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The role models leading the way for postpartum rugby players

By Lucy Lomax
Emma Croker of England poses with her daughter after winning the Rugby World Cup 2014 Final between England and Canada at Stade Jean-Bouin on August 17, 2014 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

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In previous years it’s been extremely rare to hear of women having children mid-rugby career and hanging up their studs for a period of time to prioritize a family.

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There was and continues to be little information out there about returning to a contact sport after giving birth and so many questions: What are the different considerations for returning to fitness if you have a natural birth as opposed to a C-section? What’s it like taking contact for the first time after childbirth or a caesarean, how long will I be out for? How much fitness will I lose? Will someone else take my place while I’m away?

We speak to 2014 England World Cup winner Emma Croker and current championship player Annette Bevan who had their children ten years apart but went through a very similar process when returning to the field.

Both women speak of their own experience of having emergency C-sections and returning to the pitch, being viewed as role models and paving the way for future mums in the sport.

Croker is one of only a handful of women to give birth at the peak of their international career and return to the highest level of the game and is somewhat of a case study in the space with many players reaching out to ask her about the unknowns.

“Three months after having Lucy I went back to play for Richmond in a couple of third team matches,” said Croker. “I then played again for England at the European Championships out in Italy when Lucy was only five months old.

“I tried to plan my pregnancy around the Six Nations and the two World Cup campaigns- it’s a tricky process as it’s not something you can just click your fingers and become pregnant.

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“Once I found out, I didn’t do any contact training until after I’d had her, but I still ran, cycled and did light weights to keep myself cardio fit as opposed to anything else.”

Croker describes what she found hardest about returning to the pitch.

“The barrier to returning was more mental for me rather than physical. I physically healed relatively quickly, and it was the thought of someone tackling you where you’d had your abdominals cut open that I was more worried about.

“Physically I treated it as coming back from an injury which you do all the time as a rugby player. I followed the doctor’s advice, took time to let my body recover, went on lots of walks with Lucy and then started doing really gentle jogs to increase my stamina as I hadn’t done much for a few months.

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“I was quite ill with preeclampsia from seven months onwards and couldn’t do a lot, so it took quite a while to get my stamina back. I went with what my body felt like it could do.”

Croker is proud to be viewed as a role model and mentions mothers-to-be who have contacted her in the past for advice.

“I’ve had three or four players in the past couple of years and people on social media asking questions and for helpful hints on what I had done to get back and it’s nice that people feel able to contact me and ask those types of questions.

“When I found out I was having a C-section I completely panicked, thinking it was going to take much longer and how am I going to get back as there wasn’t that bank of people to ask.

“If you look for the medical information online it’s there but I think there needs to be more women role models having babies and coming back into sport in general.

“When I was playing it was: ‘finish your rugby, then think about a family’ with a lot of my friends I played with in the World Cup final having children after they retired and certainly, back then it wasn’t seen as an option.

“You’re out for two years during pregnancy and coming back from it and you think someone’s going to come through and take your spot, but I think women now think a bit differently about it.”

It’s obviously a decision which differs from person to person, but Croker reveals why having her daughter mid-career was a choice she is proud of.

“Being able to show women it’s possible to have a baby and have a successful rugby career alongside has hopefully inspired people and gives them the confidence that it’s something you can do.

“And it’s an amazing experience! Being able to win the World Cup and have my two-year-old daughter there with me and have the photos to look back on with her wearing the medal, just sharing that experience was a magical thing.”

The decision to have a baby mid-career is a personal choice but not one many international players make, hinted by the recent retirement of 27-year-old Ireland captain Ciara Griffin who said she is retiring to ‘focus on my life outside of rugby and begin a new chapter.”

But what about other players further down the game? What are their experiences like?

Switch to Annette Bevan who plays for Reading Abbey Ladies in Championship 1 South who recently set up her own Instagram page @postpartumrugbymum dedicated to documenting her own journey from childbirth back to the pitch.

“The account was a spur of the moment decision,” explains the 30-year-old. “I had an emergency C-section after three days of labour and could barely walk for a week and I remember saying to my husband, how am I ever going to get back on the rugby pitch, how am I going to get back to going to the gym or running? And he was the one who suggested documenting my journey so I could look back and see how far I’ve come as there’s nothing out there and it may help other people.

“I started the page and the response I got! I’ve had people message me such as expectant mothers wanting to return to rugby or American football or other contact sports all asking questions as there’s no guidance out there.

“I’m a young, healthy and fit woman who didn’t have many issues during pregnancy and people were like you’ll breeze through labour and you’ll be back in the gym the next day but that didn’t happen. I had a three-day labour which ended in an emergency C-section so all the careful research I had done beforehand around a vaginal birth suddenly all went out the window.

“Luckily my pelvic floor was relatively intact when I went for a women’s health physio check at six weeks postpartum. But Ted was quite a big baby so I had three centimetres of ab separation and my physio said I couldn’t do anything until the gap was closed, so from weeks six to 12 I was doing excruciatingly dull core restore abdominal exercises. Then at 12 weeks I was cleared to start a return to running programme.”

When did it occur to Bevan that she wanted to have a baby and return to the rugby pitch?

“I always wanted to return to the pitch and knew it wasn’t time to hang up my boots yet. I think I’ve still got a few years left but it was only when I was in my third trimester, that I thought about returning and time frames. That’s when I realised there are so little guidelines out there for returning to contact sport or any sport really.

“Even the guidance on returning to running is quite vague and when I spoke to other rugby mums such as Emma Croker, Davinia Catlin and Jade Knight, all of their advice and time frames were different.”

Both Bevan and Croker believe more needs to be done to spread awareness and education around returning from childbirth to all sports, not just rugby.

Bevan admits that without the expertise of her club teammate who happened to be pregnant at the same time and a women’s health physio, she would have been without a clue as to the best way to return.

“Without my friend’s advice I probably would have gone out and tried to run five kilometres or something stupid and from what I can see and what I’ve heard there’s a lot of women making these mistakes because they don’t have the education.

“I’ve had a few friends recently who have given birth and not necessarily wanting to return to sport but I’ve said to go and see a women’s health physio and get their pelvic health checked because it shouldn’t be normal when you cough or sneeze after having a baby that you wet yourself, but there’s a lot of women who accept that as normal.”

Then add breastfeeding into the mix and it’s another dimension of the unknown for many mothers.

“I really mucked up on my first game back,” concedes Bevan. “I fed Ted before we left the house then I got to the rugby club, did the warmup and played the match, by the end of the match I felt like I was going to explode!

“It’s trial and error, so the second time I went off and fed Ted at the end of the warmup just before the match and luckily I have a very accommodating coach and team who allow me five minutes to go and do that.

“We have introduced the odd formula bottle which has been a life saver which has allowed a bit of flexibility but we’re getting there and learning.”

Croker’s experience of breastfeeding was different.

“It was a bit tricky, I only did it for three months as I found it quite difficult, and I didn’t want to play rugby and breast feed at the same time,” said the former international.

“By the time I got back to playing I’d moved on to the bottle but it’s an extra thing you have to deal with, having your breast pumps and breast pads in your bag as well as everything else and then arranging times of feeding around your training- it’s just another thing you need to think of before you go off and play!”

With the career of a rugby player being a short window, it is woefully unfair that players especially at the elite level tend to wait until their playing days are over to start a family.

It’s seems particularly unjust that the likes of England men’s players Ellis Genge, Joe Marler, Ben Youngs, Sam Simmons and Henry Slade to name only a few, are able to start their families relatively young, continue to play for years at the highest level and have their children grow up watching them. Only one current Red Rose player Marlie Packer has a child and that puts it into rather harsh perspective.

Is the topic of pregnancy and childbirth as an elite athlete just one more biological truth that athletes need to accept like menstrual cycle symptoms or do National Governing Bodies and unions need to be better at setting out maternity policies for players or health departments better at providing guidelines on returning to sport after childbirth? Perhaps only when more rugby players decide to have children mid-career will we find out.

 

If you are a woman looking to return to running or rugby postpartum, here’s our Q&A with women’s health physio and pelvic health specialist Emma Brockwell.

What considerations do women have to make when returning from pregnancy and childbirth to a contact sport like rugby?

We need to consider returning to sport after women have had a baby just as we would any other sports injury. We need to consider that regardless of how women have given birth every woman’s body will have changed dramatically and very quickly. For example, their bodies will have undergone hormonal and postural changes, increased weight and muscles will have lengthened, such as the pelvic floor and abdominal wall.

These changes alone require rehabilitation. A woman needs to consider that this process takes time- time to heal, recover and strengthen and much longer than the traditionally considered six weeks recovery that for too many years has been considered the adequate amount to return to any sport.  

This process especially when returning to high impact and contact ideally requires professional guidance. This ideally would include pelvic health physios, as well as fitness professionals who understand the perinatal body. 

No woman should experience pain or pelvic floor dysfunction when returning to their sport and if they do, their symptoms need to be treated and managed effectively, grading back to their sport as and when their bodies are ready. 

A return to sport is a gradual process, if muscles are overloaded and a return to sport happens too soon, women may be at risk of injury and if muscles are not loaded enough then they will not adapt to the requirements of the sport. Therefore, every woman regardless of how they birthed, regardless of their sporting ability requires a comprehensive, holistic assessment with a view to rehabilitate them as an individual.

What is your advice when it comes to returning to running and building up stamina and fitness postpartum?

Running is a high impact sport and to run effectively our bodies need to be strong internally and externally. After having a baby, women are more predisposed to pelvic floor dysfunction so it’s imperative that pelvic health is addressed. When returning to running consider building blocks and build slowly. Strengthening can start as early as day 0- commencing with pelvic floor exercises. Listen to your body in the early days with gentle frequent movement in the early 0-2 weeks. As you feel more comfortable in the proceeding weeks, gradually add gentle body weighted strengthening exercises like squats and lunges.

Walking is a great way to build stamina in the first six weeks. Always listen to your body and if you are symptom free (ie. no pain or pelvic floor dysfunction) after six weeks consider increasing low impact exercise like cycling and light weights. If you are symptom free and have not been guided by a pelvic health physiotherapist then consider gradually reintroducing a return to run at around 12 weeks using a walk-run program. Ideally, we recommend a pelvic health physiotherapy assessment for all women from six weeks onwards. 

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The role models leading the way for postpartum rugby players

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