Most Lower Mainland residents can’t imagine completing a triathlon even when they’re in the best of shape. But Gillian Clayton managed this feat when she was 26 weeks pregnant. Then she did it again in her 34th week, finishing 24th out of 132 racers in the sprint category in the 2013 Subaru Vancouver Triathlon.
“They were very short in comparison to the Ironman,” Clayton told the Georgia Straight by phone from her home, where she is raising her three-month-old son Matthias. “It’s about an hour for the sprint, whereas it’s nine or 10 hours for the Ironman.”
She’s very familiar with the Ironman, having won the professional women’s Canadian competition in 2012. It took her 9:40:07 to swim 3.86 kilometres, cycle 180.3 kilometres, and run a marathon of 42.2 kilometres.
Clayton, a physiotherapist who recently moved from Vancouver to the Comox Valley, said she didn’t know how to swim until she began competing in Ironman events. Before that, she was a distance runner, but she admitted to being “sort of peeved” that there was a race that was more difficult. So she signed up with a friend for a half-Ironman. “Probably just for bragging rights, I wanted to do a harder event,” she said.
During her pregnancy, Clayton didn’t feel that she was taking undue risks competing in triathlons, calling it a “very personal choice” for women. She noted that she wouldn’t have done this had it been a high-risk pregnancy, but she says trained athletes assessed at low risk don’t need to drastically reduce their activities. “But they shouldn’t be increasing their training after they get pregnant,” she cautioned. “If they’ve done an Ironman and they’re slowly scaling back, a sprint triathlon is a drop in the bucket.”
Just over three months after giving birth, Clayton is back running once a week. She’s also doing core exercises, including pushups and planks, which she couldn’t do much before Matthias was born. “A lot of that is contraindicated in pregnancy, increasing interabdominal pressure,” she said. “So I didn’t do a lot of that, although I’m sure I was still using the muscles when I was running.”
She’s hoping to return to cycling in the next few weeks if the recent foggy weather will go away. Then it will be cross-country skiing in winter and more committed running in the spring. She’s hoping to do a marathon next fall but won’t consider another Ironman event before 2014.
“I’d certainly jump into a shorter triathlon to get back in it and have fun,” Clayton added.
When asked what advice she has for others hoping to get in shape this autumn, she recommends starting a consistent program of core exercises. In her opinion, the best approach is two 30-minute sessions a week. “Within six weeks, they would actually see benefits of the core-strength workout,” Clayton commented. “They would reap that in their training because they would feel noticeably different if they stuck to a program.”
One of the benefits of doing pushups and planks is that they enhance lower-back strength. Clayton said that athletes place a lot of emphasis on increasing abdominal strength but sometimes neglect the lower back. She suggested that a weak lower back can lead to injuries while riding a bike, hamstring problems, ankle sprains, and less efficient running.
She’s still not lifting weights because hormonal changes from pregnancy can affect the ligaments. But she’s hoping to get back to this in the spring, doing squats and dead lifts.
Clayton’s diet changed during pregnancy. A former vegetarian, she couldn’t eat salads for extended periods, which she found rather strange. She went off meat when she was just 13 years old.
“I wasn’t a very educated vegan, so I didn’t get enough protein and suffered in training,” she said. “Probably 10 years ago, I added eggs and milk, and in the last few years, I added fish because it’s a local product. I needed another source of protein and fat.”
She consumes clams and tuna to boost her iron levels. That’s because she said that many endurance athletes are borderline anemic. Since giving birth, Clayton said, she seems to want to eat protein all the time.
She described her husband, Shawn, a registered massage therapist, as “very understanding” when she took a year off work to train full-time for the Ironman. “I didn’t do this all on my own,” she said. “He’s a very patient, very understanding supporter.”