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The athlete’s journey: transitions through sport
The athlete’s journey: transitions through sport

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2 The athletic mother

While some female athletes decide to wait until retirement to start a family, for others it is not a risk they are prepared to take as optimal fertility often falls at the same time as peak performance (Darroch et al., 2019). As a result, it is becoming more commonplace to hear of female elite athletes deciding to have children during their career rather than waiting until they retire (Cunnama, 2017).

It is, however, important to recognise that there are several physical challenges associated with this decision as it will result in a period of reduced training volume and a loss of fitness. The return to sport has also proved problematic for some athletes. There have been many cases of elite athletes citing increases in injuries such as stress fractures which have been attributed to the limited post-partum advice available to them (Sundgot-Borgen et al., 2019).

In the next activity you will hear from an elite athlete who has successfully navigated her return to sport post-pregnancy.

Activity 2 The athlete mother

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Watch the video below of Swedish trail running and ski mountaineering athlete Emelie Forsberg. Emelie has won gold at multiple World and European Championships within skyrunning (mountain running), and she gave birth to her first child in March 2019.

As you watch, reflect on the questions below. If you are a parent, you may also want to reflect on your own experiences.

  • What are some of the main challenges for an athlete when they decide to return to sport after parenthood?
  • What factors contribute to a successful return to sport?
  • What can partners of athletes take away from hearing about how Emelie and her partner Kilian manage parenthood?
Video 1
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You may already have a good idea of what some of the challenges are when returning to sport after having a family. Emelie discusses how she has taken it very slowly in her return to sport, listening to her body as avoiding injury is paramount. She also comments how there is much uncertainty and many ups and downs connected to a return as you don’t know how your body will react. As you learned earlier, the impact of pregnancy on the body can increase the risk of injury and so the slower approach adopted by Emelie is particularly important.

There are several factors that seem to facilitate a positive return to sport but it is clearly a balancing act. Emelie mentions the importance of support during this period as without it a return is almost impossible due to training demands and travel. She also mentions ‘preferring to take it slow’ and allowing herself time to return to her sport by not rushing the process.

Emelie talks about how it is easier being a parent while an elite athlete compared to if she had a regular job which required her to find time around parenting and work to exercise. She also comments on how having a partner who is also an athlete helps as they can both be flexible. Finally, she recognises the need to be quite relaxed and flexible in approach, something perhaps simpler for an athlete who is more in control of their schedule than for someone with a regular job.

Kilian − Emelie’s partner − is also an athlete and understands the demands of her sport and her need to train. As the partner of an athlete, it is clearly important to be as adaptable and flexible as possible in terms of accommodating training needs and balancing that with childcare.

The flexibility Emelie and Kilian have been allowed in their lives as athletes perhaps reflects how in some ways it is easier for an athlete to manage a career and a family than it might be for someone in another career. There are of course challenges and you will look at these in more detail next.