For top-level female athletes it is a challenge balancing professional life, maternity leave, and returning to competition after it. Allyson Felix, a renowned champion, faced difficulties with her sponsor when renegotiating funding contracts after pregnancy.
When studying the career progression of elite marathon runners and how age influences performance, it was found that the marathon peak performance occurred around 28.5 years for women, although many elite runners continued to perform well beyond 40 years.
Therefore, elite sportswomen often choose to temporarily interrupt competition, rather than wait until retirement, to have children.
A recent study aimed to investigate the impact of mid-career maternity on performance progression among elite female marathoners.
Participants and Data Collection
The study identified the top 150 female marathoners listed in the IAAF’s All-Time Marathon Top List and included them in the study if they had at least one maternity during their careers.
The study confirmed the well-established age-performance relationship observed in various disciplines, including running. Peak performance tends to occur at a certain age, after which there is a decline in performance. In the case of elite female marathoners, the peak performance age was found to be around 28.5 years.
The study demonstrated that maternity does not alter this age-performance model. Athletes who experience maternity before the age of peak performance can still progress in their careers and achieve their best performance after maternity. Similarly, those who experience maternity after reaching peak performance would experience performance decline regardless of motherhood.
The length of the maternity break varied significantly among the studied athletes, ranging from 9 to 94 months. The study showed that some athletes can quickly recover and return to a highly competitive level after a shorter break, while others may require longer breaks before reaching the international level again. Younger athletes tend to recover more quickly and achieve higher performance levels after motherhood.
The study’s limitations include the lack of data on athletes who may have chosen not to return after maternity or were unable to return to the international level. Further research on mid-career maternity in other sports could provide a deeper understanding of the impact of pregnancy on athletes’ careers and life balance.
- Elite female marathoners can continue to perform at their best after pregnancy.
- The timing of pregnancy relative to the age of peak performance plays a critical role in determining an athlete’s ability to return to and surpass previous performance levels.
- Overall, this research contributes to destigmatizing motherhood among elite female athletes and highlights the importance of strategic planning and support for athletes during and after maternity.
For more information about pregnancy and sports, and more specifically running check our previous posts:
Does maternity during sports career jeopardize future athletic success in elite marathon runners? Forstmann N, Meignié A, De Larochelambert Q, Duncombe S, Schaal K, Maître C, Toussaint JF, Antero J. Eur J Sport Sci. 2023 Jun;23(6):896-903.
doi: 10.1080/17461391.2022.2089054. Epub 2022 Jun 26. PMID: 35703008.