Winning mums: How pregnancy and motherhood can enhance athletic performance

Nicola Spirig, Liz McColgan, Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey Credit: PA/Liz McColgan

Although she's an Olympic gold medal winner, you have probably never heard of Swiss triathlete Nicola Spirig.

The six-times European Games champion took gold at the recent Zurich Triathlon - the first women across the line and third overall - just 14 weeks after the birth of her third child, Alexis.

  • ITV video report by Natalia Jorquera

If that sounds like a feat, bear in mind the 37-year-old athlete already returned to the swim-cycle-run competition this month - 12 weeks after childbirth - to earn her place at Tokyo 2020.

Alongside Serena Williams, Laura Kenny, Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey, Spirig represents a group of female athletes who in recent years have all banished the myth that babies are career-ending or will lead to a decline in performance.

Serena Williams returned to challenge at the top of women's tennis after giving birth to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Credit: AP

In fact, there’s a belief among sportswomen – and backed up by some experts - that the experience of pregnancy and motherhood can actually enhance a woman's athletic ability.

Liz McColgan won the 10,000m at the 1991 World Championships in a personal best time of 30 min 57.07 secs, seven months after giving birth to her daughter Eilish.

"The mental break renewed my enthusiasm for the sport," McColgan told ITV News.

Liz McColgan won medals within three months of childbirth, before winning the 10,000m at the World Championships in 1991. Credit: PA

"It gave me time to look at how I used to train and what I would change - which I did.”

Before that the Scottish runner said she feared a baby would threaten her performance.

"I had wanted a child for so long, but never did due to running,” she said.

It echoed the story of Jo Pavey, who had considered retiring in order to start a family.

Instead she found the two complemented each other and, at 39, ran a lifetime best of 30 min 53.20 secs at the London Olympics, three years after the birth of her son Jacob.

Two years later came gold at the European Championships.

Jo Pavey wins gold in the European Championships in 2014. Credit: PA

Reflecting on the career-boosting impact of children, McColgan said: “Having a solid family behind me meant I was a lot happier as a person and not so single-minded and hard on myself, as I had another person to think of, and that chilled me out between sessions."

Watford FC Ladies and Wales footballer Helen Ward returned to the field just eight weeks after the birth of her second child, Charlie, in September 2017.

She told ITV News motherhood had also changed her way of thinking about her performances.

"You definitely learn to have more perspective after you've had children as you have little people to look after and they are more important to me than anything else I do," she said.

"If I have a bad game, now I come home and they're too young to properly understand what it is I do, so I have to switch off from what happened on the pitch because they need someone to feed them and love them, whereas before you could dwell on a bad game for a week."

McColgan and Ward’s personal experience is backed up by author and academic Professor Greg Whyte.

Professor Greg Whyte believes having children gives athletes more mental space. Credit: Greg Whyte

Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moore’s University, Prof Whyte wrote a book, Bump It Up, on exercise and diet during pregnancy in which he challenged society’s view of pregnant women "as being in a kind of disabled state".

"Women have been having babies for thousands of years. The idea that women play sport during pregnancy and then come back from it shouldn't be a surprise," he said.

Serena Williams won the Australian Open while eight weeks pregnant with her daughter and has continued to reach grand slam finals as a mother.

After giving birth to her daughter in January 2007, Paula Radcliffe returned to competing in September of the same year, finishing second in the Great North Run, and winning the New York Marathon just two months later in two hours 23 minutes and nine seconds.

Paula Radliffe celebrates her victory in the 2008 New York Marathon with her daughter Isla. Credit: PA

While the victorious mums made headlines around the world, their performances came as no surprise to Prof Whyte.

"Paula Radcliffe was a world record holder before she had children, so the idea that she would carry on winning marathons after pregnancy is not too far gone," he explains.

"The same is true for Serena Williams: she was number one seed before she became pregnant, so the idea that she would return to dominating matches is not unreasonable."

Professor David James, a professor of exercise science at the University of Gloucestershire, believes the instant demands of children inadvertently help many athletes by forcing them to train less.

"Juggling lots of things and performances go well," he explains.

"In my opinion many elite athletes are doing slightly too much training, so when there is this big distraction in their life, training takes secondary priority."

Professor David James believes there are both physical and mental benefits to athletes who have had children. Credit: University of Gloucestershire

As well as the psychological benefits, Prof James points to the physiological changes a woman's body goes through during pregnancy, which could enhance their athletic and endurance ability in the weeks and months after birth.

The increase in the levels of blood volume and haemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells which transport oxygen) during pregnancy means the heart beats more efficiently.

"The heart adapts to pre-load [fills more before contracting], and this is likely to create adaptations especially when exercising late into pregnancy," he explains.

"The heart-rate slows, so the heart fills more, creating a greater stretch before the contraction," thus beating more efficiently, Prof James added.

A 2017 study found this boost remains at a high level eight weeks after pregnancy and mothers benefited from a more efficient circulatory system more than 14 months post-birth.

Returning to competitive football after the birth of both her children, Ward believes she is now "fitter than ever before".

She credits that to a number of factors, but among them the changes her body underwent during pregnancy, especially in terms of her cardiovascular system.

Footballer Helen Ward says she is now fitter than she ever has been. Credit: Helen Ward

Dr Michelle Mottola, the Director of the Exercise and Pregnancy Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, backed up the anecdotal evidence.

"When all the different factors are taken into consideration, changes in the cardiovascular system may assist endurance athletes where stamina is necessary," she told ITV News.

The dramatic change in the levels of hormones like progesterone and oestrogen in early pregnancy can also boost an athlete's endurance.

During the first (12 week) trimester of pregnancy, the rising oestrogen can increase water retention and minimise fatigue during racing by stimulating the release of serotonin.

The body enjoys the benefit as it is not yet meeting the demands that come with later pregnancy, such as the weight of a full-term baby, or the changed centre of gravity.

Women in the early stages of pregnancy often benefit from a rush of hormones.

After birth, the levels of these hormones quickly drop.

The temporary stamina benefits are believed to have led to the sinister practice of "abortion doping" rumoured to have been adopted by East German athletes during the 1970s and 1980s.

It is claimed competitors got pregnant in order to benefit from the increased hormone levels, and then abort the foetus at the end of the first trimester.

That grim reported practice aside, whether both the physical and psychological changes a woman undergoes during and after pregnancy can benefit her athletically remains subject to debate today.

The many compounding factors mean there is a lack of scientific studies in the area.

Those that have been done are more often based on observation, relying on the cases of individuals, rather than evidence.

All the women who returned to the top of their game trained throughout pregnancy, and have good support networks around them, allowing them to devote time to training sessions and get adequate sleep.

Experts recognise the psychological benefits of having children.

While experts are not unified on whether athletes physically benefit from the effects of pregnancy, they agree that the psychological benefits of having children can produce stronger individuals.

"The pressure of sport in an athlete's life is re-balanced... where their lives were previously wholly dominated by sport pre-pregnancy, afterwards their focus is more split," Prof Whyte told ITV News.

"They feel more free and can perform better."

Footballer Ward is in no doubt that her changed mind as a sporting mum has improved her performances.

"Psychologically, the decision to come back and want to get back to how you were before makes you train harder," she said.

The impact of that effort is being seen on the pitch, track, tennis court and, for Swiss triathlete and three-time-mum Spirig, in the water and on the road.

She and the many other highly competitive sporting mums are proving that rather than signalling the end, having a family can breathe new life into an elite sporting career.