Real Moms, Real Talk: Stephanie Bruce

Can you begin by to introducing yourself?

I’ve been running professionally for about 10 years. I went to UC Santa Barbara for college. After college, I tried to pursue running for a living, but I was struggling for a few years due to injuries. I just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. But, I essentially believed I could be a lot better than I was; something was just off. Then, I ended up finding out in 2010 that I had Celiac Disease. And that was kind of a huge turning point in my career because once you figure that out – I figured out that my immune system was shutting down on me. It’s not as simple as don’t eat pasta but for me, you know, I was reacting to all these food. So, I figured that out, and then I took a chance and moved from Eugene, Oregon to Arizona, to get my running career back going. I was lucky enough that 10 months after I was diagnosed, I ran the Houston marathon and I ran a huge Personal Record at the time; I’d run 240 in the marathon and in Houston 229:35. So, that was a really big breakthrough in my career. It ultimately kind of showed, I guess, what I believed I was capable of. Then, the next two years, I was racing on the US Road Circuit. I ran in the 2012 Olympic track trial; I was eighth there. And then, I basically was kind of pointing everything towards 2016, but we knew we wanted to start a family. So, in 2014, I got pregnant with our first son Riley and that was a journey in itself because there weren’t a lot of professional women that had stopped in the middle of their running career to have babies. So, I was going into uncharted territory of not knowing how to come back from pregnancy, and the right protocol to do it. I had a few friends that had done it before; I especially had a friend who had a baby and was coming back but she hadn’t gotten back a hundred percent. And then, as I was preparing for 2016 trials, we got a little surprise in 2015, and I ended up being pregnant with my second son. That wasn’t really a part of the plan because I was shooting for 2016 trials. There’s that old saying that life happens when you’re making plans. So, I got pregnant early 2015 and delivered the end of 2015. Ultimately, the last couple of years have just been working to get back to competitive racing and it’s been great because I didn’t rush back after both my babies. Both my sponsors were really supportive of my taking my time. I’m injury free. Now, I’ve just been trying to share the journey with all my fans and followers cause I think that’s a really important one: to grow the support of running. Also, there isn’t a lot of information about what’s going on out there: one, postpartum getting back to running and two, just postpartum living and what life is like. Yeah, it’s been really rewarding to kind of share that and people just knowing that as a professional athlete, I’m not a superwoman. I’m still a woman that has given birth. I just happen to run for a living. So, my quality of training is a bit higher.

 

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How has pregnancy and giving birth affected your life as an athlete?

It was very humbling. As athletes, we have a very high pain tolerance. We’re able to go through a lot of suffering but childbirth is something – there’s nothing else similar in the world. But the greatest part about it is that throughout all the suffering, there’s a great reward in the end which is the baby. So, it definitely changed my perception of pain as an athlete. I can suffer a little more during workouts and races knowing that the pain is going to end once I cross the finish line. It also just kind of made me give a lot more respect for my body. I’ve never really viewed my body as a machine. I just really saw it as something that I use to try to go after my goals. But, having giving birth showed me that I wasn’t indestructible and you’re definitely susceptible to more injuries and more risks coming back from having children. So, I gained a little bit of more perspective. And, I got patience in how I try to get back to the fitness level that I want to get back to. Then, just my overall time commitment and time management has changed because I know that I’m away from my kids for several hours of the day, so I try to make most of the opportunities that I am away from them: training and racing. So, I feel more focused when I’m in training and racing, knowing that I am sacrificing that time to be away from them.

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Conversely, how has being an athlete affected your pregnancy and postpartum recovery?

I’d like to say that it helped. Probably just because as an athlete, I know what it takes to recover. We’re very vary of – right after we finish the run or workout – to have something to eat or drink within the first thirty minutes. You understand staying hydrated throughout the day and that’s really important when you’re a new mom, when you’re breastfeeding. The biggest thing that is linked to milk supply is hydration. So, if you’re staying hydrated and eating enough calories, you’re going to make enough milk to feed your baby. So, those things are kind of very congruent. It was all the easy when I was breastfeeding in the middle of the night; I would be eating food every ninety minutes. It was crazy how you are spending so much energy that you’re still losing a ton of weight even though you’re eating so many more calories – you’re making so much milk. So, it was very natural having been an athlete, to figure out how to recover from childbirth. Yes, there were somethings that were like, yes, I can do this – and now, I can’t do that. Because I had a very aggressive delivery, I have had some tears and things that I couldn’t control. As an athlete, you would think you’re really strong, but it strips all of that strength away from you when you give birth.

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How would you say Diastasis Recti affected you physically and emotionally in an already tough time of postpartum period?

Physically, in the beginning it led to a lot of incontinence. I would pee my pants and at other times I would poop my pants. Those, besides the physical part of it, like mentally, those were very demoralizing moments because as a human being, you don’t have control over your bowel movements or going to the bathroom. It’s very embarrassing. You feel like you don’t have any control over your body. I think that emotionally component of that isn’t touched upon enough and how it can make a woman feel very bad about herself. Very luckily, I can make jokes about it; my husband and I are very open about it. So, I was able to kind of laugh about it but I know so many women; it affects them. And then, when I was trying to get back into running and upping my miles, I kept kind of having a lot of pelvic pain and a lot of butt problems that wouldn’t just go away by doing exercises. I had to be very specific about the stuff that I was doing. And, just how I looked as an appearance was like, yeah, my stomach had a lot of loose skin. Even when I went down to my racing weight, my skin is still very saggy and it looks different than before I had kids. Sometimes I have moments of wishing I looked like I did before I had kids, and I was 20 and my belly wasn’t protruding. But then I realize that those are very superficial feelings; it doesn’t matter that as a whole. My body is healthy enough and can take care of itself. Ultimately, I contributed two beautiful children, even if you have stretch marks or looks loose and all that.

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Based on your experience with DR, what advice would you like to give to women who are going through the same experience?

I would say, try to find a great postpartum specialist as soon as you can. If you have the luxury of starting right away, after a couple of weeks is great because you go see a gynecologist and they check to see if everything is back into place but there’s so many more questions. They just release you. A lot of woman don’t know what to do after that, so the first couple of weeks, even a couple of months, are really important because you can avoid doing the wrong exercises. By wrong, I mean doing things like crunches and planks where you’re putting your abdomen in a really aggressive, stretch position. You don’t really want to be doing any of those things that are going to create a hole in your abdomen. The earlier you can learn that you want to work from the inside out and work on the very inner muscles and bleeding exercises, the better. They are very painfully annoying exercises because you have to think about them more than doing them; there’s a lot of thought that goes into them.

But, the sooner you start those, I think the better. Also, don’t feel like it’s too late. If you’re weeks postpartum and you still feel like you have Diastasis Recti and you’re still in pain, always go see someone who specializes in postnatal care; pelvic floor specialists are great in that area. Just try to like, wake up all the muscles that haven’t been working for a while.

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Does DR go on for a while or is it curable?

It’s hard to say. So, the pelvic floor specialist and postnatal lady that I work with, Celeste Goodson, she basically said you can have DR for life, but you may never fully close the gap between the abdomen. If you’re out of pain and the strength component is there, you are still functional. You can still have a gap but it still works. I had a lot of people ask me if I would want to have surgery, but I read a lot of things and I don’t actually believe in the surgery – it brings it back together but in my way in an artificial way. I don’t believe that it fixes the strength component. Yes, I will always have a gap in my stomach and it will get bigger when I don’t do my exercises for a few weeks and when I’m on a break. But I believe that you can always work on it and get it in shape as close as possible. As long as you’re out of pain and you’re not having symptoms, it’s something that is definitely treatable in that aspect.

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Did you experience DR in your first pregnancy?

Yes, the thing is that I didn’t exactly know what it was. What I started to notice was, when I was 5 or 6 months pregnant, when I would lay on my back, I would just have this like concave looking thing in my stomach and I was like: oh, that’s strange, I didn’t your stomach muscles could do that. They were just, soft but then, as soon as I gave birth, it was really crazy. I could put my hand in between my abdomen, and it was really painful. So yeah, it happened right away, in my first pregnancy. I just didn’t know what it was.

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Was there a difference in postpartum care between your first and second child in terms of effects of DR? 

The second pregnancy was a surprise, I wasn’t really prepared. I also feel like I was getting in better shape for that one before I found out. But conversely, I don’t think my body had enough time to actually heal because I was only 6 months postpartum. So, my theory is that, it exasperated the condition because my body was like, okay, you had a baby and then it stretched. As it was starting to heal, then I got pregnant again and it kept stretching. So, part of my theory is that having them so close together is what really made DR a lot more pronounced. But I would say with my second, I started with better exercises right away. I think that it led me on to a better path to having less injury and less problems right away.

Your two boys are very close in age; how did your friends or family help and support you during this time?

My husband, who is also a professional runner, he was like a full-time dad. We share the role very equally, like 50-50. So, he was very supportive in being able to be with my first son while I was nursing. First couple of weeks, the poor guy, I would be breastfeeding at night and then he would be helping me with the baby. Then, when I finally got to sleep in the morning, our first would wake up so he would have to be with him. So, he pulled a lot of the weight. I also had friends from high school. They live about 10 hours away; they would drive up and drop off meals and just different things. We also have a day care lady and a babysitter that has been with the boys since they were little. So, we’ve had extra help around the house. Having the day care was basically how I got to do my job and train as a full time runner.

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Our goal is to help the mother with her health postpartum to best help take care of her so that she can help take care of the baby. So, looking back on your experiences with two babies, what advice would you give to a new mom in terms of self-care?

Let’s see, what does a mom need? I feel like, the mom needs to be with the baby but I think the mom needs a lot of alone time and different way for them to either – I’m lucky. I’m an athlete and I have entire practices and massage therapies that work on me weekly. So, having a mom have access to postnatal massage or postnatal physical therapy and stuff that would get their body back to where it should be or at least put them on the right track – I think that would be great. I also think self-care is important: going out with her friends or just having alone time – going to coffee by herself. Those are simple, but the more happiness a mom has by herself, the more she’s going to bring all of her strength back home when she tries to be a mom. So, it’s hard to say what those tangible things are, but I would just say time alone and access to kind of having massages and physical therapy to work on the mom specifically.

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Who has helped and supported you in the most meaningful way postpartum?

It would have to be my husband because we have the same job, training full-time. It allows me to –he has gotten up one morning to the kids to let me sleep in. I’ve travelled quite a bit in the last year and a half for racing and sponsor things. My husband has been there for me, and I think that is very unique and rare. Traditional role is to be a mom who stays home when dad is out working but we share that which allows me to be able to explore my opportunities as an athlete and a professional mom. That just makes me want to be a better mom when I’m home, and a better wife. So, I would definitely say my husband.

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Have you gone to baby showers or hosted one? What types of things do you normally gift your friends or do to help them out when they have babies?

I have been to a few baby showers, not many in the last few years. I would typically go off the registry, but what I learned after I had kids was that people only give gifts for the baby. I started to be like, there are these things you don’t know about. When the mom gives birth, you need to have really big maxi pads, and really huge underwear because you’re going to bleed through all of them. And things that, you would think are a big deal but you wouldn’t know about those things like: people call those things the butt bubble. It’s like, you can’t sit down due to pain if you’ve had a hard delivery. So, things like that: like a butt pad or things for nursing, like a nursing bra or pad that goes into the nursing bra. Those things are important that I don’t think women know. One of my best friends is like, go and buy huge granny panties. That was really great advice. I could throw them away I was done with them for the first couple of weeks.

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Is there anything else you would like to share?

I don't have anything specific. I love the self care of mom, I think that’s really important. Sometimes definitely not valued as much as taking care of the baby.

 

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Stephanie Bruce is an American long-distance runner and co-founder of Picky Bars.

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