A Note for Breastfeeding Athlete Moms: How to Manage Your Energy

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I can’t believe my son, Bradley is already 5 months old! It’s been more fun than I ever could have imagined and my heart swells and explodes with love many times a day! Being an athlete mom was a welcomed challenge and like all challenges, there have been some learnings along the way!

First, everyone’s experience is different and this is my own. If you have your own stories that are different from mine, I’d love it if you shared in the comments that way everyone can benefit, even if we have different experiences!

I’m a Professional Cyclist and riding my bike is one of my all-time favorite things to do. I was able to get back on my bike one week after Bradley was born and I was highly motivated to train back to race fitness by the end of my first trimester. I had a mountain bike stage race (Singletrack 6) on the calendar and I was going after it! Despite COVID-19 and the cancellation of many events, I still was mostly motivated to continue to improve, continue to enjoy getting better while maintaining multiple identities- being a mom and being a cyclist are not mutually exclusive and being a cyclist helps me be a better and happier mom!

My training has ranged from 7 hour recovery weeks up to 17 hour peak weeks. The thing is that when you are breastfeeding, caring for an infant, and squeezing work and chores in anywhere you can, your training load and more importantly- recovery from your training load might be different than before you had a baby. It is for me.

We need to look at our lives and our energy in a more holistic way, whether you’re a parent or not. However, becoming a parent simply makes you even more aware of energy management. What are some things I’ve noticed?

Look at what you are prioritizing.

You may say one thing is a priority, but your actions speak louder than your desires or words. Although these some of these priorities are split by a hair, this is what it looks like for me. Sleep is the key to being able to holding all the parts together. If you started skipping sleep and putting work or training in front of sleep, you would eventually break down.

  1. Bradley (my baby)
  2. Sleep
  3. Nutrition/Food & Relationship (sometimes these go together-cooking together, eating healthy meals together… or sometimes we just order take-out so we can spend more time together. It flip flops.
  4. Training
  5. Work

So you say- okay Sonya! I have an infant or a newborn, how the heck can I prioritize sleep!? I KNOW this isn’t the case for many, but using the book The Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg and the TakingCaraBabies course, Bradley has slept through the night since 11 or 12 weeks and continues to do so. The TakingCaraBabies course has been especially helpful with wake windows and with newborns- info about swaddling, how to sooth a baby if you’ve never done it and more. They also have a 30 day guarantee that your baby will sleep better, so if you’re struggling, check it out! The Baby Whisperer Book sets a framework for Eating Sleeping Activity and Your Time (E.A.S.Y.) HIGHLY recommend it and we have been very happy with our routine and lives because of it!

Realize that you now have more inputs that effect your training

Sure, maybe you can maintain the same training load as before… but maybe sometimes you can’t. Personally, it ebbs and flows. I notice that I cannot do the same amount of intensity and it takes me a bit longer to recover from big training blocks. It doesn’t mean I’m out of shape. Look at your day and you’ll understand why.

First, breastfeeding takes a lot more energy than you think (more on that in a minute). Second, you probably sit down less than you used to AND you are probably carrying your baby around some of the time. That takes physical energy. Then there’s the emotional energy of always making sure your baby is okay, making sure YOU are okay, and nurturing your relationship with your partner. And then there’s taking care of the house, cooking, shopping, the dog, email, trying to keep up with friends, etc. All normal- probably not normal to kick ass at all of them at the same time (it’s okay!).

My point is that there are lots of things going on so maybe while you have little kids, you sometimes won’t have the same amount of energy or kick to go quite as hard or as long. Or maybe you do. For me, it just depends on the week. I do my best not to beat myself up when I’m tired on my bike!

The Energy Demands of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding requires energy from your body to make milk. Everyone is different – some exclusively breastfeed (my case), some breastfeed and use formula, and when solids come along- there are other variations.

The biggest mistake I’ve made was due to lack of knowledge. I just spent the weekend with my good friend and one of the world’s leading dietitians, Brenda Davis. I told her that I had been feeling absolutely horrible on my bike and even at the end of my recovery week, 90 heart rate made me tired and dizzy. What was going on?

We talked about the caloric demands of breastfeeding. You probably have read you need about 500 extra calories per day if you are breastfeeding. The caveat with this blanket recommendation you may not realize is that the 500 calories is banking on the fact that you likely have some excess maternal body fat hanging around from pregnancy. And, with all blanket recommendations, it’s probably assuming an average resting metabolic rate and assuming the woman is exercising the average recommendation for health (which, believe it or not, is just 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week or 1 hour of intense exercise such as running. For us, this is probably nothing compared to what we actually do!).

I told Brenda that I actually am at one of my lightest body weights and noticed that despite eating an extra 500+ calories, I was still losing weight. For some, that’s music to their ears! For me, I knew that this weight loss was impacting my performance but I was frustrated because I didn’t quite understand why. I would go through big training blocks and feel terrible for weeks to come.

I’m rectifying that now with adding in another meal and prioritizing making more time to eat. It’s HARD sometimes to sit down and eat 4-5 meals a day with a little one. I keep calorie dense snacks like these cookies on hand. I’ve also started adding more nuts and seeds to my oatmeal, eating a whole avocado instead of half an avocado, taking larger helpings of food, and drinking smoothies. Regardless if you are plant-based or not, if you are eating clean and whole foods means just adding in more nutrient and calorie dense foods. Adding in crap to get the calorie content up probably won’t help quite as much because your body needs to make milk out of what you’re feeding yourself and what’s leftover will go towards recovery from your sport.

Here’s a guideline: you need about 120 calories/kg of the weight of the baby. This was chosen based on the calculation of how many calories the baby actually needs. You might need even more because exercise boosts your metabolism. Here are two resources I liked:

Calories in Breastmilk and Infant Calorie Requirements

Energy Requirements of Infants from Birth to 12 Months via FAO.org

Bottom line

If you’re tired and not performing, you may need more food and more rest. This seems obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to realize when your energy levels are inconsistent. It’s about energy management. Mental, physical, and emotional fatigue all play a roll in contributing to how you can perform and recover on the bike. Looking at your nutrition, especially if you are losing weight and adding in more calories (120 cal/kg of baby weight) is a good place to start.

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Sonya Looney

🚲 Pro Cyclist 🎙 Top Ranked Podcast: The Sonya Looney Show 🌈 Former 24h World Champion 🧦My brand: Moxy & Grit 🦄 🥦 My Community: Plant-Powered Tribe
Mountain Biking, Enduro, Running, Trail Running, Nordic Skiing
Kelowna, BC, Canada

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