Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons II: Results and Discussion

Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons II: Results and Discussion


Findings from this study indicate that minimizing the number of challenges that running mothers face may make marathon training and running more accessible for mothers. Although it might not be possible to minimize challenges and obligations, it may be helpful for practitioners to assist clients in adopting a positive perspective and mindset, to help navigate the journey of marathon training and racing. Interventions that help alleviate the guilt, time constraints, and motherload that mothers feel would serve this population well. Possible intervention programs include daycares that offer running groups for care-givers, and government campaigns that focus on decreasing stigma around what mothering should look like. Previous research has shown that self-compassion is a tool that is useful in numerous settings, and mothers and marathon-runners would benefit from education on what self-compassion is and how it can be useful in supporting physical activity levels and family life. Based on new understandings of how self-compassion, mindfulness, and common humanity can support experiences of challenge, it may be possible for mothers and marathon-runners to use mindfulness to shift what are perceived as challenges into more achievable goals, through a more positive mindset (Petrillo, Kaufman, Glass, & Arnkoff, 2009). In addition to providing mothers with education on why mothers might feel guilt, teaching running mothers about available tools, such as social media platforms meant for running, running groups, and social support may be resourceful in supporting mothers who run in coping with the challenges they face, including feelings of guilt (Mailey et al., 2014).

Theoretical implications that can come from this research are that mothers can find time and overcome feelings of guilt in order to train for a marathon event. The results indicate that despite feelings of guilt, tension, and time constraints, it is possible to balance the roles of being a mother, having a family, having a career, and being a marathon-runner. Many of the challenges faced by participants, that were unique to mothers, were psychological. Findings reinforced previous research on the challenges parents face in maintaining fitness levels, the motherload, and guilt (Mailey et al., 2014; Mazer, 2012; Varhoef & Love, 2009). As discussed, findings extend previous research conducted on mothers who were elite athletes by expanding the participant pool and specifying a particular sport (i.e., marathon events; Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Belforth, 2013; Palmer & Leberman, 2009); and explore the theoretical implications that require further study, as well as how the various stages of motherhood and different ages of children impact the experiences of mothers during marathon event training. Further, this study confirms that the use of self-compassion is supportive in helping mothers cope with the various challenges they encounter during marathon-training. Theoretical implications point to the need for pairing marathon event training with a workshop that would support the building and use of self- compassion skills.

Strengths, Limitations, and Future Research

This investigation has many strengths. To the author’s knowledge, this is the first qualitative investigation conducted with this sample, which contributes to the limited research on the experiences of mothers who are non-elite athletes training for marathons. This study collected data at multiple time points to explore participants’ experiences during training and after their events. The use of two time points ensured a clear exploration of the experiences within, and the interaction of, the multiple roles these women adopted within their daily lives, permitting a more in-depth understanding of the participants’ experiences. Although there were no major changes between the two time points, the first interview offered participants an opportunity to discuss how their training was going and reflect on areas that may have required adjustment or goal re-orientation, while the second interview enabled participants to reflect on their marathon event experience and overall training.

This study has several factors which limit the generalizability of the results. First, the small sample size decreases the ability to generalize findings across other populations. Second, participants were recruited from a one region in Ontario. Third, all mothers were Caucasian and self-identified as being from middle-to upper-income households. Fourth, participants were at different stages of motherhood, with children ranging from seven months to eight years of age. Fifth, data were collected based on the participants’ experiences in marathon events. Although these factors are important to note, as with much qualitative research, the goals of such studies are not to generalize findings (Polit & Beck, 2010). Instead the goal of this study was to build a foundational understanding of the experiences of women who run marathons during motherhood.

To address the aforementioned limitations, further research is needed to explore families of varying demographics and from diverse geographic region and from diverse socio-economic standings. In particular, the women’s socio-economic status is an important variable for consideration that likely influenced many of the themes that emerged within this study. For instance, most women identified having family and friend support and could afford babysitters if needed to ensure they were able to train. The ability to participate in marathon training and competitions (identified as playing an important role in the participants’ experiences within this context) are not likely to be the only effects on some of the study findings (e.g., strategies, social support received), as being a mother is multi-layered. Moreover, similar studies should be conducted to explore the perspectives and experiences of pregnant women and women across different stages of motherhood to explore how their psychological health is influenced by the associated demands of motherhood at various stages. For instance, one participant in the current study had an infant and spoke of the unique challenges that breastfeeding posed to her training and competitions. This is important as pregnancy guidelines have recently emerged for women that identify the benefits of training while pregnant, as well as new physical activity recommendations for pregnant women (Piercy et al., 2018). Within this study, running was ingrained in participants’ identities. Thus, for a pregnant woman to know when she can get back to running is important to maintaining her sense of self and personal identity; future research should work to understand how and when mothers perceive can get back to running. Finally, research is needed to understand if similar experiences and perceptions exist across other competitive, recreational, and leisure physical activities and sport pursuits (e.g., yoga, triathlon, track and field, golf, swimming), and sport types (e.g., basketball, soccer, baseball, volleyball).

Within this study, all participants balanced a motherload of roles and responsibilities (e.g., mother, runner, wife, employee). Although important to consider, concurrent roles of wife and employee extended beyond the scope of this research. Thus, future research should explore these areas of mothers’ identities and their influence on training for and competing in marathon events. Future research would also benefit from conducting longitudinal, mixed-method research that would further consider mothers’ experiences over time and contribute to understanding the complexities of mothers’ multiple roles. As noted by Glynn et al. (2009), additional research is necessary regarding women’s holistic experiences of the multiple roles they carry. Future research is justified to record the levels of mothers’ mental health and stress at various points of the training season, using different methods, including logs in combination with in-depth interviews at multiple time points, to gain rich insight into mothers’ lived experiences within and beyond their running.


This study aimed to explore the experiences of mothers who train for and participate in a marathon event, using an inductive, phenomenological approach. Results of this research further extend previous work that has explored mothers as elite athletes; however, this research provides a unique understanding of mothers and physical activity that has not been explored in the current literature. This study revealed various aspects of mothers’ experiences, including how important running was to the participants’ identities, and how they utilized self-compassion as a coping mechanism; and explanations of what motivated the mothers to train for and participate in marathon events, and the strategies they used to help them achieve that. With a high percentage of women not meeting physical activity guidelines (Statistics Canada, 2011), coupled with increased popularity of and levels of engagement in marathon events for women (Jakob, 2018), it is important to explore experiences and opportunities that would support mothers being active.

Share this:

Leave a Reply