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Fit Follow-Up: Hilary Stellingwerff

Over the past few years, more than a handful of elite runners (including Paula Radcliffe, Alysia Montaño and Lauren Fleshman) have become mothers and shown just how strong and resilient female athletes and women in general can be. Another member of the inspiring group is Hilary Stellingwerff, a Canadian middle-distance runner, 1,500-meter specialist and Olympian. After having her son, Theo Edmond, last June, she is focused on making the 2016 Olympic team and, when it comes to working out as a new mom, is a big believer in staying true to what makes you happy. “I would urge women not to feel guilty about taking the time to do something for themselves to get fit again,” says Stellingwerff, who competed in the 2012 Games in London. “I found just getting out for a bit to run or bike gave me more energy to be a better mom. You need a break and you need balance.” She chatted with us about staying flexible, the amazing capabilities of the human body and building up slowly after baby.

Q: How did you approach your fitness and training during your pregnancy?

A: Although my number-one priority was the health of my baby, I still approached my fitness during pregnancy as an athlete because I wanted to come out of it able to train and hopefully get ready for the next Olympics [2016]. Each person is different and I really think how much you run depends on a few things, such as how much morning sickness you have—I had none so I was able to run quite a bit up until 35 weeks, but still not full mileage—how injury prone you are or how your body tolerates the weight gain and how your fatigue levels are throughout.

Want to learn how Stellingwerff trained during each trimester? She explains her weekly pregnancy workout routine here.

Q: Did you run into any resistance?

A: I chose a doctor who understood where I was coming from as an athlete and was fit herself; she was great at trusting that I was listening to my body and being cautious. For the first time in my athletic career, I gave myself a break when I was too tired to train and just took a day or two off. I did get a bit of pushback from doctors post-pregnancy when I wanted to start running again. They just kept telling me to wait six weeks because I had a C-section, but I wanted to know why and what kind of benchmarks I should be looking for instead of just the blanket statement of six weeks. I really wanted to know why and what to consider in recovery and I never got that answer. So I turned more to my physiotherapists and chiropractors.

Q: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

A: I’m really happy with how much I was able to train during pregnancy and feel it was the perfect amount based on how healthy my son is now and how smoothly I’ve been able to return to fitness. I consulted my coach a bit, but mostly I just went with how I felt and decided on training week to week or day to day. I stayed flexible and didn’t get too set on any amount of training. I will say having a sacroiliac and pregnancy belt [for lower-back and belly support] really helped me after about 20 weeks.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from this pregnancy?

A: How amazing and adaptable the body is. I am amazed at the massive changes my body has undergone and how quickly some things have come back together, while others are changed forever. As an athlete I’ve always understood how quickly my body can respond and adapt to new stimulus, but pregnancy is another level. I’ve learned you have to respect Mother Nature and let your body do what it’s meant to do.

Q: There have been a lot of successful elite runners of late that are also new moms. How does this speak to the resiliency of female athletes?

A: I am so inspired by female athletes who have returned so strong after pregnancy. I had just given birth when I watched Jo Pavey of Great Britain win bronze at the Commonwealth Games in the 5,000 meters, just nine months after giving birth at the age of 40. She looked so strong and determined. It was so inspiring and motivating for me to see her do that because it gave me confidence that it can be done. Women like Jo, Paula Radcliffe and several African distance runners speak to how strong and determined female athletes can be when they are willing to go for it.

Q: How do you think your level of activity and fitness affected your birth experience?

A: I was hoping my endurance would help me, but in the end it didn’t matter because I had a C-section. My son’s heart rate was dropping with minor contractions due to the umbilical cord restricting his breathing. We weren’t going to take any risks. The recovery after major surgery was not something I was prepared for and I found it very difficult not to be able to move around or even get out of bed without help for a couple weeks.

Q: How long did it take you to return to your normal training?

A: I was able to start building up my running again after about three months. I did do some running and cross training before that, but got a bit of a knee injury due to my pelvis and glutes still being unstable. So I got in the gym and worked really hard on core and glute stability, then started building my running and haven’t had a problem since, although I am still doing those same exercises.

Q: What do you want to accomplish next?

A: My main goal is to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in the 1,500 meters for the Canadian team. This summer is about getting myself back into race shape and testing the waters again with the goal of making the Pan American Games [held July 10 to 26 in Toronto] team in the 1,500 meters.

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