Find Your Run/life Bal­ance

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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