Pregnancy is life-changing. The woman’s diet, surroundings, and habits come under scrutiny. Bookstores have whole sections dedicated to the ins and outs, ups and downs of pregnancy. Websites offer more information than anyone could read in the 9-odd months of their pregnancy, even if they could easily tell myth from fact. And when it comes to pregnancy, that is no easy task. The task is complicated by the fact that no two pregnancies are exactly alike. This is especially true when a runner becomes pregnant. Most resources are not written for pregnant athletes. When it comes to the question of “to run or not to run“, the pregnant athlete really has to make the choice on her own.
Pregnancy is a time of intense research for most people. Pregnant athletes have a bit more research to do than other expectant parents. The number of resources available might make the research seem daunting. But there some basic points that expectant parents can use to create a foundation for their decisions
Pregnant Women are Tough
Many people mistake pregnant women for helpless women. Yes, pregnancy throws off a person’s balance and is generally uncomfortable. But pregnant women are tough. The pregnant body changes in a way that keeps the baby well-protected so things like jogging and running aren’t going to do any harm. So long as the expectant mom listens to her body and her doctor, runs may actually do both her and the baby some good.
First Things First: Consult a Doctor
Pregnant athletes should make a point of discussing exercise plans with a doctor as early in their pregnancy as possible. Frequent check-ins are also recommended to ensure the safety of mother and baby. Athletes diagnosed with preeclampsia (pregnancy-induced high blood pressure) or a few other pregnancy-related conditions should be especially careful. Likewise, if a woman begins to see spotting (light vaginal bleeding), feels short of breath or dizzy, or generally feels warning bells going off, she should stop running and consult a doctor as soon as possible.
Experienced Runners Only
Pregnancy is not a good time for someone to start their running experience. Expectant mothers must know their body’s signals for fatigue, injury, and balance. All of these signals change with exercise as well as with pregnancy. Trying to begin a running regimen during pregnancy increases a person’s risk for injury and accidents. If a doctor has prescribed physical activity, there are better options. Light weight-training, swimming, stationary bicycles, and elliptical machines are all better options.
All pregnant runners are going to need new equipment at some point. Pregnancy changes most of the body. And even though most changes are temporary, they are noticeable. Many women suffer from swollen feet during pregnancy. This may require runners to get wider or larger shoes. Pregnancy increases the size of both a woman’s abdomen and her breasts. This will require larger sports bras and running shirts. If a runner’s pants go up to their waist, they may also need new pants as the pregnancy progresses.
Some runners also choose to use belly bands as they begin to “show”. This supports the belly and may reduce pain in the lower back and abdomen.
Be Gentle with Yourself
Yes, pregnant women are tough. They still have to show themselves compassion. If their hearts are racing or they’re struggling to breathe, so are their babies. Pregnant women should aim for a good sweat without struggling to breathe. Pregnancy will also slow a runner down and they have to be okay with that. Running while pregnant may mean changing their goals as well. Instead of running to win, they are running to maintain their health and promote the health of their future child.
Spot the Myth: Early Labor
There are a million myths about pregnancy. One persistent myth is that exercising while pregnant will cause early labor. This myth is largely rooted in old – and provably dangerous – beliefs that pregnant women should stay off their feet or risk the health of their fetus. Previous generations even went so far as to tie women to hospital beds or lock them in their rooms to “protect” them.
We now know that exercise is important for the health of both the mother and the baby-to-be. Full-contact exercise such as grappling, football, and soccer are discouraged. But general exercise is fine and even, in many cases, recommended. There are a few cases, such as twins or multiples, where exercise in later pregnancy does increase the risk of early labor. But these cases are uncommon compared to general birth rates. Exercise inducing labor is a myth and one that should quickly be thrown away.
Check out some more such myths below.
Despite the stereotype of pregnant women “taking it easy”, doctors often suggest that pregnant women develop an exercise regimen. Maintaining – and even increasing – her fitness during pregnancy offers many benefits for expectant mothers. This holds true for experienced athletes as well as fitness newcomers. Running and its benefits, however, is recommended only for those who have prior experience.
Recent studies suggest that running helps reduce the symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms include constant worry, a looming sense of dread, and tightness of breath. Any pregnant woman will tell you that these symptoms only get worse during pregnancy. Running might not remove the sensations altogether, but even a little reduction offers relief.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends pregnant women aim for 20-30 minutes of exercise per day on “most or all days”. Frequent and consistent exercise during pregnancy reduces the risk of preterm birth, gestational diabetes, high baby birth weights, and C-section. Recent studies also suggest that exercising while pregnant has a positive effect on fetal brain development.
The ACOG’s recommendation does not apply to women with preeclampsia and other high-risk conditions.
Labor and Recovery
Many experts now believe that physically fit women, on average, have shorter labor periods and marginally easier deliveries. Active women also seem to recover faster after having their babies. This is likely due to their muscle tone and their bodies’ experience with injury recovery. Giving birth affects the body in much the same way as major surgery does. So women whose bodies are trained to recover from strain and stress are likely to get back on their feet sooner.
Experienced runners know how to stay safe. Things change a bit with pregnancy, however. Whether the concern is nutrition, hydration, balance, or comfort, pregnant runners have to be on the lookout for warning signs.
While pregnant women are not really “eating for two”, they do require several hundred more calories per day than before they conceived. Their requirements also go up for specific nutrients such as iron, calcium, and folic acid. Many doctors also suggest that pregnant women consume more carbs than they did prior to their pregnancy since pregnant bodies use more energy for everyday processes. Pregnant women need to keep an eye on cravings, their blood sugar levels, and their hunger levels to ensure that they’re eating enough and eating the right things to meet their needs.
Staying hydrated while pregnant is hard. Staying hydrated while pregnant and active is even harder. There are countless guidelines on the internet to help women find the right amount of water. Most experts now agree, however, that as long as a pregnant woman’s urine is pale yellow – not clear and not dark – then she is getting enough water. Maintaining this balance might require bringing a larger water bottle on runs or stopping more often for hydration breaks throughout a workout. Pregnant women should also be aware that they’re going to start sweating sooner and will likely sweat more than they used to, which will change their hydration needs.
Running isn’t likely to spike a woman’s body temperature to unsafe levels, but it’s an important consideration all the same. This is especially true in the first trimester when a body temp of 102 degrees can lead to neural tube defects in the fetus. These defects can be life-threatening and are the reason why baths, hot yoga, saunas, and hot tubs are off-limits for pregnant women. As stated above, running isn’t likely to cause a prolonged temperature of 102 degrees. But outside conditions like hot days increase that risk. Pregnant runners might want to consider moving indoors on very hot days and keeping their water bottles or cooling towels close at hand.
Focus on Balance
Pregnancy changes a person’s center of gravity. This will change how they run. Pregnant runners should pay close attention to their form and balance. Running itself isn’t going to jostle the baby too much. But getting off-balance can lead to a fall and those are best avoided, no matter what trimester the pregnancy has progressed to.
Account for Relaxin
Relaxin is a chemical released by a woman’s body during pregnancy. It loosens her ligaments so that her body can change to accommodate the growth and delivery of her baby. While this is good news in the delivery room, it can cause some problems for pregnant runners. Looser ligaments can increase post-run soreness and lead to back pain. They also increase the risk of muscle strain and common runner’s injuries such as Runner’s Knee.
Trimester by Trimester
Pregnancy presents different challenges to runners as the months go on. Each pregnancy is different, so the information below is a general guideline based on common experiences reported by women who ran through their pregnancy.
The first trimester is often the worst, whether or not the woman is a runner. Morning sickness, sore muscles, and the rapid changes in their bodies leave most women exhausted. Runners should go easy on themselves in these early days. They shouldn’t run if they can’t keep food down. Their pace is going to slow down and they’ll need more breaks, and that’s okay. And if the discomfort is so great that they can’t run at all, they shouldn’t despair. They can always pick up running again when they feel better. Weight training and light work on a stationary bike will suffice until then. The goal at that point should be to maintain fitness. Most experts agree that even half of a woman’s pre-pregnancy fitness routine is enough to maintain her physical fitness during pregnancy due to the extra work the body is already putting in.
Most women are “showing” by their second trimester, if only a little. Despite the pregnancy being more obvious, it is easier for many women. Their bodies are used to the hormone changes and morning sickness often gets more manageable or disappears altogether. A few new symptoms do crop up, however. Sacroiliac pain – lower back pain that can spread up and down one side – becomes more likely. Round ligament pain – an ache in the lower abdomen, whether sharp or dull – also becomes more common. Many runners reduce their sacroiliac pain by strengthening their back and core muscles while belly bands help reduce round ligament discomfort.
Few women run through their third trimester. Many of the first trimester symptoms return as well as the discomfort of pre-labor body changes. The baby will start to settle lower in the abdomen, making running and walking generally uncomfortable. If a runner wants to keep a streak going, they can reduce their runs to light jogs or power walks over shorter distances. It is also recommended that they take a running buddy to help them if the discomfort becomes too great.
Doctors often recommend that women wait six weeks after delivery before they work out again. Delivery affects the body like a major surgery does, as mentioned above. The body needs time to heal. If six weeks feels too long, however, some doctors will allow very light weight training, gentle core toning exercises, and light cardio on a stationary machine such as a bike or treadmill. Athletes should be careful, however, as their ligaments are still soft and their balance has changed yet again. These factors increase their risk of injury. Small 5-10 minute goals are a good way to get back into exercise without pushing too hard.
It should be noted that many runners report a new edge after they give birth. They report feeling faster and stronger, able to take on more with more confidence. More than one runner has said that going through labor showed her how tough she really was.
Intense exercise will affect milk production. Many women report that their old running habits made it harder to breastfeed. This is due to a combination of hormones, fat availability, and nutrition. Lactation consultants can help runners strike the right balance of activity, food, and nursing or pumping to ensure that the milk flow is maintained if that is what the runner wants.