Becoming a climbing parent
We’ve been quite quiet over the last 10 months. A few Instagram Stories about our life as climbing parents, a couple of interviews; but if you were hoping for some tips on climbing-parenting, then we definitely failed so far. We think there is a very obvious reason for the lack of information out there – young parents are OVERWHELMED !
I will for now skip the description of Mini Monkey’s birth. It all went well, apart from the small detail of being 32 hours!
In my life I have done some weird things, some scary things, some hard things, but giving birth simply has no match.
For now, I am just trying to forget most of it, because I found it terrifying, despite having really worked on it beforehand, visualised, and prepared myself (like a competition actually!). If you are in the ‘we are pregnant’ scenario, just gather as much information as you can, try to be sure there will be two of you there, and, well, you’ll get through it. Maybe you will actually find it wonderful?! Some people do. We did… once it was over!
I will also take a pass for now on aspects of baby life that are not ‘climber’s questions’ related.
During the first 3 months, our main obsession was: ‘how do we teach baby to fall asleep’, or at least to be happy when he is still; and climbing related questions occupied only a small part of my exhausted brain. I say ‘my, it was really ‘ours’. James and I were always trying to be in the same boat, although with breast-feeding, Daddy’s place is hard to find at first.
In this blog, I will mainly focus on the questions we had regarding maintaining our climbing life while simultaneously trying to be good parents, and we hope that you assume that I wasn’t just obsessing on this, because also we were thinking about: trying washable nappies, baby’s vaccinations, and the endless, ‘normal’ but so hardcore aspects of ‘parents life’. But there are a multitude of very, very good blogs, interviews, and websites out there for normal parenting, and I am sure you came to this one for “climber’s tips!”
Finally, this is only our first baby experience, and every baby is different. If you are lucky, maybe some of the tips we found will work with yours!
Baby from 0 to 3 months – How to get 3 minutes of happy quiet/sleeping baby so that you can train…
Every baby is different, right? Well, our Mini Monkey was born very healthy, very awake, fed fine, everything was perfect… and there isn’t a ‘But’, because him wanting constant movement was just what we were hoping for. We wanted an active baby, and we got one! Which meant that you simply couldn’t put him down. Not in a baby transat, not in his bed, not on your lap, or on the sofa. But he would be perfectly happy on a 6 hour hike, balanced by the movement in his baby carrier (We got offered a 360° ‘Ergobaby’, it was maybe the most useful present EVER!) Sometimes, if we were VERY lucky, you could transfer him onto a cushion after feeding, and get 40 minutes of rest.
So how did mum train (and that is a very grand word for what was actually recovering some sort of abdominals, biceps, triceps!)?
In France, there are 10 free sessions of rehab with a midwife, and to be honest that is the very least that is needed after the enormous event that is giving birth!
I only began exercising once I had the green light from my midwife, which was around 2 weeks after birth. By ‘exercising’ – I simply mean a tiny little bit of effort. Here are a few exercises that work with a baby on you:
(But make sure that you actually position your pelvic muscles well before any sort of exercise)
-Vertically soothing baby… Instead of balancing baby to sleep sideways, do some steps style balancing. It is tiring on your quadriceps, indeed, but, that’s the point: training IS tiring!
-Upper body tone up with little weights : with baby in the baby carrier, you can still do a few movements: 1kg weights in each hand, do some reps of shoulder press, tricep extensions, bicep curls, lateral shoulder raises… These are all exercises that people normally do with much heavier weights, but 1 kg is honestly enough to start with. Again, make sure you rotate your pelvis forward to protect your back with good posture, bend your legs slightly at the knees. I never really had more than 10 minutes of quiet, so I just kept doing little bits all day. The key is to have the weights handy in the living room!
– Easy walking. The first few weeks were so intense, and we were so tired, that twice a day I would get out with baby in his baby carrier, hidden below a huge down jacket (if you don’t have one, you could always ask someone to borrow theirs for a few months). It was January, 5 degrees celsius at the very best, but these little hikes were the most exercise I could achieve, and were doubly great: I took an audiobook to listen to; baby could finally sleep with the movement; and I could escape the sometimes long hours of feeding with a series on Netflix (great for two hours, but then sooo boring).
-After 1 and a half months, I was allowed to begin climbing again. Again, climbing was a very grand word. For the first 3 weeks, all I could manage was 20 minutes at the wall, with one routine: Trying to stay on the wall for 5 minutes without feet touching down. Then rest 10 min; and then 5 more minutes of climbing. Easy in theory right? Well it was very hard for 2 reasons: 1. I had to find 20 minutes of freedom, and manage to not immediately sleep. And 2. I had zero abdominals left. I felt so heavy, I couldn’t close my arms. I definitely had a few moments of ‘I will never ever make it back’. And not only this silly discouragement, rather a proper re-evaluation of what I could hope for, as a) I clearly had never been as bad at climbing in my whole adult life, and b) I demanded myself to train, to work on a body which was overweight, untoned, and while I had next to no free time, and a lack of sleep that did actually feel like a torture. I sometimes had the temptation to ‘disappear behind my baby’s life’: devoting myself entirely to him for at least a year, and forgetting my fanciful dreams of recovery. That would make me a better mum, right? And all this energy I was trying to keep for my climbing felt like a theft. But I didn’t follow that path though. Partly because I am a bit too selfish, and I felt I had to keep some focus on myself, to have some little project aside from just 100% baby, and the other part is simply that I am an athlete, with no normal retirement plan, and I would rather steal a bit of training time away from my baby than have to get a ‘normal’ job (where most likely I would lose even more time with him!).
4 to 6 months
Everybody says the first 3 months are the hardest. I wouldn’t say that baby was sleeping through the night by then, not quite, but he had began to sleep 4 hours in a row, and he had begun to fall asleep in the evening. I won’t enter into a lot of details, but James and I really, really struggled, and finally what we think made the difference was that we began following a sleep program: https://www.littleones.co. It seems mad to think all babies are the same; I thought the concept was ridiculous, but James wanted to give it a try. Weeven argued about it, but it did work. Baby began to do his naps, 45 minutes in a row only, and his nights became easier as well.
Which meant that finally I had 45 minutes of freedom, at least once a day! Of course you might also wonder where James was then? Well James was madly trying to transform our new van into a campervan, knowing that we would go to Corsica a month later! He did manage that, but it meant that I was mostly in charge of the little one.
I began to feel more solid after 3 months, and I started a pull-up, pushup, dip pyramid routine. My goal was to allow myself the time and space to start simple and I began with push-ups on my knees, and pull-ups with an elastic band. I strived to flow between each exercise working my way up to 6 and then back down again. Each number increase meant more sets and I would rest for two minutes between sets. Eventually, I could do the routine without aids and worked my way up to 10 sets which made me so happy!
Around the 4th month, I began using rings exercises again. I was doing the usual exercises that I had been doing for the last few years, but with fewer reps, and allowing myself more rest in between. After my first session, my whole body was sore for 5 days. Rings use a lot of core, and that core strength is very similar to what you need in climbing, so I kept going, until the rings exercises felt fine.
Then I began training ‘normally’, for climbing, only really avoiding bouldering, as that is the most explosive type of effort. I would work on endurance and power endurance. My main climbing goal was to succeed a 25 move loop in our home wall, (that I had previously been using for laps). But for nearly 2 months, I couldn’t even do the movements! Again, I found my main issue was the lack of body tension. Until I soon realised that what I was missing was not actually the muscles, but rather the neural message: if I concentrated and visualised a movement where I kept on falling, I usually managed to do it on my next try!
From that point on, my training began to resemble to normality, but always in a rush as our baby seemed to only ever nap for 45 minutes!
Now, it’s all fine and well to ‘train’, but how does one go to the crag with a baby?? This is definitely a topic where James and I will keep on having ideas and failures as baby grows, but here are, in a nutshell, a few tips that we used at different ages:
- Climb with a 3rd adult / a grand parent. Of course that is THE best way to go, but, you don’t always have a 3rd adult and actually, sometimes you would still like to climb only with baby, it feels more romantic and nice with just baby.
- Teach baby to nap outside: We have/had 2 strategies: We did ‘train’ baby to nap in his baby tent (Deryan Travel cot bébé), even at home, so that when outside, he would know exactly where he was. Or, we simply used the baby carrier, as Baby is definitely happiest sleeping on one of us. But that means that you can’t climb, you can maybe belay.
- Belay with baby: Disclaimer: this is very far from text book best practice, and we only used this solution on top rope or very easy routes. We either belayed with baby on our back, if the route was overhanging and we were sure we wouldn’t have any chance of rock fall; or we belayed with a REVO (Wild country) attached to a big tree instead or our harness (so that you’re not in the system). As the Revo still give a little bit of dynamic belay, it’s fine to fall and be held by a tree.
- Solo climbing – same story with a Revo. If you uncoil the rope well, you can pull the slack yourself. Again, we only did that with warm up routes.
- Warm up on the floor with traverses. That way you minimise the time you have to be away from baby.
- Choose your crags wisely: (a) make sure there is no rock fall possibility, and that baby is always far away from being underneath you. We bought a biking helmet as they come smaller than the climbing helmets, and just trained baby to like/accept it. (b) make sure there aren’t too many people, mostly for rock fall reasons, but also so that you don’t feel bad if baby suddenly decide to have a tantrum. (c) make sure you avoid crags that don’t have a good ‘floor’. Ledges are a nightmare. That is obvious, and yet we still found ourselves holding onto a fidgety baby countless times, because saying “it’s fine” doesn’t mean it is fine!
One year down the line: dreams and reality
When I was pregnant, I did state out loud that I would recover, meaning I would come back quickly, and return to my former level. What did it all come down to? It was all simple in my mind: discipline! I knew how to train, I just had to do it.
In my head, it all meant that I would get fit again and simply do another 8c. Indeed, 8c has been my maximum level, more or less, and for sure, if I could do another 8c, it would mean that I was back, right?
Well, one year down the line in 8 days, have I done another 8c? Nope.
I can list all the excuses that stopped me, and I will (haha!), but I would rather begin this statement with a positive note: I feel that I am back. At the minute we are only bouldering, a discipline of climbing that I never really explored before, so I don’t really have any way to measure, compare, or critique; but physically, I feel just fine. I still have a little bit of uncertainty and insecurity in my head, which plays with my sending efficiency, but I will soon get there, I know it. I haven’t been on a diet, but I can’t see much fat on my belly, my abdominals feel very good, and I try very hard when I climb. In other words, my sensations as a climber are all back, and not just that: I LOVE climbing. Again. Still. I maybe even enjoy it more than I did before I got pregnant. And with 1 year of emotional ups and downs, I think I have learned that this, actually, is what I should have aimed for when I projected my recovery: sensations and emotions, rather than grades.
What is the big deal anyway?
If we backpedal a little bit: What is the real challenge in the goal of recovering from having a baby?
I will mainly talk about the female side, but for sure James has gone through it too, and you’ll see why.
Getting pregnant and giving birth is NOT a small detail. I don’t think I had really grasped it all when we jumped into the adventure. From a physical point of view, you do put on (I stopped going on the scales at 13!) over 10kg at least. That part didn’t scare me that much, as in my comp years I was yo-yoing every end of season with up to an 8kg variance. You get fat, you loose the weight, you get back…
What I hadn’t realised how important the abdominals are! You put on nearly all the weight in your belly, and your abdominals do actually separate, so you can’t used them AT ALL for months! In the time immediately after the birth – its exhausting to begin with, and then you spend months not sleeping enough, focussing entirely on a small but demanding little one, and definitely not focussing on YOUR body!
Ask any trainer: putting on weight + not sleeping + not having any free time to train = not the best method to get fit!
Serena Williams did definitely come back very fast. I have no idea how much training is needed in tennis, but I would like to know if Serena was the one waking up at night, or if she had a full time nanny? I am not judging her [if that is the case] in the slightest, but James and I did get to a serious level of exhaustion in the first 3 sleepless months, and at one year old, our mini one is still not really sleeping right through. Sometimes (one time, actually) he does, but take yesterday for example, he fell asleep around 8:30, woke up around every 2 hours (only needed a quick cuddle and dummy back), and at 3:30 am he had a full hour of “hello mummy and daddy, I am awake and I would like to play please”, and then finally slept with us in bed until 9am. For sure, that isn’t his best night, or his worst, and actually James and I are quite fine with that quality of sleep… But any trainer will tell you that this isn’t ideal for an athlete.
SO yes, I didn’t know that parents do have such a bad sleep pattern, because it didn’t even seem possible, and I had a simple preconception that babies must surely sleep…sometimes!
Onto my question regarding Serena Williams: did she have a full time nanny? Because as I detailed in the sections above, young babies (ours at least) aren’t that happy about letting you train quietly for 2 hours. 45 minutes was my maximum amount of proper training time. Which is fine, if you cut out the warm up and warm down, which I did.
When Arthur was 6 months old, I had managed to train, I was physically not that far from being ‘back’, and I began projecting an 8b+ (one little half grade below my initial big target. I thought it would be quite cool if I did my first 8b+ only 7 months AB (After Baby) … I got close. I was really focussing on that grade. I did get actually get my first 8b (AB), and fell just a few moves short of the 8b+
But, does it come as a big surprise if I tell you that I got injured? As I am writing this text, I can see it. Of course I got injured. I was simply pushing too far, too fast. I went past my body’s warning (in the form of a little pain), and kept on working on my project. Part of my brain knew that I was taking a risk. In any other circumstances, I would have taken a step back, rested, changed route… But I didn’t. And I got injured.
I think that a tiny part of me even pushed towards the injury, as it would be a good excuse to not have to handle this double fight of being a good, attentive, present mum, AND being a top climber back-in-shape-in-lightning-fast-time.
So I got injured (weird bicep contracture that wasn’t going away), and it lasted for 3 months. I was still climbing a little bit, but only bouldering because I could choose my movements, but couldn’t engage my bicep at all, which doesn’t quite work for hard climbing, and so I learnt my lesson.
I did finally realise how ridiculous my grade hunt was. It didn’t really matter for my sponsors (even if I had persuaded myself that it did) because they are good human beings and they are not waiting for me around the corner. It only mattered to myself, and I was being my harshest judge! The only person fighting against the clock was me!
I think (crossing fingers as I type) I finally have managed to shake that bicep injury, which now allows me to try some hard (ish) boulders. I feel light, I pull hard, I focus, and James and I love to go bouldering outside with our Mini Monkey, because there is definitely plenty of time for each of us to enjoy climbing, playing, discovering the forest, and cuddling! Of course I am still worrying every now and again: ‘Am I good enough? Do I still deserve to be a professional climber?’, but then this has always been the question in the back of my mind. Ultimately, baby or no baby, it is definitely a huge opportunity and privilege to be allowed to live the life we have, and you could always question why you are the one who gets that chance.
I try hard, James tries hard, he definitely seems to be back in very good shape; I am not quite at my very top level but I am learning a lot, and we still put baby first. If it’s too cold for him or he doesn’t enjoy the forest because he’s having a low day, we make sure that we are always available and caring, and climbing goes out of the window. And that is totally fine, because cuddles all day are totally worth one less climbing day. Maybe it means that we will miss on a send, but then, honestly, that’s okay too. James and I are adjusting to life with Mini Monkey, and the biggest change is actually there: our focus has shifted from the research of success to the enjoyment of the instant. This is what babies do to us parents, and that may be the best part of it all.