After motherhood,stronger and higher?

No clinching proof but current field suggests high jumpers perform better post pregnancy

Written by New York Times | London | Published: August 9, 2012 1:41:12 am

Qualifying for the women’s Olympic high jump final begins on Thursday morning. In this year’s competition,at least three of the medal contenders have given birth in the last year or two,including the gold medal favorite,Anna Chicherova of Russia,and the American Olympic trials champion Chaunté Lowe. And that does not include the defending Olympic champion,Tia Hellebaut of Belgium,who is in the midst of a second comeback to the sport after having had two children since she won the gold medal four years ago. It is considered an urban legend that women get stronger as athletes after they have had children. Does this year’s high jump competition give credence to that legend?

“I’m not aware of anything that would suggest pregnancy is ergogenic,that it’s performance enhancing or muscle building,” said Dr. Elizabeth A. Joy,a sports medicine specialist. Yet the athletes themselves suggest otherwise.

American Amy Acuff,who finished third in the US trials this year,took a full year off after the birth of her daughter. When she began trying to regain fitness,she remembers finding it easy. “They had only one medicine ball at the gym,and it was a really heavy one. I started doing this routine that I would usually do with half that weight. I was looking at the ball and wondering if they had marked it right because it just seemed really easy.”

Lowe,who had her second daughter last year,had a similar experience. “Before the birth,the highest weight I could squat was 225 pounds,” she said. “But now I can squat a lot more than that.”

“One paper that looked at muscle strength in women postpartum showed that at six weeks postpartum in general the women weren’t as strong as they were before they got pregnant. But at six months postpartum they were stronger.” Dr. Joy said.

After Acuff got over her initial surprise at her newfound strength,she hypothesized about where it came from. “I thought about how I do almost the same thing with a 20-plus pound baby all day that I did with the medicine ball,” she said.

But Dr. Benjamin Levine,a professor in exercise sciences,is a sceptic. “I personally can’t think of any single factor that would be consistently present in a pregnant woman that would make her faster after pregnancy than before,” he said.

Dr. Joy said: “When a woman delivers,she still has this incredibly expanded blood volume,which declines over the next six weeks. But in that first six-week postpartum period,and particularly among elite athletes who are very fit,I bet they’re getting back to exercise pretty quickly. After their delivery,they just lost 15 pounds. They probably do feel like they have this huge engine with a much lighter load.”

Dr. Levine said: “It’s a major life change and perhaps it focuses their concentration. Maybe they have more to win and are more motivated.”

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