The “First Tracks” series highlights the pregnancy, postpartum, and parenting experiences of noteworthy athletes in cross-country skiing in various stages of their professional careers. The sharing of these experiences can benefit athletes in any stage of their career, whether they are an elite or recreational skier, by demonstrating that it is very possible to return to skiing, competition, and an active lifestyle with a growing family. The series will include the physical challenges of being an athlete during and after pregnancy, balancing family life with skiing, and the joy that starting a family can bring. This is part two of Randall’s “First Tracks”. You can read part one here.
After Kikkan Randall delivered her son, Breck Stuart Randall Ellis, on April 14th of 2016, she began her return to racing.
“The one thing that kind of struck me as I was doing all of it, is that because I wasn’t racing while I was pregnant, I felt like I was taking my maternity leave before the baby came,” said Randall in a call, “because as soon as the baby came, it was time to get back into training.”
Randall described the adjustment of incorporating motherhood into her lifestyle as a professional athlete as a “cool mind shift”, and expressed gratitude for her support system for enabling her to spend lots of time with her new baby while still putting in the training hours she needed to pursue her goals.
“I had looked forward to being a parent for a long time, but I was completely blown away with how awesome it was,” said Randall. “From the moment he came into the world and you quickly realize – as a skier, my life had really been all about me, pretty selfish, because it has to be for performance. Pretty quickly it was all about him and I had to find a way for it to be about me in between.
“It was a change in perspective too in knowing that my training time wasn’t unlimited,” she added. “So the time that I got to be out there I was really grateful for, and I wanted to make the most of it so that when I could come back and be with Breck I still could make the most of that time.”
While Randall’s capacity for high volume training while pregnant may seem super-human, her recovery process brought her closer to the mortal realm.
“After the birth, there was just a bigger recovery process than I had anticipated,” admitted Randall. “I was still able to do three sets of eight pull-ups about a week before Breck was born, I was feeling really strong at the end of my pregnancy. So I thought, oh man when I have this baby and the extra thirty pounds come off, I’m going to be whipping out pull-ups right and left! I think I waited about four days or maybe it was a week and I was like okay, I’m going to try some pull-ups now, and I could barely do four!”
During pregnancy, a woman’s uterus grows to between an astronomical 500 to 1000 times its original size, from about the size of a pear to approximately the size of a watermelon. In addition to relocating the remainder of the mother’s internal organs, this growth puts a major strain on the core muscles that stretch to accommodate the growing baby and on the pelvic joint, which widens to aid the delivery of the baby. The body also produces a hormone called relaxin throughout pregnancy which allows ligaments to stretch and joints to loosen more easily as the body expands. This hormone is present in the body for 12 or more weeks after pregnancy, meaning women are at an increased risk of joint injury during the immediate postpartum period.
Because of the stretching of core muscles, many women develop a condition known as diastasis recti, which is a weakening of the connective tissue in the abdominal wall leading to a separation of the rectus abdominis, more commonly thought of as the muscles that make up a “six pack”. The degree of separation is measured by the number of fingers that can be inserted through the gap to the transverse abdominal muscles lying below. In severe cases, the condition needs to be rectified with a surgery similar to the treatment of a hernia.
“When I started doing exercise after the birth, I was relying on all the bigger muscles [rather than utilizing the core], and I ended up injuring my back about a month after Breck was born,” Randall shared. “So then I started going to Pilates classes and working with a physical therapist that specializes in postpartum stuff to really work to re-engage. I had about two fingers worth of separation between my abs, but thankfully, I have a really strong lining underneath it, and I was able to bring it back to about a half-finger gap.
“The core strength, for sure, took a bit to come back,” Randall continued. “I think part of it was coordination and strength. And then, really for the whole first year, I didn’t feel like I had the tension in my joints like I had before… So things like really quick speeds, sprinting off the line, that stuff, just took a while to come back and that was a surprise.
“On the flip side, I couldn’t believe how strong I felt aerobically right off the bat. Within a week or so, I was testing things out on the ski erg and that felt pretty good, and I was getting on the bike, and that was good. We just made a really gradual approach back into training in the first three months, and I really was very cautious and easy with myself for those first six weeks, and then very gradually built back.”
While the non-weight-bearing nature of cross country skiing might provide benefits to a body in recovery, Randall realized that the multi-faceted training for her sport at the elite level made resuming her normal regime a slow process.
“We brought classic in first, thought that was going to be a little easier on the body than skating,” Randall explained. “And we realized how complicated ski training is as we were trying to introduce one thing at a time so we could really tell that I was passing a stage before moving onto the next. But when you’ve got classic, skate, running, biking, strength training, and then that at all these various intensities, it was really like, oh man, where do we even start.
“We started very simply with using biking as a way to keep up my aerobic intensity,” she continued, “then started with some really easy classic skiing and gradually worked up the volume. When that was going well we added a little bit of intensity. Then once classic was going well, then we did the same thing with skating. So I think it was three or four months before I was back to doing most of my normal training modes.”
Not all of her training modes were easy to reintroduce.
“Running took me a while,” Randall expressed, “probably six or seven months to get back into because I did have that separation in the front of my pelvic bone. I had started trying to run small amounts in my neighborhood thinking staying close to home would be good, but I was doing it on pavement. Then, later on, I had much better success building up my running on the trails, so I really think the surface mattered. I was able to do a lot of uphill running, striding, and stuff with poles, that was a really good way to reintroduce the impact on my legwork.”
Despite resuming a high volume training load, Randall was able to breastfeed her son for the first eight months after giving birth, a commitment that required a lot of planning.
“It was a blend of just timing feedings and going off for training and coming back and feeding him again and doing a lot of pumping,” Randall shared. “I did two short four-day camps on the glacier, so for that period, I was away from him. Thankfully, I had done a lot of extra pumping early on when I was producing more milk than he was eating, so I had a stockpile. So then, my husband was able to give Breck the stockpiled milk, and while I was on the glacier I was also pumping every few hours so I was building up a new stockpile.
“So that was kind of funny to be in the middle of the night in the back corner pumping, then leaving camp with this whole cooler full of frozen breastmilk,” Randall laughed. “Then I kind of weaned off on breastfeeding right as the race season was starting.”
Producing enough milk to sustain a growing baby adds a unique load on the body and requires approximately an additional 500 calories.
“I didn’t really notice it,” Randall stated gratefully. “I didn’t find myself more tired. I was trying to drink a lot to keep my hydration up, but I never really felt like I got out of whack that way. I was enjoying the opportunity to eat the extra calories. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised at how well I was able to balance it with all the training that I was doing.”
While breastfeeding did not cross her mind as a source of impedance for her recovery between training sessions, Randall did have some concerns about the lack of sleep during the first few months of Breck’s life. However, she found it to be much less detrimental than anticipated.
“I had been wearing this device for a full year leading into pregnancy, then I wore it through my pregnancy and after – it measures the quality of my sleep and my recovery. I thought that I was going to see a huge decline, but I saw some of the best numbers I’ve ever seen!” Randall exclaimed. “So I think that the super mom powers you get, just the happiness factor… so even though I was getting less sleep, when I was sleeping I was sleeping really effectively, so it didn’t seem to have an impact on my training.”
In reflecting back on her pregnancy and postpartum experience overall, Randall saw both advantages and disadvantages to being a skier, versus a professional athlete in a different sport.
“I think our training as skiers is very complementary to what you do for pregnancy because of the low impact nature of it,” Randall stated. “Being able to ski a lot was really beneficial and I could bike and do all these different activities that contribute to the same goal, which was great. I could see being just a runner being challenging.
“I do however see a difference in the return,” she continued. “I followed a couple athletes like [professional cyclist] Kristin Armstrong who came back incredibly strong after the birth of her child and won gold medals. I was just thinking about how biking is so one dimensional and so linear, it would be so easy to hop on the bike and get back in shape because it’s all aerobic and it doesn’t matter the tension [in muscles and joints] as much. So some sports may be easier that way… Skiing was just so challenging with all the different pieces to figure out.
“But overall, there were a lot of other world cup athletes that all did it around the same time as me and everybody came back strong,” she concluded. “So I think it’s very doable.”
As Breck’s half-birthday approached, so did the World Cup season. Randall headed to Europe with her teammates once again after eighteen months away from racing.
“At six months, that was about a month before the season started, I was feeling strong, training with the team, doing time trials,” Randall remembered. “I thought I was really ready to go, and then when the race season started, that was when I got the reality check that being away from race intensity for several months takes a little while to come back. I think that was also in relation to the tension in my muscles.
“So the first three months of the race season were pretty challenging, I had to be really patient,” she added. “Then when I hit about the ten-month [postpartum] mark, I felt a really big change, and then another big change at a year.”
Apart from the physical challenge of being prepared to race at the highest level at seven months postpartum came the logistical challenge of traveling across the Atlantic for a winter on the road with an infant. What was their secret to success? Not dwelling too much on it.
“We didn’t really think too much about how we were going to do it,” Randall admitted. “We just decided that we wanted to do it and therefore we were going to figure it out. Some people were like, ‘how did you travel five-months on the road in Europe while ski racing?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, we just did it! And it was awesome!’ We schlepped a lot of gear around and just made it work and it was really an awesome experience for us all together.”
The World Cup moves between countries on a weekly basis, meaning regular flights, bus and train rides, and time changes. While this schedule might make any traveler weary, Breck seemed to handle it without too many problems.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever know the answer to the question of whether he is just a good easy-going, even-keel kind of kid, that’s just good for anything, or whether it was that early in his life we started taking him on trips, so that’s all he knows,” said Randall. “He ended up being a great traveler, even long van rides and being on big busses with the world cup field. He just went along with it.
“The time change, however, was quite difficult,” she continued. “It probably took us a good two or three weeks to get on a routine. When we went over he was starting to only wake up two or three times a night, I really wasn’t feeding him too much during the night. When we got over there, he started waking up five or six times a night. And because we had teammates all around us and I didn’t want to disturb them, we were doing whatever it took to keep him happy through the night. But then it would be one in the morning and he was wide awake like ‘let’s play!’ Then at three in the afternoon, we couldn’t keep him awake to save our lives.”
Luckily, Breck was born amidst a small baby boom on the World Cup, so Randall was not alone in navigating this experience. Marit Bjørgen of Norway, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland, and Katja Visnar of Slovenia all gave birth during the 2015-2016 ski season as well.
“My Finnish friend [Saarinen] who is a World Cup skier and had a baby just a few weeks after me highly recommended that we do sleep training,” Randall explained. “So about three weeks into the season, we were in Switzerland and we were finally in an apartment so we wouldn’t disturb anyone around us and we committed to three or four nights of sleep training. And it was mostly done by Jeff – I got to sleep through it because I was racing – but he committed to letting him cry for longer and longer intervals and within about four nights, he was completely sleeping through the night, and from then on it was a huge game changer for us.
“We actually found it a lot more challenging the second year when he was between a year and a half and two years old because then he wanted to move a lot more and he was more aware of what’s going on and it was harder to keep track of him on the long travels.”
In addition to family and friends, Randall was grateful for babywearing and carrying gear during her preparation for and travel during the race season as it made it easier to bring Breck along for some sessions and to get him from place to place more easily while on the road.
“We got a Thule chariot right away,” Randall explained. “That was super awesome because with the infant harness we could suspend him in there from pretty early on. I could use it to get out for walks and later runs. Then we could pull him behind the bike, and then we could pull him skiing.
“We found it really useful in Europe in the winter because we could just pack him in there all nice and
warm, protected from the snow and wind and rain, then whoever we had with us helping take care of him could just take him out for these great walks all the time,” she continued. “That was a really great tool, I mean we’re still using it a ton.”
At about 10 months postpartum, Randall took third in the freestyle sprint at the World Championships in Lahti, Finland, and at about 22 months postpartum, she won her historic gold medal. However, just five months after the Olympics, Randall shared that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, she was given a good prognosis, however, the discovery halted the Randall-Ellis family’s plan to grow.
“That’s been one of the toughest parts of this breast cancer deal so far,” Randall shared. “We were so excited to expand our family after the Olympics ended, and now that’s on hold for at least a couple more years. We were fortunate that we were able to do some fertility treatment before I started chemo, so we have one little embryo as a backup plan. It just gives us some hope that in case my fertility has been wiped out by the chemo, that gives us one shot maybe. And there’s no guarantee that the chemo does wreck my natural fertility. So we’ll find out in a couple years when hopefully I can take a break from the anti-hormone stuff.
“With that aside, it makes me really grateful that we have Breck,” she continued, “because I know how much I love being a parent and the fact that I get to do that with Breck is so amazing. I think if I hadn’t had any children and was facing this, it would be a lot harder.
“Also, you hate that it takes something like this to change your perspective, but we’re just really appreciating every day with Breck now, and the fact that we get to just focus on him, because sometimes when you have another kid then you have to shift your attention to two kids,” Randall added optimistically. “So we’re just going to really enjoy doing stuff with Breck and it makes me appreciate how much I love being a parent and making the most of every day that I have. And I’m staying hopeful that I get to go through this whole experience again, even if it’s not on the original timeline that I imagined.”
Finally, Randall was asked what message she would share with a fellow skier who is pregnant or thinking about starting a family.
“Approach this new situation with a curiosity and really just listen to your body,” Randall encouraged. “But have the confidence that your body is pretty tough and it is used to doing a lot, and probably the best thing that you can do for yourself and the baby is to just keep doing what you’re doing. I really think that when you’re used to getting a lot of exercise, and as an athlete, you’re used to taking good care of yourself, just keep doing that through pregnancy.
“Enjoy it!” she added. “Notice what’s different and unique, and also have the confidence that when the baby comes, it may take the patience of a couple of months to get your body to come back around again, but it will and you’ll be stronger than ever. I think it’s really exciting to be able to blend athletics and being a parent whether you’re doing it at the elite level or just someone who is worried about continuing to be athletic after having kids, it really works out great.”