I signed up to run a half marathon a few months ago thinking it would keep me jogging as the weather turned cooler. The weeks flew by and for a while, I managed to keep up the weekly long runs, squeezing a few in on vacation or on Saturday mornings. But at some point, shortly before Labor Day, I got buried under the crush of back to school craziness. Thanks to the Jewish holidays, the preschool calendar for my four-year-old twins operated in fits and starts for all of September. Then there were writing deadlines, the infamous NYC kindergarten applications hanging over my head, out of town houseguests, a nasty virus that swept through our home - you name it, I ran out of time to train. Or rather, I ran out of time to train the way I wanted to.
But this morning, as I contemplated whether or not I was really ready to run 13.1 miles (or whether I really wanted to for that matter), I decided this was one of those moments I couldn't flake out. I had to get tough. It would have been too easy to hit the snooze button and roll over. I knew I would feel victorious no matter how long it took me to finish the race. I decided this was a moment that called for follow through.
I quickly put on my shorts and sneakers, made breakfast for the kids, got them dressed for basketball practice and with 15 minutes to spare, met up with a group of women who were in many ways in the same exact boat as me. All of us are time strapped moms who decided that taking two plus hours for ourselves to run two hilly loops of Central Park was worth the effort. We were also running for Charley's Fund to raise money to help children suffering from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. So there was an added incentive to finishing the course.
Before I had a chance to doubt myself, the starting horn sounded and we were off. As I jogged at a comfortable, easy pace, I couldn't help thinking about how much motherhood demands mental toughness. I've interviewed dozens of fit moms over the last year and have found an important reason they continue to push themselves to exercise and train in spite of their busy schedules is that it reinforces their feelings of confidence and strength.
Former competitive gymnast Delaine Mathieu says her regular running and cycling workouts remind her of the resolve she once had when she would fall off the balance beam in practice and the coach would make her get back up and finish the routine.
"When I find myself wanting to give up when parenting gets tough, I think like an athlete: Stay strong, dig in and above all else, get back on the beam," the San Antonio, TX mother of two girls told me.
Los Angeles mom Jessica Cribbs employs a similar mindset, especially now that she is juggling a toddler son and newborn daughter at home. She says the determination she developed as a college athlete sprinting down the basketball court comes into play on a daily basis in her household.
"You do what it takes, because you're either in it focused and ready to go, or things will fall apart," she says.
The attitudes expressed by the moms I've interviewed reflect what sports psychology researchers have found about the strong connection between exercise and self-esteem. A 2005 study of middle aged and older women in the U.K. found that exercise over a 10 week period boosted feelings of achievement, empowerment and well-being. According to the researchers Hardcastle and Taylor, "The participants noted changes in social (caring) and domestic (physical activity) priorities: guilt-free exercise sessions became part of their weekly routines."
I've had the same experience as I've continued to exercise through motherhood. What I get out of pushing myself in a road race or finishing a tough spin class or even just making it to the gym for a quick circuit through the weight room is a sense that I can follow through - I'm tough enough to push through the challenge at hand. Whether it's sticking to my guns when I've told the kids no more screen time or not caving in when my son or daughter clamors for something in a store or just powering through the day after a child has been throwing up all night and I've got to rearrange everyone's schedules to take my other one to school, get to the doctor, meet deadlines for work, and figure out what to make for dinner, I know I can do it because I've done it before in other situations. Exercise is a meaningful way to visualize and physically remind myself, when it counts, I'm one tough mother.