We’ve all heard about the lady who ran the Boston and then went to the hospital and had a baby. I didn’t do that… So let me get all opportunities for hate mail squared away right off the top. I trained within a new set of limits while pregnant, but I did not compete. I am also neither a doctor, nor a certified personal trainer, nor do I have any official background on the subject. My qualifications are: I was pregnant and I had over 20 years of experience as a self-coached elite endurance athlete and knowledge of my own heart rate zones and patterns.
I became “with child” immediately when the competitive season ended. I was at the highest level of fitness I had been since retiring from full-time bike racing, and perhaps even higher as my heart rates were showing. This was my starting point.
First off, no doctor will ever publicly give an opinion about this because I’m sure someone would do something stupid and sue. My doctor said some things to me, most of them encouraging, but as a very experienced and trained athlete many of the pieces of advice he gave me that he thought were in agreement were very contradictory.
“Keep your heart rate under 140.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that in 1985 and has since dropped it for a more reasonable (and less concrete) undetermined maximum depending on the person. Numerous sites and sources hang on to this number for dear life and it might have driven me insane if I hadn’t researched it more. A max of 140 for me would have meant I could not have done this:
“Make sure you get some aerobic exercise, but keep it aerobic.” As in, it has to be a little bit more than 140 bpm in someone with a max of 190 and an aerobic threshold of 160 to actually do any good. The recommendation for pregnant women who have never exercised a day in their life is to start an exercise program. For me, 140 beats would not have qualified as exercise. I hit 140 getting off the couch to go get a drink. If that’s a problem, it’s not related to being pregnant.
Along with the advice to keep it under 140, I also heard, “heart rates and heart rate monitors don’t work when you’re pregnant because your heart is going to behave differently.” Ok, now how am I supposed to keep it under 140 if 140 isn’t 140 and my monitor isn’t really going to work?
Finally, “ride your bike for 3 or 4 hours if you want, just keep it aerobic.” I guess he gave me the benefit of the doubt on knowing about hydration, nutrition and heat since I was riding in the high desert in the middle of summer.
And so I googled. And googled. And did some more googling. But I didn’t Bing, for the record. And what I found were individual accounts by elite athletes like Dara Torres, who trained at swimming throughout her pregnancy and breastfed her baby in the locker room at the Olympic Trials. There were a few others. I won’t claim to be an Olympic caliber athlete, but at one time I almost was, and at the time I became pregnant I was in some of the best shape of my life. I was competing and keeping plenty of data on my performance and heart rates. I would put myself closer to the top end than the majority of pregnant women.
There is almost no good source of information for the high-level athlete who is pregnant. In all fairness, it is unethical to study this truly scientifically; it has to be voluntary and self-reporting. And if the internet has taught us anything, self-reporting isn’t always very accurate. After all the searching and plenty of unsolicited crappy advice from acquaintances who are not doctors, I pretty much had to go by a few decent rules that are universally agreed upon:
1. Do activities you are conditioned for already. If you’re not a cliff jumper, don’t start now.
2. If you can still talk in sentences, you’re not going too hard. That’s the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) method for “keeping it aerobic”. Due to the fact that I don’t want hate mail, I won’t share what my “talk test” heart rate is, but I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t 140.
3. If there are warning signs (there is a list) stop immediately. This is the pregnancy of equivalent of, “Hey doc, it hurts when I do this!” (“Then don’t do it.”)
4. Strength training is great too as long as it is high rep/low weight. Maxing out on your clean and jerk is probably off limits, but weight lifting is acceptable as long as it is moderate and proper form is used. Ceasing to breathe or hyperventilation is not recommended, so again, maximum weight lifting is off the table. Proper technique is really important because your joints soften up and you can get injured pretty easily. I used plenty of bodyweight exercises…and there is an automatic increase in weight as you go.
5. Eat, drink and be merry. You are not really “eating for two”. In fact, you get about 300 calories a day extra for a baby. That’s less than one PB&J. But if you’re exercising lots, you need more. And you need to stay hydrated.
6. Don’t overheat. Don’t cook junior. I spent most of my pregnant exercise time in the summer in Utah, so it was closing in on 100 degrees every day. I worked out at 6 am, inside, or swam.
And so it was with that set of guidelines that I set out to try and keep myself in the best shape possible to return to competition after baby. I wrote a periodized training plan that included very low intensity and slightly higher, but still aerobic intensity. I also included strength training.
For those not in the know, a proper training plan increases in volume and intensity over a set period of time and then contains a rest period before ratcheting up again. When I wrote the plan I had no idea if I would be able to follow it, but for me, it had to be written. It’s what I have always done, and it was a good way to make sure I had appropriate challenges and proper recovery.
As far as activities, I did what I had been doing with one exception. I took up swimming. I hadn’t really been in a pool since I was a lifeguard in high school 20 years ago, but swimming is universally accepted as the only sport it’s ok to start doing pregnant. And it ended up being a saving grace because I could take my workout to the pool if it was hot or when the weather was crappy in the fall, or finally when the pounding of fast walking was too much around 37 weeks.
Cycling. My original, all-time go-to sport. Some folks might be concerned about this one due to
the danger of falling off the bike. Certainly this falls under the “don’t take it up for the first time pregnant” category. But remember that I have spent twenty- five years on a bike and I happen to have a pretty good record as far as falling. I felt perfectly safe riding on the roads and some trails. When I stopped it was because it had gotten too cold, and I was already at about 37 weeks. Many professional and former professional riders stay on their bike through their entire pregnancy.
I borrowed Jonathan’s old shorts and jerseys in order to accommodate the belly, and I had to get used to my knees bumping into it, but other than that I was able to get in many three-hour rides and a couple four-hour rides too.
Roller skiing: At the outset I eliminated this activity due to my single year of experience and how tedious I felt on those things. But I missed it (never thought I would say that). So one day I tried it very carefully. It turned out that after another year on snow I was much better on these things. I alternated double-poling with no-pole skating. Not only was this safer, but it vastly improved my skating technique.
I vowed that the very first day I felt off-balance on them I would not do it again. I never experienced a moment when my balance felt impaired, but I just had a day when I didn’t feel 100% and I stopped around seven months.
Nordic Walking: When I gave up roller I walked and jogged with poles. Extra bonus: if your hands tend to swell when walking, walking with poles helps keep blood flowing in and retained water flowing out.
Swimming: First I had to reteach myself swimming. The first day I went I was about 5 months pregnant. Since the maternity suits were so lame (not athletic suits), I bought a size larger Speedo and jumped in. My swimming technique was so bad I barely made it across the pool without going anaerobic.
I googled swimming videos and watched a few, went back to the pool and tried to perfect my stroke. I got some fins, hand fins and a floatie. I did some flipper time to make me feel better, and then some arms only to perfect my stroke. In a few weeks I had made it 1600 meters and finally 2000 meters. I took some of my land-based interval training and translated it to the pool. I also learned how to swim easy in between, which was perhaps the most challenging part.
In the end I gained a new lifelong activity. I believe swimming helped me build muscle endurance in my arms for skiing that had lacked in my tyrannosaurus-rex cycling body.
Backcountry Skiing: Again, something I was already doing. In fact we had the single most prolific spring of ski mountaineering ever while I was between one and five months along. We bagged some of the most sought-after peaks and lines in the Wasatch by hiking with climbing skins at a very moderate pace and picking smooth lines down. During the first few months the danger of injuring a baby due to a fall is minimal because it is still hiding behind the pelvic bone. My doc gave me a 100% green light on skiing.
Nordic Skiing: The Monday before M was born, at 38.5 weeks along, we got enough snow to ski. We went out to one of the local groomed tracks and Jonathan had to put on my skis because I couldn’t reach. I was amazed at the technique improvement I had gained with my summer of careful roller skiing concentrating on technique, and all my strength training. Balance wasn’t a problem. I was just happier than anything to see snow. We went the next day too. On the Wednesday of that week I was feeling tired, on Thursday the doc induced me due to rising BP which he did not blame on exercising. Friday I had a baby.
Weight lifting and core conditioning: We continued our core strength circuit and weightlifting that we do every year in the base training phase. Although the recommendation is for pregnant women not to do any exercises that involve being on their back after first trimester, my doctor gave me the ok for regular crunches for awhile after that because I was very small and my weight gain was not an impairment. I did free weights and squats – again with low weight and lots of reps. Good form was always a priority since pregnant joints tend to loosen, but I didn’t feel any pain and made pretty significant gains in this arena.
Expectations: I had few. I wrote out a training plan and followed it because that’s what I do, and expected to have to modify it along the way. I expected to stay active throughout my pregnancy as long as I didn’t have complications. That was just about it – I really didn’t expect much
I also expected to be “morning sick”, but the myth of morning sickness is the morning part; it can happen any time. I felt the worst at night or if I wasn’t eating correctly and I strongly feel that the nausea, at least for me, was tied directly to blood sugar.
I expected to retain a reasonable amount of fitness, provided I wasn’t sent to bed rest. I tried to be realistic and I ended up lucky.
Surprises: I was surprised that I felt good almost every day of the 39 weeks. In the first three months I was tired a lot, but I knew that getting out to do something would actually make me feel better. It did. After that I felt pretty amazing every day until about 38 ½ weeks.
I was surprised at how much activity I could easily handle. I worked out twice a day many times; sometimes because I lifted and did something aerobic, and sometimes because I really liked swimming outside to cool off. I was able to do three-hour bike rides very easily and I didn’t bonk because I was on top of my nutrition the whole time.
Another surprise was that I actually gained aerobic capacity and strength. My arms got way
stronger, and I saw myself able to go farther and faster within the same heart rates as the season went on. I expected to maintain and then decline. I maybe hoped to just maintain. I never would have gone into this expecting to improve, but I did.
I was pleased that all of my work made delivering a baby (with full epidural) totally easy. Sure, I had no feeling, but I still had to push out a baby after 24 hours of induced labor. It was far easier than any bike or ski race.
The last surprise was my return to competition. Eight days after M was born I was back on my Nordic skis. I could see my feet again, which was awesome, and the first few days were rough. After a total of 11 days off pre and post baby I was back training, and at five weeks I was in my first race. By week six I was back to my race weight and after that I was lower. Seven weeks after baby I found myself sprinting for second in a local series race. The remaining races were each results I would have been proud of had I never been pregnant.
As I developed a plan for the following season I noted that the bulk of any endurance training, even for non-pregnant people, is still at a very low heart rate. In fact, being forced to slow down may have actually had more far-reaching benefits than I had thought.
Blood Doping: Notice I didn’t say illegal blood doping. You see, I finally found out for real what all the hype was about with Lance and his team, and well, almost every pro cyclist from the 90’s. When you have a baby your blood volume increases a bunch. Afterwards it sticks around for three months or so. If you haven’t had your head in the sand for the last year, then you know that extra blood means extra oxygen available to your muscles. So even though I was completely sleep deprived and missed the most crucial high-end training going into the season, I was racing as if I had trained all the way through. Seriously – my husband was able to train much harder than I was last summer and he missed the same crucial block around Thanksgiving. I felt great racing and he didn’t. He didn’t have the extra blood volume, just the sleepless nights.
So my last unexpected result was that I now know the benefit of the cheating that was going on when I was racing bikes. It makes me all the more angry at the cheaters, some of them my competition, who were obviously gaining significantly from extra blood. But that’s a rant for another time.
Partly due to timing, certainly due to motivation and definitely with the help of my family (husband, father-in-law, parents), I managed to have a very healthy baby without missing a single ski season. Certainly it isn’t for everyone, and had there been any indication this was harmful I would have stopped in my tracks. In the end my doctor kept green-lighting me to do what I had been doing because things always looked great (until the very last day).
This is just one perspective, but I know I would have loved to be able to read this when I was pregnant. Hopefully someone else will see that having a baby and maintaining a high level of fitness is a possibility when the right conditions exist.