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The Fine Art of Balancing Running and Parenting

Becoming a parent presents a huge number of changes and challenges. But it's possible to balance parenting with athletic pursuits.

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By now, just about everyone has seen the videos on TikTok or Instagram with a hiker in the backcountry using the same audio clip. All their friends are getting married and having kids, but not them – they’re adventurers. The obvious flaw with these videos is that those inspired by the outdoors can still have kids, get outside and have epic days.

Do you have less time and other constraints? Sure, but getting out there could be more important than ever for parents. The benefits of the outdoors and exercise are proven to have a positive impact on anyone’s life. With the new stresses of becoming a mom or dad and everything that goes into parenting, it can be even more of a necessity.

“I feel like trail running has been so beneficial because I like being in the outdoors. I am a type of person that likes to be alone to run, I think because I have four kids, which can be chaotic so it’s kind of like my peace,” says Verna Volker, a trail runner, mother, and advocate whose work with her own indigenous community has helped elevate her voice. “I feel like it’s helped me get outside and just to be a better parent, a better mom to my kids and kind of release all my stress, and it feels like coming home.”

Volker just completed her first ultra race, the 100K at the Javelina Jundred in Arizona. More than 60 miles is a challenge for anyone, but can be even trickier while raising four children.

“I was excited to accomplish the 100K, but at the same time, it was like the drive and the motivation behind it was just very spiritual for me,” says Volker. “I think in that way it’s been really beneficial. It also keeps me goal-oriented, because as a mom we oftentimes put our kids before ourselves. And so it really has driven me. This is my time, this is my goal.”

Volker isn’t alone in feeling that way. The science supports that running can help parents better navigate their lives.

“We say a lot that running makes you a more patient parent for sure. It makes you a more productive worker. It makes you a more loving spouse,” says Dimity McDowell, the co-founder of Another Mother Runner, an online running group aimed at mothers and women, in general, to help provide resources for runners of all levels. “Basically, when you run … you get out and do the thing that brings you joy and makes you feel competent and powerful.”

McDowell’s organization has created a community through social media and podcasts to reaffirm the benefits of running and how it can dovetail with all the challenges of parenting.

Keep Moving

Lack of sleep, poor eating habits and a host of other issues can impact new and longtime parents. It’s easy to see how these lifestyle changes and demands can stifle an active lifestyle. 

It also creates a new contradiction of being exhausted even though they haven’t even stepped outside. A University of Pittsburgh study highlighted this paradox, following different groups of people to see how life changes led to lower levels of activity. The study found that single and married people more or less kept the same level of activity, but once people became parents, their activity level slowed.

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Analysts found that many parents had an all-or-nothing approach, so if they couldn’t be all in on their activities, they would opt for skipping them altogether. However, research shows that even a little bit of exercise can be beneficial, even if it’s not as much as you hope to get.

“Running is obviously one of the most efficient forms of exercise. You can get out for a 20-minute run and feel great and you can leave from your front door. There’s minimal equipment,” says McDowell. “It gives you time to process things that may have happened, as far as trying to figure out a situation with your partner or with your kid. I mean, kids can be really challenging, right?”

The good news is that going for a run is more than just a healthy activity for a parent; it also provides an opportunity to be a role model for your children. Multiple studies show that more active parents raise more active children and instill a passion for getting into the outdoors that will make any outdoor-loving parent proud.

Getting Out There

With any lifestyle change there are new stress factors. Facing that stress is necessary to staying mentally healthy. Most of us have experienced the stress relief brought about by a great run, and that’s not just in your head. The pandemic led to a surge in people getting outdoors for comfort and created plenty of data to back this up.

Outside Magazine highlighted one study that showed how nature positively impacts your body’s chemicals, reduces stress hormones and lowers blood pressure. In the long term, it helps decrease the anxiety associated with significant life changes.

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While not every runner has quick access to trails, those who can make time for it can benefit from being in nature.

“If it’s available to you, go in without headphones and just really tune into the powerful being that you are and what you’re feeling,” says McDowell. “I think it’s so grounding and so helpful and mind-clearing. I also think it’s good for beginning runners. It can be really beneficial because you have to be focused on the trail in front of you.”

Preparing for Uphill Challenges

When it comes to being an active parent, simplicity is key. Whether that’s running down the road or training for an ultra, time can be one of the biggest challenges. And for many, that means early mornings, working with their partners to find time or even hiring a babysitter.

“It can be hard if you have a partner or a spouse who does not understand your need to run or your interest in running,” says McDowell. “Running is more time away from family, so it’s important to sit down and have a family meeting and say these are my workouts for the week. It’s especially important if you are training for something that requires more time.”

“My husband’s really great about taking the kids. When they were younger, he would come home at lunch for me to run,” says Volker. “Also, when they were younger, I would wake up early, like 4:00 a.m. Now, I still like waking up early and having time to run for me. Then I can get home in time for anything else.”

As a parent, time spent running may be more exclusive, but at the same time, you get to enjoy new trail days with a small companion who’s seeing the epicness of the outdoors for the first time. 

“I think that it’s just really fun when your kids start to join you and start running,” says Volker. “Just give yourself grace. I always tell people I started running in the midst of motherhood, and I had three little boys, so you’re tired, but somehow you make it through.”