person waiting around feeling resentful.  And when Mom and Dad share a fun workout experience together, they build intimacy that is healthy for the whole family.

What if the parent tag involves days rather than hours?  “Being divorced has its privileges,” quips cyclo-cross racer, tele-skier and father-of-two Sheldon Miller.  When his kids (now 10 and 12) were little, Sheldon’s philosophy was simple:  “Train hard when they’re with mom, then put them in the trailer etc. when they’re with me.”


The Chariot - a must-have for any active family.
The Chariot - a must-have for any active family.

Parents who are athletes need to invest in various child-carriers.  “My recommendation is to not skimp on the stuff,” says Dan Voisin, who owns a bike trailer, a Kelty baby-jogger, and a pulk sled (“like pulling a bath tub around”).

The more gear you have, the more ways you can bring your kid(s) with you when you exercise.  Dorcas Wonsavage used to skate ski with a pulk sled, classic ski with a Kelty backpack, run with a baby-jogger, and both bike and roller-ski with a bike trailer.

Mother-of-three and three-time Olympic rower Judy Geer remembers entering running races as a family of 5, with the use of single and double baby-joggers.  She says: “Gradually the kids would decide they wanted to do the race themselves, rather than in the stroller.  Cool!”  Geer and her husband, Olympic rower Dick Dreissigacker, also used backpacks, bike seats, a bike trailer, and a pulk.  “These all worked often-but not always,” Geer says.  “There were days when we had to abort an adventure, for sure.”

A realistic attitude about the limitations of family exercise helps everyone have a better time.   You can’t go as far or as fast when you bring children along, but you can share your love of athletics with them.  For Geer and Dreissigacker, “training (whether for rowing or skiing) has always been an integral part of life.  We loved the lifestyle too much to give it up-AND we wanted our kids to grow up appreciating the lifestyle, too.”  Clearly their approach has worked, since the Dreissigacker children are now 22, 20, and 18 and highly competitive in skiing and rowing.

In contrast, Brenda White Smith says she and her husband have included their three children in family exercise “in a casual way.”  They go for “walks and hikes, taking a jogger or backpack with us in case someone gets tired.”  Now Brenda’s girls (ages 10, 8, and 5) enjoy biking, running, speed-skating, horseback riding and swimming, and all three ski in the Bill Koch League.

“It’s a great feeling to see your kids excited about a sport and loving to be outside even in cold weather,” Brenda states.

The Smith girls.
The Smith girls with a low-tech version of the Chariot.

Justin Freeman, whose 2-year-old is already up to a half-hour of skiing, owns a Chariot Cougar-1 and a Cougar-2.  He says both his children enjoyed riding in them as infants.  My own Chariot experience confirms that most babies simply fall asleep-until they become active toddlers and start protesting!

Rebecca Dussault describes the Chariot as “the most superior brand on the market.”  She loves it for both skiing and biking and recounts a recent family bike trip through wine country in California:

“The two-year-old was in the Chariot carrier behind my husband and the seven year old was on a Trek Tiger Tail (a trail-a-bike hooked onto my seat.) We rode 10 miles to the next town for lunch and a geyser sighting, and back to the car again.  This is an example of how everyone can still get out together and get a great workout.”

Successful family adventures may depend on the unique character of each family, especially the patience of the parents and the temperaments of the children.  At this point, my high-energy girls can only tolerate the double baby-jogger for a brief 3-mile run, which often ends with a toddler screaming fit.  An excellent resource for how to include your offspring in exercise is Heidi Hill’s book Fit Family: The Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Years.


Life with small children is unpredictable.   Some days, parents must redefine their definition of  “training” and let go of their former competitive identities.

Dorcas Wonsavage describes the need to “renounce your pre-child athletic goals and make the most of whatever the day, weather, schedule, child, and mother have.  Sometimes manual labor- like shoveling the driveway, turning over the garden, or stacking wood- becomes the workout.”

Creativity and a sense of humor can help athletes weather the challenges of early parenthood, even as they delight in its blessings.

I remember driving down route 15 in Northern Vermont when a bizarre contraption came into view on the hill in front of me.  It was Sheldon Miller riding “The Fathership,” pulling his son behind him on a trail-a-bike and his daughter hooked on the back in the bike-trailer.  Head-down, he was cycling hard on his commute to work and daycare.  “It was good strength training,” says Sheldon.  And an ingenious, sanity-saving invention, born out of a father’s dire need to train.

The Fathership in flight.
The Fathership ready for liftoff.

Priorities shift after children come along, but athletes must keep their work-outs at the top of the list.  With flexibility, creativity, good gear, and a strong support system, we do what we can, one day at a time.  And sometimes, with enough sleep, we find a deeper drive to get out there and train hard, a new hunger for competition that surprises both ourselves and others.

Diana Whitney skied for Dartmouth College back in the 1990s.  She now lives in Brattleboro, VT, where she writes, teaches yoga, and takes care of her two small children.  She blogs at

The author enjoying the outdoors, if not a workout.
The author enjoying the outdoors, if not a workout.

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