Find Your Run/life Balance
How to be a perfect running parent. With a little imagination, it can be done
With a little ingenuity, you can be a good parent and a good runner. But it can be hard to get that balance right, says Damian Hall
The last time I counted, there were four members of my immediate family. So when my three-year-old son drew a family picture with only three people in it, I was curious to know who had been left out and, more importantly, why? ‘You are out running, Daddy,’ he explained.
I searched in vain for some trace of pride in his voice. As I pondered his words, I had to admit that I’ve missed family weddings and good friends’ significant birthdays because of running. Our previous two family summer holidays have been in Chamonix, France, where, at the time, in no way coincidentally, there’s a race called Ultra-trail du Mont-blanc, which I’ve run. Then there are all the times I have been unfairly grumpy with my kids towards the end of days when I got up at 5am or 4am for a long run. I want to be a good parent and a good runner. But is that possible? And am I prioritising the latter over the former?
I discovered the many joys of running long distances at around the same time I became a parent. Sleepless nights, teary tantrums and cake for breakfast became a way of life. Parenting, on the other hand, has been more straightforward. In many ways, the two worlds seem mutually beneficial. Running is surely the best sporting hobby for a parent, mostly because it’s so flexible. You don’t need to arrange to meet teammates, or stretch newly tightened household budgets to cover expensive equipment. It can be done pretty much anywhere and, crucially, pretty much any time. Conversely, having limited opportunities to run can be a great motivator. For me, as for many parents, there’s usually just one chance to get out during the day. So there’s no dillydallying. I grab my shoes and dash for the door before that precious opportunity vanishes. Becoming a parent can easily be the nemesis of good health, so running can be a much-needed counterbalance. How many new parents soon find themselves carrying around some extra weight, with or without the papoose? Lack of sleep leaves us craving sugary foods, while a
curb on free time can lead us to neglect hobbies that once kept us active. Yet, studies show people who exercise are likely to find they have more energy to play with their kids. And those who continue to be healthy are likely to be around longer to support their offspring as they grow. THE BALANCE In reality, striking the right balance between family and running can be tricky. Try telling your partner that, although you’re grateful they got up five times in the night, it really is vital to your periodised fitness goals that you now go out for a two-hour run.
I run most days. It’s usually when my children are asleep or at school or pre-school, to minimise loss of time with them, but I’ll miss one breakfast and one bedtime each week. And I race four or five times a year, often abroad, which means I’m absent for up to a week each time. However, I work from home, so it’s possible I see them more in the average day than many working parents. I feel I’ve got the balance largely right, but my son seems to disagree. So I asked other parentrunners how they know if the family/ running balance is out of whack: ‘When your five-year-old daughter asks for a headlamp, so she can run with you, so she can see you,’ says David Tarbuck. ‘When the guilt from being out running starts to outweigh the enjoyment of the running,’ says ultrarunner Andy Berry. ‘Divorce,’ says Zoe Thornburgh. ‘Twice. Apparently, my need to exercise was excessively selfish.’ (See Youknow…, right, for more). In fact, I know several people who say running was a key factor in their divorce. I don’t want to get divorced. I want to somehow be a good husband, father and runner.
A key question on my mind was, just how significant is parental absence anyway? ‘If a parent is never around, that’s likely to have a negative impact,’ says educational and child psychologist Dr Juliet Starbuck. ‘Fathers can have an extremely beneficial impact on their children in relation to a range of factors, including their academic success and their emotional and social development, and subsequent economic factors related to success in work when they become adults.’
But there’s a difference between quantity and quality. ‘On the other hand,’ says Starbuck, ‘if a father is always in a child’s life but the quality of the relationship is poor, this is also likely to have a negative impact.’ I could improve here, too. When I’m exhausted from training, as well as grumpiness, it can be easy to be physically in a room but not consciously there. On the flipside, I do find trail running, with its greater emphasis on being in the present moment – simply from having to be conscious of foot placements, route finding, dodging stingers, the weather and so on – makes me more aware of the act of being in the present moment in other areas of my life – of mindfulness, to use the in vogue term. In this respect, I like to think running does help make me a slightly better parent, but there are other areas that deserve some honest analysis, both for my family’s sake and my own.
‘ You need to decide if your running is having a negative impact on family life,’ advises Starbuck. ‘Have you worried about this? [Hmm, possibly...] Has your partner said anything to you? [Hmm, once or twice...] Do you feel guilty when you’re out running? [Umm, sometimes...] If you’re answering yes, then maybe the “balance” you’re striking is affecting you. There isn’t any point in doing what you do unless it makes you happy.’ I decided reducing my running by about 20 per cent for several months of the year would allow me to give more to my family and cause me to worry less about it all. ROLE MODEL I also turned my attention to improving the quality of the time I spend with my children. Despite regular absences, a parent can do lots to ensure a positive relationship with their child. ‘Evidence suggests that dads have a particularly positive effect on a child’s language,’ says Starbuck, ‘and also on a child’s willingness to explore and become independent because of rough-andtumble-type play – so do that.’
‘If absences are counterbalanced by quality interactions, good rolemodelling and a strong relationship with the child’s mother (there are other configurations of family, of course),
the impact [of absence] is likely to be minimal,’ says Starbuck.
Children subconsciously like routine. ‘Regular is the key word, because this means the child can feel more secure in knowing that their father is going to be away, knowing what their father is doing and, especially importantly, knowing when their father is going to come back,’ says Starbuck.
‘Routine and consistency are very important for all children.’
Of course, minimising those absences is also beneficial, and there are many ingenious ways parents can train with little disruption to family routines. Run commutes and home treadmills can be hugely helpful. As can alarm clocks. When asking running parents for their secrets on how best to train without disrupting family life, the most popular suggestion was going out early, with one parent mentioning a punchy 3:30am start. ‘From 10pm to 6am,’ says ultrarunner Stephen Brown. ‘This means I get to practise night navigation and sleep deprivation as well, without missing out on family time’.
‘My plan is scheduled around my kids,’ says single dad Terry Stoodley. ‘Speedwork after school drop-off and during ballet class. I run loops of my son’s football pitch as he trains. I do three-mile loops of my village as my daughter rides her bike.’
‘We pick a day out to a farm park or similar a suitable distance away,’ says Sarah Fuller. ‘One of us will drive the kids there and the other will run, then we meet up and swap over.’
Buggy running is another popular way parents of young children can keep logging their miles (though one runner confessed to sticking their six-year-old in a buggy – most kids have grown out of buggies by around three and a half).
You can get creative with other areas of your training, too: ‘Weightedvest hikes on the school run,’ suggests Samantha Mills, ‘and even the school run becoming a literal school run.’ Or strength and conditioning sessions where kids clamber on backs to make an exercise harder but more effective: ‘My son sits on me while I do glute bridges,’ says Vicky Hart.
The compromise of arranging holidays around recces and races is a popular strategy, with some mums even breastfeeding at aid stations midrace. Tag-team babysitting is another sensible solution. ‘Myself and two friends, who were also runners, had a get-together a couple of times a week,’ says Fuller. ‘We took it in turns to get out for a half hour or so while another mum babysat.’
While my children show little sign of being impressed with my running, there’s a good chance most children might be inspired by their parents’ efforts. ‘Some of my earliest memories are of my mum running,’ says former Olympic marathoner and mum of three Liz Yelling. ‘I remember waiting for her at races all the time. I nagged her to take me out for runs when I was about nine, and it grew from there.’
‘A three-year-old will have some awareness of what a parent’s doing when they’re away,’ says Starbuck. ‘But they will be influenced – you’re a powerful role model: work ethic/ commitment/dedication are all important. However, if they don’t know precisely what running means, and why you do it, then they may fill in the gaps. They’ll use stereotypes to do this and your activity may not fit. So talk about it and, whenever possible, involve your children in it.’
That’s exactly what I wanted to hear: involve your children in it. Parkrun is
the obvious way to get your kids into running, either Saturday 5Ks or Sunday 2K junior parkruns. And, as well as some of the aforementioned tactics, there are many ways of getting your offspring involved in your training. Long hikes (cardio and strength), piggybacks (strength), messing about on monkey bars in the playground (strength), bike rides (cardio, crosstraining) and many races now have a children’s race, too. However, be careful not to get carried away: ‘I took my four-year-old to a parkrun,’ says Phil Devine. ‘I made her ride her bike there while I ran. We ran the parkrun together, then returned home. The problem was I was only two miles off 10, so I told her we would run past the house for a mile and then run back. She didn’t complain once – until the following morning, when she could hardly walk and had to go downstairs one step a time on her bum.’ RUN HAPPY Perhaps the best tactic is to convince your kids that all this running is normal. ‘[My daughter] Ruby has a very warped perception of life!’ laughs Yelling. ‘She thinks everyone runs. A lot of the people we socialise with are runners and when we did parkrun last year she saw a Santa running, so she thinks Santa runs, too. It’s definitely a part of her life at the moment and hopefully it’ll continue to be. Though she might grow up and think, “Phew, not everyone runs. I don’t have to.”’
So running and parenting can coexist – and be mutually beneficial. But Starbuck has a final warning: don’t forget the running widow. ‘One area where runners may have some making up to do is in relation to their partner,’ she says. ‘In some cases the resentment a partner feels can be more damaging to the child than the absence of the other parent. So it’s important this part of the family relationship is sorted and that, subliminally or otherwise, messages are not communicated to the child. Even little children will notice tension in their parents’ relationship – and this can be more damaging than anything. Communication, honesty and openness are integral to all of this, as is teamwork. The messages you both give to your child are powerful.’
And, finally, can being a runner help make us better parents? ‘A happy parent is more likely to mean a happy child,’ says Starbuck. ‘A parent’s mental and physical health is important and anything that allows you to feel better about yourself is likely to help you to make a better relationship with your child – and your partner. If being by yourself is important to you, then it’s important to your child – as long as it’s not causing too much guilt.’ With luck, that sentiment may lighten your load on your next Sunday long run.