What happens when you go from putting together a race schedule for the upcoming season to finding out you are pregnant? Are you still an athlete? Can you still be an athlete? Should you workout when pregnant? How far? How fast? How often? Where do you find these answers?
I want to write about this because the information out there is so scattered and limited. Hopefully this will be helpful to those who are or who plan to get pregnant. Maybe my experience will help you make sense of your own. If you are not interested in being a pregnant athlete, check out for this week, come back next week. If you are, read on these next few days and enjoy.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor. I am just an e.l.f. You should always consult with your doctor about exercise activities during pregnancy.
The first thing I realized is that there is not a lot of information out there about athletes that get pregnant. And if you workout every day, more than once a day, you are an athlete and not the average woman. You will find immediately when you are pregnant that everything out there is for the average woman.
You are not the average woman.
When I started thinking about getting pregnant, I started reading – anything and everything about athletes that went through pregnancy. I had every intention to continue with my fitness activities through pregnancy. And I had good reason. Here are just a few of the benefits of exercising in pregnancy:
Strengthens your pelvic floor muscles for labor, reduces the risk of labor complications, leads to a quicker and less painful labor, reduces the chance of birth defects, increase the chance of delivering a baby with higher APGAR scores, improves your immunity, relieves stress, improves calcium absorption, reduces pregnancy-related discomforts, increases energy, leads to less excess weight gain.
Not convinced yet? Dr. James Clapp (who studied athletes in pregnancy), found that women who exercise until the last day of pregnancy will have shorter labor – by more than 30 percent. 65 percent of exercising mothers will deliver in less than 4 hours. The risk of C-section is reduced by up to 75 percent. And, you are more likely to go into labor a week earlier than planned.
What about after birth? Babies born to exercising mothers will be more fit. The nervous systems of these babies seems to work better. At five-days old, they appear calmer, more alert and more adaptable. They require less attention. They have less colic. They may begin to talk earlier and have accelerated mental development. Why? Exercise seems to improve the growth and efficiency of the placenta; and delivers an improved blood and nutrient supply to the baby (Allred, 2000).
Despite this – and oodles of other research supporting the benefit of regular exercise during pregnancy – one thing you will find when you are pregnant is that everyone has an opinion of what you should or should not do. My mother in law told me I should buy a $65 tub of stretch mark cream from A Pea In a Pod. My own mother thinks I need to drink lots of milk and eat more ice cream. Their differences aside, the one thing both mothers agree on is that I should stop running. Why? Because ….. and there is a blank. There really is no reason other than: you should stop running.
That’s it. That’s all they had for me.
Maybe they were right, I wondered. But I knew that wouldn’t be right for me. If I do not exercise (read: MOVE like we humans are intended to do), I do not feel right. I feel off, uncomfortable and at unrest. I like being fit. Triathlon is just an outlet for loving fitness. It allows me to put purpose to something that I enjoy doing every day. And I was not about to give that up because I was…GASP!…pregnant.
But I agree, it is much easier to sit on a couch and let my ass grow bigger into the couch for the next 9 months. Trust me, I get how a woman can easily put on 50 pounds in pregnancy and not even see it coming. You feel beyond fatigued. It’s like training for Ironman on tranquilizers. You feel out of control because you quickly realize for the next 9 months you have no control: you will get bigger, you will change, life will change. And, you are scared. Because of that you read books and listen to other people. You convince yourself you are hungry because the books say your appetite increases. You convince yourself it is ok to refuse exercise because you are going to get fat anyways plus everyone is telling you to slow down! Rest! STOP RUNNING! You tell yourself it’s ok to eat dessert every night because you are eating for two. Pregnancy is a slippery slope. If you are not careful, you could slip right down it into a big bowl of hot fudge every night because it’s ok, honey, you’re pregnant. Treat yourself.
What a bunch of horseshit! This is pregnancy, not a prison sentence. Pregnancy is not a disease state, it is simply a stage in life. It is not terminal, it is not forever. There is a finish line. This will be over in less than 10 months and I am not going to throw away 34 years of taking care of myself for 10 months of green light to eat dingdongs, cookies and muffins from morning to night. I’m not eating for two, I am eating for twice the nutrients and quality. I am not needing 1000 more calories a day for a person that is less than 2 inches long in the first trimester. Pregnancy is not permission to stop taking care of myself. Heck, its reason to take care of myself that much more!
And because of that, exercise is a part of pregnancy.
Plus research supports that exercise should be a part of pregnancy. There is no research to support that exercising increases your chance of miscarriage, complications or birth defects. NONE. In fact, the opposite is true. The less fit you are, the more weight you gain, the more health complications you will have during and after pregnancy.
But, when athletes are involved, you have to ask how much is too much? Come on, we are athletes. Two a day workouts are not an absurdity, they are a part of every day of the serious athlete. So, is two workouts a day too much? Who would know? How long is too long? What about how hard? Do you really have to keep your heart rate below 140? What happens when it hits….141.
DO ME AND THE BABY JUST EXPLODE?!?
The best thing you can do is arm yourself with information. Read books. Lots of them. Take in the information and filter it for yourself. Unfortunately, most pregnancy books with chapters on exercise are not very helpful. Most of these books encourage you, as a pregnant woman, to exercise. And most consider exercise to be 20 to 30 minutes of physical activity 3 times a week while keeping your heart rate under 140 bpm.
Seriously? That’s the amount of time I spend walking my dog to take a crap – and that is considered exercise? And 140 bpm? These days, I can reach that easily going up the stairs!
You should know that those guidelines are outdated – very. In 1994, the ACOG revised their guidelines to suggest that pregnancy women only limit exercise intensity and lower their target heart if the woman is high risk. In other cases, regular exercise at a mild to moderate intensity is recommended.
Key word: regular. Sporadic exercise is actually viewed as harmful during pregnancy because of the inconsistency. Like exercising as a normal athlete, consistency leads to adaptation. Without it, exercise is a stressor, especially to the pregnant woman.
Of course there are guidelines. In other words, use common sense. You should not engage in anything that compromises your safety or balance during pregnancy. As far as triathlon goes, you should probably avoid cycling. I know a lot of pregnant women cycle out there. And it’s really just a personal judgment call. Personally, I do not think it is worth the risk of falling or crashing. Pregnancy is also not the time to start significantly changing things. If you haven’t been running 20 miles a week, now is not the time to start. Use common sense, simple as that.
Other than that – guess what – there are no guidelines. There is no magical number of hours you can or cannot workout a week. No formula. No secret training plan. You have to decide for yourself. Your fitness level, your comfort level. You have to find a new normal for your body. And, more than ever, you have to listen to it. Your body, that is.
In figuring all of this out, I found it helpful to talk to other athletes about their experiences in exercising through pregnancy. From recreational runners to professional athletes. Their stories are out there. I started reading, asking, searching for answers and in the end finding myself a little frustrated. Talk to anyone and everyone and what you will find is this one thing: everyone has their own experience. One woman’s 3-hour ride might be another woman’s bed rest for 8 weeks. Another women’s 8 mile daily run is yet a different women’s run for 5 miles for 3 times a week. And what you realize is that what so-and-so in such-and-such a place does during their pregnancy has nothing to do with me. You find yourself caught between being a competitive person in spirit to a pregnant person in body. It’s an interaction of desire and knowing better. You have to just know better and listen to yourself for the next 40 weeks.
That is the magic formula.
And that brings me to another point: if your body is used to two-a-day workouts, 8+ hours of “training” a week, I think that ceasing that or drastically changing it is a stress on your body. Change is stress and stress is not good. Joan Benoit Samuelson once said that for athletic women, being told not to exercise during pregnancy can be more stressful than the exercise itself. My motto was to keep on being who I was and just listen to my body that much more.
After all of that reading, researching, questioning and thinking, where did it leave me? Did I feel any more comfortable doing one workout a day let alone two? Is this really ok? And sometimes, the guilt was the worst part. I would find myself feeling good after a swim, thinking I could go for a short run but then second guessing myself with, should I…really…?
Ask the question, there is no answer. Other than what your gut tells you and what your body says. And that is the best guide – how you feel during and after the workout. Sometimes how you feel before, but I often disregarded that because you will feel like ass for most of the first trimester. Varying levels of ass, but ass indeed. If I could get into a workout and it felt ok – I kept going. If I felt tired afterwards, I did too much. If I felt better, then I did everything just right.
I also made peace with myself – as a pregnant athlete. In pregnancy you are an athlete but you are a different athlete. You are like a kinder, gentler, less competitive version of your athletic self. And that is ok. For now. I accepted that what I was doing was really no longer training. It was just working out. Staying fit, having fun, feeling good. There were no performance goals or measurements that needed to be made. For now, working out was about staying healthy and promoting peace of mind.
Perhaps the best reasons.
And, I made peace with the fact that I was going to get slower. Especially running. That was a hard one to swallow. I can swim slow, I can bike slow but run slow – does not feel right. But I accepted the inevitable. Slow is the new fast. For now. Research has shown that by the end of the first trimester you will lose 10 percent of performance ability due to nausea and fatigue. By the end of pregnancy, you have lost 50 percent of performance ability due to weight gain and changes in body composition. However, while you might be running 2 to 3 minutes slower per mile you are still gaining the same cardiovascular benefit. Fitness can be maintained (Allred, 2000).
For daily workouts I did set limits. I like boundaries. They keep me safe. Setting your own limits requires understanding what is happening in the body when pregnant. Your resting heart rate is about 10 to 20 beats per minute higher. Your blood pressure should go down. Blood volume increases by 40 percent. Lung capacity increases yet breathing is more difficult. Your cardiovascular capacity increases along with your heart rate and body weight. Heart rate is up but effort might be down. So, your fitness level will seem low. However, you are actually more fit just by being pregnant. Pregnancy itself is like armchair training – your blood volume increase so much that by the end of the first trimester, it is like the equivalent of blood doping. Not only that, but these effects lasts 6 to 12 months post –pregnancy, which may account for the post-partum “boost” in performance that some athletes have.
Indeed, I set limits with my heart rate. Early in pregnancy, heart rate is high for effort level. But around week 5 to 6 I felt like heart rate was more reliable and would be helpful to use as a limiter. I’ve been monitoring my heart for years, I know how it responds. So I set a limit within the middle of my “zone 2” for the bike and run (this did not mean I forced my heart rate up there, rather I did not fear implosion if it crept up there). Those are the two places where I feel like the work shifts from I could do this all day to I might be pushing it. While some say rate of perceived exertion is more reliable than heart rate, especially in early pregnancy, I felt comfortable having heart rate limits. The exception was swimming, where I went by effort, pace and draft. Regardless of the numbers, my rule was really to do what felt comfortable. Because if I was comfortable, the baby was comfortable.
I also set time limits. Remember, we are working with guidelines here that suggest 20 to 30 minutes of exercise. 3 days a week. There are no guidelines. You have to invent them for yourself as an athlete. Personally, I was comfortable with 45 to 75 minutes of exercise per day. Not every day. Not all at once. I would usually start with 45 minutes. Then add more of a different sport later if I was feeling good. Sometimes I would just do 30 minutes and that seemed like enough. Rare days when I felt alarmingly zippy I might do a total of 90 minutes. Beyond that I did not see the point. Additionally, I felt it would be harmful to the baby in terms of nutritional or heat distress. Nutritional because it becomes difficult to replace calories when you exercise too long; I did not want to pull nutrients away from the baby. As for heat distress, since most of my workouts were in the basement, I had 2 fans pointed at myself at all times. You want to avoid letting your internal body temperature go above 101 degrees (measured rectally – fun!) especially in the first 9 weeks when most birth defects occur.
Beyond the limits, I was free to do what I wanted. I didn’t set a schedule each week and I wasn’t coached. I made it up as I went. What I did depended on how I was feeling that day. Days I felt good, I ran. Days I felt normal, I biked. Days I felt not as good, I swam. Days I felt really bad, I took off. I always tried before I wrote myself off for a day. Something was better than nothing. And, usually by 15 minutes into the workout I felt so much better than when I started that I kept going.
So how did it go for the past 12 weeks? I’ll write more about it this week. Until then, here is a list of books I found helpful for understanding more about exercise in pregnancy:
Exercising Through Your Pregnancy by James F. Clapp III, MD
Entering The Mothering Zone by Alexandra Powe Allred
Expecting Fitness by Birgitta Gallo
Fit and Pregnant by Joan Marie Butler
Runners World Guide to Running & Pregnancy by Chris Lundgren
The Women Triathlete by Christina Gandolfo