Athletes Corner: Jen Bigham - Mom, wife, elite runner... and check out those abs!


It appears that I like names that start with a 'J'. After Jessica and Julia, I present to you Jen! I would come across Jen's Instagram when she was postpartum with her second child and think to myself, "wow, what are you complaining about if she can do all the things she does with two little kids". I was seriously impressed with the dedication to breastfeeding that Jen displayed when she resumed racing, so I started following her, then commenting and ultimately asking if she would do this interview. I'm glad Jen said yes, but read for yourself:

How did you become a runner and what is your favorite distance? I started running the summer before 7th grade in preparation for middle school cross country. My dad was a runner and did local races and out of town marathons including the Boston Marathon and we would see him going out and enjoying his running every day. My older brother joined the middle school cross country and track teams the year before. While no one ever told me to become a runner, I naturally drifted to the sport. Running just always made sense to me.

Your son is only 20 months old and you are back racing at an incredibly high level. What is special about racing vs “just running to stay fit"? I think both are important. I commend anyone out there being active, even if they don't have the desire to be fast or a competitive athlete. Personally, I just feel so good when I'm running fast and pushing my limits. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I physically test myself. I like lining up at a race knowing all my hard training is about to pay off!

Jen Bigham Could you walk us through a typical day in your life - what do you find difficult as a mother of two young children? There really isn't a typical day for me! My husband works and travels a lot and I fit running in when I can. It might be early in the morning, it might be midday with the double stroller, or it might be during or after dinner! The only typical thing about our days is activity. My husband and I are both runners and our kids are little balls of energy. Outside of running, I'm usually doing something active with the kids. I think it's good strength work and cross training!

There are lots of difficult things about parenting small children! I think the hardest parts for me are lack of sleep and making the time to run. I hear lots of people say the same things whether they have kids or not. Lack of sleep can make recovery REALLY difficult! I can't guarantee good sleep at night and I almost never get a nap. I'm a person who loves 8-9 hours of sleep, but these days I'm very lucky to get a stretch of 7 hours. I do what I can an know that I won't always hit my paces or get my exact workout completed but I do what I can each day and I'm happy with that. I believe you have to be flexible and proud of each time you get out there! Also related to recovery, when I walk in the door, my kids run to me and I switch from "serious runner" to "mom". It's easy to skip my dynamic stretching, foam rolling, post-run fueling and other important little things. My kids now know I do certain stretches right when I walk in and sometimes they join me or help me count them. I will take turns foam rolling with them or make sure I do it before bed once they are asleep. I try to make post run fueling something they can enjoy too like a fruit smoothie or Picky Bars for all of us!

My other big difficulty is making the time to run. My husband and I talk about the next day's run every night and decide when we can each squeeze in our runs. We make it a priority and I'm lucky he's very supportive and understands.

I was blown away when I read that you are still nursing and had read about you planning nursing and racing when your son was younger. Could you tell us if it feels difficult to combine the two or how you made it work postpartum?

Here is a link to a post I wrote about breastfeeding and training and racing.

Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to breastfeed and I had the desire to do it, so I knew I would have to make it work with running and racing. I started pumping an extra bottle every day from the first week postpartum so I had a good amount of milk in storage. I will say that it wasn't easy, but it really wasn't that hard. I heard a quote recently to the effect of "it's not a sacrifice if it's something you really want" and I guess that's how I approach everything I do.

Jen Bigham

Could you share some of your race highlights of the past years and the goals you have for the next few years? Since having my children I have accomplished PRs in every distance from 5k-marathon.

Before kids I ran a 18:20 5k. My first race postpartum after my first child (when she was 5 months old), I shocked myself by running 18:06. I now have a 5k personal record of 16:38.

Before kids I ran a 1:25 half marathon. 7 months after having my first child I ran a 1:21 and I currently have a half marathon PR of 1:15:59 (from January 2015 when my 2nd child was 15 months old).

Before kids I ran a 3:14 marathon. 8 Months after having my first child I shocked myself again and ran 2:51. The marathon has been a bit of heartbreaker for me as I have encountered many stomach issues since having kids! I feel I have a huge PR in me in this event given all I've learned over the past 5 years.

My ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympic Trials for the marathon and PR in every event for many years in the future. I'm 33 and feel I have years of PRs in these legs!

Jen Bigham

You are primarily plant based if I saw that correctly. How do you (re)fuel and do you use nutritional supplements? Yes, I eat mostly plant based. I do eat meat and fish occasionally, but most fruits/veggies/legumes/grains. My favorite ways to refuel immediately post run are: Vega products, Picky Bars, and bananas with nut butter!

I try to get nutrition from food but during pregnancy and breastfeeding I take a prenatal multi vitamin and supplement with vitamin D often.

If you don’t mind me asking, how much weight did you gain in your pregnancies and what was it like during and then getting back in shape? I was very "textbook" in terms of pregnancy weight gain. I gained approximately 30 pounds both times. It felt normal as far as pregnancy goes, and I was lucky the first time to have no expectations of what my postpartum body should look like! Immediately after having my first child, I remember thinking I was so small! After carrying around the baby and extra water and everything else I felt very light. Looking back at the pictures though, I realize I still looked 6 months pregnant or so! The weight fell off gradually, but fairly steadily for me. I was running a few miles daily starting at 1 month postpartum and was taking walks with the baby as well. I decided to chase some big goals around 4 months postpartum and with the more intense training came more baby-weight-loss and more strength. I held my baby almost constantly and noticed my arms were getting really strong! I did a lot of squats and lunges with and without the baby and noticed my legs were gaining strength as well. Within a year postpartum, I felt like I had my pre-baby body back. With my second baby, I knew a little more about what to expect and I think I got back in shape in about the same amount of time. I don't want to act like it's easy! You have to work really hard to get in shape again postpartum. But if you work really hard (and for me this was setting an aggressive goal and working towards it every day) it is possible to get your pre-baby fitness and body back. Some people (including me) find that you can exceed what you thought possible before having kids. I don't attribute my postpartum success magical baby powers. I have more focus and more reason behind my goals now and I train for myself and no one else. That's why I've been successful.

Jen Bigham

Do you work out with a team or coach? If not how do you stay motivated day in and day out? I am lucky to have 2 elite marathoner brothers who are wonderful coaches. They give me training and advice and I'm thankful for them! It is hard to make training work with a team but I try to meet up with the Pittsburgh Pharaoh Hounds for runs when I can.

I stay motivated by thinking of my goals. I have a lot of internal motivation. Of course my motivation comes and goes, but when it comes down to it, running fast is something I love so it's not hard to get out and do it!

Do you run 7 days a week? What other exercise do you incorporate as cross training? I do run 7 days a week. I usually take one day where I run just 4 miles really easy. It's like my off day, but I like to get out there and have some time alone. I do some yoga as well and I add a little bit of strength work every day. I do the Myrtl routine from Coach Jay Johnson and do Bosu Ball exercises and planks.

What is your favourite indulgence (food or other things)? I love food, coffee and beer. I think all of these things fit in with the running community pretty well! My favorite thing to do is run a great race and then enjoy the post race party starting with food and coffee then finishing off with some cold brews! I love the runner bonding that goes on post-race and could happily share and listen to "war stories" with other runners for hours!

Jen Bigham

Have you had to overcome (running related) injuries? How did you do it? When I was in high school and college I was constantly injured. I had stress fracture upon stress fracture. I took 8 years off hard training and competing after college and have had very few injuries since (none have been bone related since college). I think I'm smarter about everything now. I'm smarter about nutrition and smarter about knowing when to push and when to back off. For example, right now, I'm supposed to be gearing up for a big half marathon. Just recently, my Achilles tendon started acting up for the first time in my life. I ran through it a few days, tried to ignore it, took a few days of VERY short runs, and did everything imaginable to try to heal it while not taking time off. (This is a very simplified and non-dramatic view of a tough few weeks.) At this point, a younger Jen would keep training and run that goal race, hoping the injury will be ok until planned rest after the race. The older, wiser Jen knows that it's smart to let the problem heal so it doesn't become a major problem later. I'm really upset because my training has been solid, but I can accept it and move on knowing there's always another race!

What advice would you give someone who is a running novice or looking to get fit later in life and particularly if they are mothers with a set of responsibilities, tight schedules etc.? Be happy and proud of yourself for every little thing you do. I might have 10 miles on the schedule, but I'm happy if I fit in 6 on a crazy day. I might just do one plank for 60 seconds right before bed, but just like that, I've done some strength training today. I give myself more pats on the back than I probably deserve some days, but I think it's important to be proud of every step you take! Don't feel guilty about taking time to get in shape. My kids still have days where they plead "don't run Mommy!" It rips at my heart, but I also know I am helping them in SO many ways by making fitness a priority. Don't feel guilty about taking days off. Sometimes things happen. You are truly too tired, too busy, whatever the case may be, it's fine! So many fitness plans are derailed when someone misses just one or two days of working out. Deal with it, make peace with your situation and make sure you get out there again as soon as possible.

How would you describe the emotional benefits of running, given that it is a sport that comes with a lot of highs and lows over time... You know, I've had a lot of disappointments with running, particularly when it comes to the marathon. The thing that keeps me coming back is - I enjoy the journey. I enjoy the feeling I get every time I have a great workout and race. I love the way running makes me feel on a daily basis. I love the energy it brings to my life. I love that my kids think being active is normal and natural. Even at my lowest points, I know I'll be back to training hard before long because I love chasing those "highs".

Quick questions:

Athlete crush? No particular person, but I crush hard on muscles. Big or small, doesn't matter. I love muscle definition!

Trail or Road? Trail

Long runs or Speed Work? Speed work

Garmin or carefree? Garmin

Solo or with company? Company

If you could choose a different talent than running fast? What would it be? Everything you need to be a rockstar