Q&A: One-On-One With Lauren Fleshman

Lauren Fleshman says she is working on her fitness after giving birth last year. Photo: Courtesy of Oiselle

Catching up with the two-time 5000m national champion about being a new mom and her 2014 goals.

Former Stanford University standout Lauren Fleshman knows all about pain thresholds. She was first an elite distance runner and last June gave birth to her son Jude. The 32-year-old, two-time 5000m national champion (2006 and 2010) is slowly returning to training with a new outlook.

Competitor caught up with Fleshman, who resides in Bend, Ore., to talk about what it’s like to be a running mom and her goals for this next Olympic cycle.

You have written before on your blog about how the pain of labor was much more intense than anything you’ve ever experienced as a runner. Tell me more about that.

Everybody’s birth experience is different. I have friends who’ve experienced less traumatic births. For me, it’s very hard to put into words. You don’t want to scare people away from childbirth, either. It just felt like surgery without anesthesia. It was on another level than what you feel running. Running burns and aches and explodes your lungs and shreds your quads, but it is always in your control. You can always stop or slow down. And you just lose that control. The universe is taking over. You are an active participant, but you don’t have control. So, that was hard. That might have been the biggest differentiator.

As a successful distance runner, you surely know how to come to grips with pain and deal with it. A lot of this probably comes from your mental strength. You have to have a strong mind to do what you do at your level. Did you apply any mental imagery techniques that you used as a runner during the birth?

Yes, it did. The mental techniques that I’ve learned as an athlete got me through probably 21 of the hours in labor very well. There is a rhythm to labor. It’s like a really hard interval workout. You get breaks between reps where you can compose yourself until the end when you don’t get breaks anymore. In my situation, I had something called back labor. The position of the baby was such that there was constant pressure on my nerves in my back. This meant that the breaks stopped early on in the process. The pain would just shift from front to back between contractions. I wasn’t really expecting that—to be honest. I had mentally prepared myself for labor being an interval workout. Once that happened, I struggled with panicking.

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I was filled with a lot of doubt if I could handle it. If you can imagine it as a runner, it’s like someone else has a remote control and they were controlling your body while you were doing a workout, and they got to determine how long and how fast you went. They are taking over your body, but your body is there and you are feeling everything. It can’t slow down or speed up or stop when you want it to. You just have to trust that it’s not going to kill you. It’s intense.

That’s a great analogy. As a man, it’s hard to relate to what women who give birth have to go through.

Yeah, just imagine that someone put you on Bernard Lagat’s pace for an 800.

You have to just keep going.

That’s right. You can’t stop. [laughs]

So what’s it like to come back to the sport? What are you up to training and workout-wise?

For me, this year is all about staying healthy and having fun. I want to expand my experience as a runner to a larger community of runners. I’m learning a lot and reading a lot. I’m participating in things that I wouldn’t necessary do as much. I’m even being a fan like at Payton Jordan, watching incredible things happening in the sport. I’m also training my butt off, but I’m doing it in a very intelligent and flexible way. A lot of things pop up after having a baby like little injuries, niggles, aches, and pains. I have no interest in another serious injury. I just can’t imagine it. I think one more serious injury would encourage me to do something else with my time. I know that as a runner, a year post-birth is a high-risk time. My sponsors and my family just really want me to do it right. This means I take at least one day off a week. I cross-train. I do a lot of gym work. I’m not doing the high-intensity stuff on the track that is required for me to run a 5K or a 1500, but I’m preparing for races anyway and will run off strength.

I’m going to be focusing on a few key road races—one of which is the New York Mini 10K. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m going to do the Prefontaine Classic or not. I’m going to do the Peachtree 10K. Then I’m going to try and qualify for Nationals at the Oxy [High Performance Meet] 5K. I’ve also chosen to do a destination race, which is the Sonoma Half Marathon in mid-July. I’m giving a speech there and so it will be a great community-focused event. I’m also going to be a guest speaker at a high school running camp. It’s a New Balance-sponsored track camp and I know the organizer. I went to college in that area and I’m really passionate about it—keeping in touch with the youth there.

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That sounds like a lot.

Yeah, I’m going to be busy. I will be traveling a lot. I’m also supporting Jesse [Thomas, her husband and pro triathlete]. I’m the wife of a pro athlete. We wear a lot of hats. I get to cheer him on, which is fantastic.

You’re friends with Kara Goucher. She’s ahead of you when it comes to having a baby and staying pro. Did you ever talk to her about lessons she’s learned?

Yes. Definitely. She felt that in hindsight she could have been a little more patient. So I took that to heart.

You mentioned the race distances you were training for and I think I heard 5Ks and 10Ks. Any thoughts of moving up?

You mean the marathon?

Yes.

Yeah, I’ll definitely do another marathon in the next couple years. I don’t really know for sure which direction my career is going to take me in 2016. This year is about figuring out what post-baby body and post-baby athlete looks like. I’m curious to see if I’m going to be better at longer distances than I was before or better than I was at shorter distances than I was before. You just don’t know. Childbirth changes women in different ways. I’ll experiment with what feels good and what kind of training feels the best and that will affect my schedule for 2015 and 2016. But I wouldn’t rule the marathon out. I’d say it’s a little bit of a long shot right now. It’s not really my focus, but I won’t rule it out.

Are you pushing Jude around in a jog stroller?

I do sometimes. I take him out when I need to. I have a mountain buggy, but I really prefer to run free. I spend a lot of time with him and running has always been my thing. It’s more like I take him when I can’t find help.

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If a new running mom is reading this, what are one or two things that you can tell them as they try to get back into training?

I would say don’t underestimate the trauma that birth can cause to your body. A lot of women have the baby and get so caught up in it, you forget what your body went through. It takes a full rehab and love and care. I really recommend that every woman who has a baby spend their energy rebuilding their core. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but you should stay on it regularly a couple times a week. You should do kegel exercises, pelvic floor, and plank exercises. The other piece of advice I would give them is that the simpler the better. Don’t try to jump back into your pre-baby abs routine. Go back to the uber basics. You really need to reset the entire system—the neural pathways, everything. You’ve been walking around with this big basketball in front of you. You really need to get back to basics. It just takes a few of them and then you’ll have a pretty good foundation for your running. You’ll stay healthy and be able to do more complex core exercises to train and recruit all the right muscles.

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