Science says motherhood won’t slow down Jessica Ennis-Hill

Today the golden girl of London 2012 returns to competition at the Manchester Great City Games for the first time since giving birth to her first son - sports scientists explain the post-pregnancy challenge

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This Saturday, Jessica Ennis-Hill will take her first baby steps back to competition following the birth last July of her first child, Reggie.

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If the gold medal she won at London 2012 marked the pinnacle of her heptathlon career, returning to the track after pregnancy has been, as she says, “a whole different ball game”.

Toni Minichiello, Ennis-Hill’s coach since she was 13, is ensuring the mother of all comebacks is carefully planned. And the golden girl of British athletics knows there’s a great track record of new mums coming back even stronger.

“Before I had Reggie, it was all about me, me, me,” she said recently. “Now Reggie comes before everything else, but I’m still really competitive. I want to be there, and be at my best again.”

Ennis-Hill was back in the gym in October, only three months after giving birth. The 100m hurdles at the Great CityGames Manchester will be the first time she has raced in almost two years, and she won’t compete in a full heptathlon until the end of May, giving her time to remaster the seven different disciplines.

Professor Greg Whyte, sports scientist at Liverpool John Moores University, is reassured that Ennis-Hill has not tried to do too much, too soon.

“During childbirth, hormones are released that increase laxity around the joints, particularly around the pelvic area,” he explains. “What you have to be careful of immediately post-childbirth is that you don’t overexert those loose joints.”

Split abdominal muscles, which are a common complaint during pregnancy, can also pose problems for returning athletes. “That can impact on core stability, and Jessica, as we know, is Mrs Abs,” says Whyte.

“You only had to look at her at London 2012 to see how incredible her core strength is. Pregnancy won’t necessarily have been detrimental, but the way she addresses those issues will have to be very specific.”

That said, changes in the bodies of pregnant women, including a natural increase in red blood cells, can be incredibly valuable, especially in the first trimester when they can carry on training pretty much as normal. Unfortunately for Ennis-Hill, that hormone boost will almost certainly have worn off by the time she takes her marks in Manchester.

“Those performance benefits fall off quickly after giving birth,” Whyte explains. “You get a return to what we call homeostasis, a return to normal levels, very rapidly post-childbirth.”

The biggest advantage for Ennis-Hill may be psychological. Jo Pavey, who won 10,000m European gold in August last year at the age of 40, had given birth to her second child, Emily, only 11 months previously.

“We made it a family affair,” Pavey said of her return to training (her husband Gavin is her coach). “We’d all go to the track together, and Emily would play on the rug in the sunshine and my son Jacob would be running around. I was still breastfeeding at the start of April, only a month before the 10,000m trials. “I still train really hard, but I’ve got a good balance to my life – I don’t dwell on training afterwards,” she added. “I’ve got two lovely children and a supportive husband, and that made it possible for me to go out, enjoy my running, and not get stressed about it.”

Ennis-Hill has already adapted her training regime. Whereas for London 2012 she trained in morning and afternoon sessions, she now does just one morning session, leaving afternoons free for Reggie. When he goes to bed at 7pm, she works on a weights routine in her home-built gym. 

Her pregnancy “sabbatical”, Whyte argues, could have a profound effect on her performance. “There is no doubt about it, a nine-month, guilt-free sabbatical was probably a very positive thing for her. Now it’s about managing that change in lifestyle.

“Having children brings balance, because you suddenly realise what’s important,” he says. “But equally you have to be careful that the balance doesn’t tip too far in favour of family life and anti-competitiveness. She will have to manage her new lifestyle – being married, having a child – and balance that against how driven, dedicated and tenacious she is within her sport.”

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Young Reggie might only be crawling, but Ennis-Hill is ready to leap back into contention. “I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been days when I thought: ‘I’m not sure I want to do this, it’s really hard. I’ve already become Olympic champion. Do I want all the stress and hard work again?’ But I have to give it a go.”