While a pulled muscle or cold could be enough to keep many runners out of a race, Alysia Montaño shocked the world when she competed in the 2014 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championship at eight months pregnant. The reaction was visceral, to her physical effort — and to what some deemed her impropriety. But there was something more to Montaño’s race: she made it clear to the world that she ran knowing she wouldn’t cross the finish line first or set any records. She simply ran to prove one thing to herself: that it could be done.
As a six-time USA Outdoor champion and top-five finisher at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the now-29-year-old certainly knew the demands of competing as an elite mid-distance runner. But proving she could do it as a pregnant woman and now, as a new mother, meant constantly re-evaluating her goals and determining how to best manage her energy each day. She discovered she would have to go about competition, as well as parenting, differently.
New goals, new mindset
Initially, Montaño wasn’t encouraged. She took advice from experts about how to maintain a healthy pregnancy and continue to run, and they left her thinking she was going to have to sit out of team practices. However, as a competitive athlete, she quickly realized she wanted to be a part of the energy of fit people, even if she couldn’t participate at the level she had.
So, the mom-to-be started attending practice. “I made it a part of my pregnancy to belong to the fitness community,” she says. And she knew it would be a different type of preparation.
Listening to her body
After years of training sometimes twice a day, Montaño knew hard workouts or hitting maximum lactic threshold weren’t options while pregnant. Rather than getting frustrated, she listened to her body and went with the flow in terms of her capabilities. “In my pregnancy, I modified my training a little bit by just focusing on maintaining a healthy, fit lifestyle rather than focusing on running 800 meters,” she says. “If I got any aches, I would add in strength exercises to counter my growing belly and back pain. If I got tired during workouts, I’d take a break. If they did six laps, I’d do three.”
The same mentality held true after Montaño gave birth, when she had to re-evaluate her body’s needs again, postpartum. “My goal for the year [after giving birth] was to come back healthy and strong and focus on recovery,” notes Montaño. “It was about slowly adding in things and not overreaching for what my postpartum [self] might not be ready for.”
It was this fluid structure and approach that helped her not only to maintain a modified running schedule while pregnant (despite many people’s criticism), but also to claim her first USA Indoor Championship (600 meters) just six months after giving birth to daughter Linnea. She then followed it up with her sixth USA Outdoor Championship (800 meters) three months later.
Just keep moving
Ultimately, it wasn’t about finding that perfect balance between motherhood and competition; Montaño embraced the fact that balance was impossible. Instead, she says, it was a question of accepting the ebb and flow between the two aspects of her life — it was about finding that flow, instead of trying to force a balance.
The key to her peace with the fluid nature of her life, in fact, has been movement. “If I’m not moving, I’m not living. Movement is life; it’s the very essence of life,” adds Montaño. “Every time I moved and got out the door, it helped combat fatigue. I’m so happy I recognized early on in my pregnancy that movement was the answer to having a happy and healthy pregnancy.”
More sleep equals more energy
Not only was it about focusing on what to put her energy into and how to keep moving forward, but it was also about knowing when to take a step back. “Regeneration is necessary for life,” she adds. “The first trimester for me was the most interesting. I was tired all the time; I slept a lot. Normally if I sleep in 30 minutes longer than usual, I feel like the day is gone. But, I was so comfortable with sleeping at the time.”
Though she’s no longer pregnant, Montaño says she still follows certain sleep lessons she learned during those nine months. “I look at my training as 24 hours, but part of that training is resting,” she notes. “I have to get rest.” She even took a cue from her young daughter. “When Linnea goes down for a nap, she wakes up in an explosive mode. I realized it does the same for me, too! A nap is so important.”
Adding, “We go through our daily lives and struggles, and at the end of the day, you’re tired. It’s like charging a battery. Regardless of being an elite athlete and hammering double workout days, if I was still putting myself out there, moving and opening myself up to new experiences, I still need to rest and regenerate at the end of the day.”
Food is fuel
Along with regeneration, nutrition is Montaño’s key to energy management. “You have to fuel yourself like a car. Part of regeneration is nutrition,” she tells us. “My husband and I really focus on getting a nutritious punch out of what we eat and enjoying what we eat.”
The energetic Californian makes sure to have a solid breakfast and in between workout sessions, will drink a smoothie packed full of berries and flax seed to help her body run efficiently. Of course, she still enjoys some indulgences. “If we want a pizza day,” she reveals, “we’ll find a way to make it nutritious, like with a quinoa crust.”
While getting back on the track was important, the new mom also focused on bonding with her newborn and breastfeeding her for a year. She followed an abbreviated training schedule to lay a foundation and never expected she’d actually win those championships just months later. Now, her focus is on the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil while still concentrating on being a good mother. “Now that I have a baby girl, I recognize her as being a mirror,” says Montaño. “She’s the greatest motivator in being the very best version of myself.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of her family, so squeezing in quality time with them is just as important as her training, nutrition and regeneration. “We try to pack in family time at mealtime,” says Montaño. “If I have a double workout, I’ll take my daughter to the track with me, and it’s like a playground for her. We also all nap together.”
Montaño believes that the energy you put into each facet of life determines what you’ll get out of it. “There are so many things you can learn from sport, aside from winning and losing. It’s really a huge character builder,” she concludes. “The journey that I went on in terms of being an athlete and recognizing everything I had in myself to be a better person has shaped everything that I do in my life, not just what I do on the track. Across the board I am able to recognize hardship, how to get through struggles, and how to recognize small victories.”
Montaño says, “What I learned was how important it was to set a goal. I have been focusing on all the small things I can do… enjoying the journey is much more important than the end result.”
She adds, “It’s important to look at movement and how you can implement it into the different areas of your life. I have so many different motivators in my life that keep me moving. At some point, running isn’t going to be my mainstay, but movement, health and fitness will be.”
Five energy management tips inspired by Alysia Montaño:
- Create healthy versions of your indulgences.
- Take a nap to regenerate.
- Eat a substantial breakfast to fuel your body for the day.
- Meditate to quiet the mind.
- Focus on the small victories.
“The journey that I went on … has shaped everything that I do in my life, not just what I do on the track. Across the board, I am able to recognize hardship, how to get through struggles, and how to recognize small victories.”