Today I speak to Jo Cowper who has started a fitness group for new mothers called Go Ultra Baby. As a keen trail-runner herself and also someone who has experienced the challenge of maintaining her running training during pregnancy and after the birth of her son, Jo shares her tips on how to get back out there.
Hi Jo, welcome to QOTM. Could you give us a little insight into your running history?
For years and years, I thought running was something other people did. At school I thought I was no good at it, and for a long time, that was that. I started running after I took up British Military Fitness and found that I wasn’t that bad a runner after all. After one road race, I fell in love with trail running and never looked back – I kept on running right up until I was 32 weeks pregnant; it’s just such a big part of how I like to live, I didn’t want to give it up until I really had to. I’ll never be super fast, but I’ve got a lot of stamina (or stubbornness!).
In 2010 I moved to La Plagne in the Alps, and that was a whole new phase of running for me; getting used to full-on hill training every day was tough, but running all year round in the mountains (and sometimes in knee-deep snow or sheet ice) was amazing. I loved how trail-running feels like a part of mainstream normal life out there in the summer; there are so many really strong runners of all shapes and sizes who seem to just come out of the woodwork when the snow melts. I loved how it’s just part of the culture to have trail-running news reported in the local paper alongside the football, etc. The whole alpine trail-running scene is still what gets me most excited about running. This year I am planning on running the Mont Blanc Marathon, though it’s going to be a challenge!
What are your top trail-running highlights?
My favourite races are the ones that feel like a bit of an adventure, where you do something you’ve never done before and you don’t really know at the start what the experience is going to be like (or whether you’ll make it to the end!) – so I loved Endurance Life’s Classic Quarter – my longest run to date, 44 miles from Lizard Point to Land’s End with an amazing sense of ‘journey’ from A to B. Other highlights have been the LAMM up at Loch Fyne – the first time I’d tried anything with a real navigation/self-sufficiency element; Man V Horse in Llanwrtyd Wells; and the Marlborough Downs Challenge.
Did you find it hard to get back into running after you gave birth to Ferdi?
I found it hard to get back into running, not for lack of desire, but the difficulty of fitting it in to the day, when there were suddenly so many more demands on my time (including the craving for sleep!) Also, I discovered for the first time just how much my running had always relied on having really, really good core strength. In theory, I knew that was important; in practice, with all my core muscles stretched and weakened and generally mangled, I was absolutely amazed at the difference in strength and stability that I could feel. It’s frustrating! My core strength is still not what it was – I suppose it’s the same feeling any runner has returning from an injury; it’s very hard not to overestimate your own abilities; do too much too soon, end up injured, etc. Rebuilding gently is the key.
Having a baby is a massively life-changing experience – I know that sounds kind of obvious, but somehow I hadn’t really understood just how all-consuming it would be until it happened. For weeks and weeks after Ferdi was born, my whole world just revolved around feeding him, lack of sleep, nappies, dealing with mountains of laundry and trying to get to grips with the bag-loads of kit we seemed to need to take with us whenever we wanted to leave the house – so the first time I got out and ran, it was like an epiphany, remembering how to relax and be ‘me’.
What physical and mental challenges are there to consider?
Giving birth by any means is a very serious business for the poor body, not to mention all of the relaxin that is still flowing through your system for months after your baby is born. I would recommended not to rush it; walk and powerwalk first with the buggy and build up from there; if you want to run with your buggy, make sure it’s suitable and your baby is comfortable and safe … these things are all important!
Health and safety aside – as a new mum, time is precious but you need ‘you-time’ more than ever before. Seriously! So even if it’s just for half an hour; even if you start with a power-walk; even if you feel self conscious to start with – get out there and do it. The head-space it gives you; the time out to just be yourself for your own benefit; and of course the new energy that being active outdoors can generate are all worth more than words can say.
What’s more, for me it’s super-important to think of the example I’m setting for my little boy – so if it feels selfish to take time to get out and exercise for yourself, do it for your baby. Do it to become the person you think you can be, and the person that you want your son or daughter to be proud of.
Tell us about Go Ultra Baby
Go Ultra Baby is a fitness class with running at its heart, rather than being a pure running group – I wanted to make it accessible to as many new mums as possible, and pure running can be tricky for lots of reasons (even down to the kind of buggy you have). So the idea with my class is that it supports mums in rebuilding (or creating) the strength, muscle tone and confidence to run, and provides opportunities to run as much or as little as you want. That way I can tailor it to deal with mixed abilities (and varying levels of post-natal recovery), to challenge very fit mums who may have had longer to recover, but without excluding those who may still be feeling unsure about what or how much exercise they can do, in the early postnatal months. I’ve got a few marathon veterans who take part; there are others who are more recreational runners – and there are others who just want to try something new to get fit and get in shape. It’s a nice mix. The idea of progression was absolutely central to what I wanted to do – there are other classes that you can go to with your baby in Glasgow, and they’re great, but I wanted to provide something that really was about building fitness and strength, to help and inspire mums to get fit for anything they want to achieve. There was also the lack of anything like it near me in Glasgow, and the fantastic feeling that I’d had myself when got out to my first post-baby fitness class and suddenly remembered who I was and felt like myself again.
What does a typical Go Ultra Baby session consist of?
The sessions are designed to be accessible to people with all kinds of buggies (some are much more robust and stable than others!); at all stages of post-natal recovery; and all levels of fitness – so I base it around different ‘stations’ in a local park. There are high- and low-intensity alternatives for everything we do (because even the fittest mums may need a lower option if their pelvic floors are still weak, for example, or whilst they’re breastfeeding and their joints are unstable), and I mix up strength and conditioning with plenty of opportunities to run for those who are ready (or to power-walk for those who aren’t). We move about a lot (to keep the babies happy – there’s always one who’s not happy staying still, and it’s often Ferdi!), My exercises are designed to strengthen and rebuild core strength; strengthen the legs; counteract some of the postural issues that arise during pregnancy (and when you’re breastfeeding/picking up babies and buggies and car seats all day!). By focusing on strength and conditioning as well as cardio and endurance, I’m trying to minimise the risk of injury and build the right foundations to get going again – and for those who are already fully recovered from giving birth, I progress the exercises; increase the intensity; increase the distances, and keep making it challenging. All the strength and conditioning is interspersed with opportunities to run, with a range of distances/repetitions to ensure that everyone’s workout is challenging and effective.
What are your survival tips for juggling your career your training and your family life?
- Be super-organised, and you’ll be amazed at how much you can fit in.
- Train at lunch time; run to work; run home from work; run with your buggy if you can … where there’s a will, there’s a way!
- A quick lunchtime run or workout sometimes give me just the head-space I need to solve the work problems that came up in the morning in my role as a Marketing Director. I’m sure I’m better value in afternoon meetings after a quick plyo session than after a sandwich at my desk
- Don’t just plan work time, training time and family time. Plan rest time too. It’s important and you’ll need it!
- Accept the unexpected! Good planning can only take you so far, but with a baby on the scene you can’t guarantee a good night’s sleep before a race; nor that your training programme will look the same on reality as it does on paper. You really have to roll with it … you can’t fight it; so learn to love the variety. It’s all part of the adventure
- Be kind to yourself. Listen to your body; listen to how you feel. One side of remembering what you’re doing it for is ‘don’t give up’; the flip side is ‘it’s supposed to be fun’!
- No one expects you to be superwoman, and nor should you expect that of yourself. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else (and particularly not against yourself, pre-parenthood!)
- Find other people in the same boat as you; share the journey. It really helps! I’ve met some amazing mums in the last year, both in person and via social media, and it’s inspiring, encouraging and absolutely invaluable to know that there are other people out there, living the same rollercoaster, finding ways to make it work.
And most of all, good luck!