A week ahead of a big race, it’s unusual to hear an athlete say that winning isn’t everything. But Lizzie Deignan has had a change of perspective since becoming a mum eight months ago.
The Olympic cyclist, who returned to training just six weeks after giving birth to daughter Orla last September, isn’t interested in putting herself under unnecessary pressure ahead of the upcoming Ovo Energy Women’s Tour.
“Cycling doesn’t define me anymore. I’m still really passionate about it and committed to it, but there’s a lot more going on in my life now,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“Before I was very focused just on myself and what was best for my performance, but actually, with hindsight I realise that maybe it wan’t what was best for me, because I wasn’t actually that happy.”
Deignan has adopted a new mantra – “it’s not always about giving 100%, 100% of the time” – but that doesn’t translate to her taking her foot off the pedal.
Last month she made her comeback to cycling earlier than scheduled because she felt strong enough to give the Tour de Yorkshire a whirl. The race, taking place on home turf, has a special place in her heart, particularly after she won it when still known by her maiden name, Lizzie Armitstead, in 2017.
But Deignan’s life has been transformed by the unpredictability of parenthood and she’s learned to be more flexible with her training, too.
“Inevitably there are weeks when you get sick or you’re tired and you can’t do the training that you feel you should be doing,” she explains. ”Now I don’t worry about it, it doesn’t take up my headspace. I just think: ‘Okay, I don’t have enough energy to train today so I’m not going to do it’.”
She maintains that finding happiness outside of cycling has not – and will not – have a detrimental impact on her career. “Sometimes you actually get a better outcome if you’re a bit more easy going,” she adds.
Despite being busier than ever, she describes herself as “more relaxed about things” post-comeback and crucially, “a lot happier”.
“Things don’t need to be perfect. I used to be such a clean freak, for instance,” she says, as she picks her daughter’s dummy up from the floor where it’s just fallen, adding that she’ll put it in her mouth to disinfect it later.
“Before as a professional athlete I used to dread even going through airports in case I got sick, now if I get sick I think ‘well that happens’. I’ve realised there’s no point stressing about it because there’s only so much you can control.”
Deignan is keen not to paint a fairytale picture though. Training after pregnancy was tough and at times she feared she would never return to her former fitness.
“It was overwhelming at the beginning, going out for an hour’s bike ride and being exhausted, then coming back and having a baby to look after was really, really difficult,” she says.
“Me-time” has also become a foreign concept and a hectic schedule of training, press interviews and baby feeds has taken some getting used to.
To avoid burnout, she and her husband, retired cyclist Philip Deignan, make time for dinner together. They eat together at home after Orla is in bed and occasionally get a babysitter so they can head out to a restaurant.
“It gives your brain a chance to refresh,” Deignan says. “There are days that are really hard with Orla, when she’s teething or she’s not feeding well or not sleeping well. There are some days that feel endless, so it’s important to get that mental break because you come back and you just think ’how could I ever be tired or her?”
We read so much about women losing their self-confidence after becoming parents, but Deignan says for her, motherhood has had the opposite effect.
“I’ve learned that I’m capable of much more than I thought I was,” she says. “There is something to be said for going through pregnancy and bringing up a little baby that is so dependent and needs you so much.
“It’s kind of overwhelming at the beginning, but once you get the hang of it and you’re in the swing of it, you realise that well, if I can look after this little person, I can do anything really.”
Lizzie is an ambassador for cycle insurance provider Cycleplan. For advice on how to keep you and your bike safe visit www.cycleplan.co.uk.
In ‘What Works For Me’ – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about their self-care strategies.