Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons I: Lit Review and Methodology

Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons I: Lit Review and Methodology

by Raisa-Lee Wimbs, MPsy

This series was originally completed as a Thesis in partial fulfillment of Adler Graduate Professional School’s Master of Psychology degree.


Marathon running is a physically demanding event that requires individuals to run 21.2 – 50 kilometres (Knechtle, 2012). Such events can have positive personal outcomes, including positive feelings when crossing the finish line, and accomplishing a personal goal (Boudreau & Giorgi, 2010). However, these events can come with extreme barriers, including mental and physical fatigue (Buman, Omli, Giacobbi, & Brewer, 2008; Carter, Coumbe-Lilley & Anderson, 2016). Marathons, including the training processes to prepare for such events, are challenging for all participants, yet can be even more difficult for mothers because of the responsibilities they have as parents (e.g., Cowdery & Knudson-Martin, 2005).

The purpose of this study was to understand the experiences of mothers in training for and competing in a marathon event. For the purposes of this study, a marathon event was defined as a half, full, or ultra-marathon (hereafter referred to as ‘marathon event’). Specifically, the research focused on understanding the experiences of mothers who train for and participate in a marathon event. Understanding this phenomenon is important for two reasons: (a) an increased interest from women in running events (Jakob, 2018), and (b) the tendency for women to have lower levels of physical activity (e.g., only 14% of Canadian women meet physical activity guidelines; Statistics Canada, 2011). As well, mothers often experience numerous constraints to marathon event training, such as time constraints and conflicting priorities (Bremer, 2012; Coakley, 2006; Goodsell & Harris, 2011). Although there has been research on mothers who train for endurance races and remain active throughout parenthood, few studies have explored their involvement in training for and racing in such events. The current research aims to contribute to these gaps and build on our understanding of their experiences for the purpose of increasing levels of physical activity in mothers, and to help with developing a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Understanding experiences throughout training and competing in a marathon event will help inform the limited research available on this topic, and can have important practical implications, including assisting mothers in fostering their well-being, and supporting practitioners who support mothers who may or may not run.

Literature Review

The physiological effects that occur during marathon running, including cardiovascular performance levels, lactic acid thresholds, and oxygen uptake capacities (e.g., Joyner & Coyle, 2008) have been well-documented in the literature (e.g., Baar et al., 2002; Bayod et al., 2012; Kavazis, Smuder, & Powers, 2014). However, the psychosocial aspects of marathon running, particularly in mothers, has been less explored. This review is divided into three sections. The first section explores the demands associated with motherhood-often referred to as the motherload. Despite these demands, research supports the importance of maintaining physical activity. The second section will explore women’s involvement in physical activity, including leisure and sport. Finally, to date, no research has explored the psychosocial aspects of training for and competing in marathon events in women; thus, the third and final section will explore marathon training and families.

Mothers were chosen as the focus of this study for four reasons: (a) there has been an increased interest in marathon running in women (Jakob, 2018), (b) women tend to have low levels of physical activity (Statistics Canada, 2011), (c) women are often primary caregivers of their children (Kay, 2009), and (d) women are underrepresented within marathon running literature (Doucet, 2006). Moreover, previous research and media have noted that mothers often struggle to find a balance between meeting the expectations of mothering practices and their own individual needs, which can lead to feelings of tension, conflict, and guilt (e.g., Cowdery & Knudson-Martin, 2005; Pepler, 2017). Consequently, some mothers sacrifice their lifestyle practices to meet children’s needs (Coakley, 2006).

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