Exercise During Pregnancy

I found out I was pregnant as I was walking out the door to run a 10k time trial. After the initial “Holy shit!” moment, the next thought was “What happens now with my training?” Versions of these thoughts cycled through my head as I was running that day. I was registered for the upcoming LA Marathon and would be 14 weeks pregnant on race day. However, this wasn’t just another race for me, as I had a goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon a second time. Almost instantly, I knew that goal was no longer an option but what physical fitness/sports could I realistically expect to keep doing throughout my pregnancy?

After that first run, I began researching guidelines on exercising during pregnancy. Decent information on this subject that is substantiated and written by someone with credentials on the matter is scarce.

28 weeks pregnant

The first pregnancy fitness myth I fell for was the “keeping your heart rate below 140 bpm” theory. It seemed to make sense until I purchased a heart rate monitor and tried it out. I found that it was impossible to complete my prescribed track workout without blowing straight past 140 bpms. Thankfully, I dug a little deeper and learned that the heart rate guideline had long ago been refuted. Instead the current standard for acceptable levels of exercise was “perceived rate of exertion” – you are supposed to stay below eight on a scale of one to ten. “Great,” I thought, “this accommodates all women having a different baseline levels of fitness but what the hell does an eight out of ten feel like to me?”

Knowing that no one else could answer this for me, I did find a book that seemed promising on answering other questions – actually two books. Exercising Through Your Pregnancy by James F. Clapp, III, M.D. and Catherine Cram, M.S. was extremely helpful for my fitness regiment. Expecting Better by Emily Oster assisted on all of the questions about what you can eat/drink/take/think during pregnancy.

Finally, I could start making decisions based upon science and not the fear-based pregnancy information you typically find on the internet no matter what you type into the search engine. Which, by the way, I don’t recommend doing, ever.

Armed with my new found book knowledge and my belief that the best way to gauge whether to do something is to listen to your body, I continued running, cycling, Crossfit, yoga, and swimming (more on each of these later). My main pregnancy fitness goal was now to simply maintain my strength as long as possible. I was extremely lucky to not have any major complications during pregnancy, which allowed me the luxury of staying active. I also had very accommodating doctors and midwives who were supportive of my lifestyle choice to continue exercise.

30 weeks pregnant

Despite having research to back up my decision to continue exercising at a higher intensity than the standard recommended 30 minutes of walking three times a week, there were still doubts that would pop up as I trained. When this happened, I would either look to my exercise book for answers or I would rationalize my concern by remembering the resiliency of the human body. I also found it helpful to think about pregnant women in other countries who do not treat pregnancy as an illness like we tend to in the U.S. They work in the fields until they give birth, and they eat their regular diets. Ultimately, I chose to listen to what my body and baby were telling me and trust that if I needed to change something it would become obvious.

So I made it through pregnancy working out six times a week, all the way up until the day before I went into labor… but what then?

Before getting pregnant, I had worried about staying in shape and for 42 weeks had diligently worked on maintaining my fitness to the extent possible. But what I didn’t really plan ahead for was the postpartum recovery. After 30 hours of active labor, there was quite a bit of recovery needed; actually no matter how easy or hard labor is, the road to recovery is a steep one.

For the first two weeks after my daughter was born, my world revolved around nursing, eating, and sleeping. I was completely and utterly fine with this existence. My postpartum bleeding was minimal the first week and increased the second as I increased my activity, giving me a signal that my body was still in mega-healing mode. I was fortunate enough to have very minor tearing and thus did not suffer from any discomfort down under that would limit physical movement.

1 week postpartum

The postpartum third and fourth weeks flew by without any addition of exercise to my day. Mostly I was still listening to my body and feeling that anything strenuous would be counterproductive to my healing. I had high hopes of incorporating a walk into my daily routine but because I was still trying to establish a schedule with my newborn, it was very difficult to figure out when was an appropriate time to head out the door.

2 weeks postpartum

Finally at the one month mark, I realized that I was emotionally struggling with not working out. I had to begin the journey back to fitness for my own sanity. I was still carrying around some extra cushioning in my stomach, but other than that I had lost all of my pregnancy weight and then some. Friends and family kept saying I looked great, but that’s not how I felt since I knew that the additional weight loss had been muscle. I had been so strong going into birth, but a mere five weeks later I felt like I was starting all over again. How frustrating!

I am only a couple of days into working out again and it feels good to move. I’m taking it easy because, despite how much I want to go out and run as fast as I can for hours, I don’t want to injure myself. I am super sore from very easy workouts – but it’s a good sore – and I look forward to incorporating the necessary time in my schedule to ensure I maintain my health. Being an emotionally and physically healthy mama is one of the best things you can do for your children and I intend to do my best at taking care of myself so I can take care of my kid.

For those of you still reading, the following paragraphs are additional details about the sports I continued while pregnant.

Running is my favorite sport so I obviously wanted to keep it up, if possible, while I was pregnant. Right from the start of my pregnancy, I began to feel like I didn’t have enough oxygen as I ran. This did improve after the first trimester but was still a factor during any faster paced training. I was fortunate to only have a mild case of morning sickness which manifested itself not in the morning but as an upset stomach feeling after every meal. Luckily, there was only one long training run where my stomach was upset. I ended up running slower than planned but I was still able to log the necessary mileage.

During the first two trimesters, my running became more relaxed as I focused on completing the prescribed distance at an 80% or less effort instead of targeting a specific pace. During this time, I ran both a half marathon and a full marathon. However, distance running was the one sport that I ended up having to give up completely while pregnant.

At about 27 weeks I started to struggle with lower pelvic muscle soreness after running. Every week thereafter, I would say that I was going to quit running because it wasn’t worth shuffling around for the rest of the day after I went for a run. The following week, once recovered, I would decide that I felt good enough to run and would again go for a short four-five mile run which would land me squarely again in the (hurt) box. To offer a bit of additional support, I bought a mombod Fitness Maternity FITSplint, which probably helped me continue running a bit longer, but it really wasn’t a panacea.

38 weeks pregnant

Finally towards the mid 30 week range, I did stop running longer mileage and stuck to the short 400 or 800 meter runs that were part of my Crossfit workouts of the day (WODs). I continued these short runs, albeit more slowly than usual, until my 40th week (my daughter was born at 42 weeks) when I finally had to stop jogging during the workout and walk. I was really happy I listened to my body and probably should have done that earlier, but my love of running made the decision to stop really hard.

On a side note, when I didn’t feel like it was appropriate to jog during the WODs, I would substitute rowing instead. I’m not a big fan of rowing but I finally had to embrace it and realize it was a part of my pregnant life.

I loved cycling during pregnancy. I had assumed that it would become difficult early on in pregnancy due to my expanding belly getting in the way. To my surprise, my waistline grew slowly enough that I was able to ride my road bike up until my 30th week. I could have kept riding for a few more weeks with some minor fitment adjustments but I ended up selling the bike. Having a single speed mountain bike in my arsenal with a more upright riding position, I rode wider dirt trails that weren’t technically challenging in order to minimize the risk of falling. Two-three hour rides on fire roads felt great. On my last ride at 37 weeks, I felt a difference in my balance but the riding position remained comfortable.

36 weeks pregnant

I completed my last Crossfit WOD at 41+ weeks, a few days before giving birth. My Crossfit coaches were extremely supportive of my pregnancy and very in tune with the necessary modifications I needed as my body changed. Modifications included cutting out lifting moves that I couldn’t perform when my belly was larger (push-ups, box jumps, power cleans, and anything that requires the bar moving across the front of your body, etc.) as well as reducing the weight to protect my joints as the relaxin (pregnancy hormone) loosened everything up. I, in turn, increased my reps for a more endurance-style lifting.

The endurance focused WOD was another instance where the perceived-rate-of-exertion rule of thumb came in handy. Still, I found this extremely difficult because how many people can really tell you the difference between giving 80% (OK) and 90% (not OK)? Plus, with Crossfit, there is an implied competitiveness when workouts are timed which made it even harder for me to dial it back. There were definitely times after the workout I thought, “I really should’ve taken it easier”. Overall, I felt fine but knew I had pushed my body really hard.

35 weeks pregnant

The pregnancy exercise book I previously referenced provided me with a guide to whether or not I’d exerted myself too much stating that once you are far enough along to feel fetal movements, you want to feel a movement within 30 minutes of completing your workout to know that you have not overly stressed the baby. Babies are typically inactive and still during a workout since your motion essentially rocks them to sleep but should wake and move when you stop. My daughter was a very active fetus so this was never an issue for me. She would always wake and kick me well within the 30 minute mark.

With all my other working out, there was a week or two that my psoas was so tight that it pinched a nerve in my glute causing me extreme difficulty walking. Thanks to the local prenatal yoga class, I learned poses that released the tightness. By practicing them regularly, I didn’t have any other issues with tightness or pinched nerves for the rest of the pregnancy.

Unlike previous forms of exercise I’ve discussed, I feel like yoga is culturally accepted as an appropriate form of exercise for pregnant women and therefore more information is available on scaling your efforts during pregnancy. As far as I was concerned, the only poses I shouldn’t do were (much like Crossfit) those that I couldn’t because of my belly. Honestly though, it’s pretty much common sense to feel your way into a pose and stop when your body tells you to.

Listening to my body allowed me to continue to exercise consistently through my pregnancy, and I actually found the prenatal yoga, especially on the DVD I had, to be more of a stretching routine than real exercise. I think there’s really a need for prenatal yoga that not only helps you release tightness but also incorporates a challenging workout for fit pregnant women.

Five days before my baby was born

Late into my third trimester I finally purchased a maternity swimsuit (loved the Prego Empire Tank One Piece) and hit the lap lane. It was a marvelous feeling to experience a cardio workout without the effect of the pregnancy weight. In fact, the weightlessness was so wonderful that the first time I swam I went to climb out of the pool and had completely forgotten what the extra weight felt like. I highly recommend swimming when pregnant, especially if you live in a hot climate. It was an amazing relief to cool down from head to toe, when you spend the other 99% of the day overheated.

Guest Mama Jesse C. lives in Los Angeles and enjoys the year-round outdoor playground it offers. She started racing triathlons as a hobby as a teenager and has continued to be active throughout life, believing that movement is the best way to celebrate life. When she’s not spending an epic day outdoors running and cycling, you can find her at her desk running Capacity Lab, the social enterprise she co-founded. In this role, she applies her engineering problem solving background to the social sector – testing and marketing ideas, products, and services that benefit nonprofit organizational capacity and the community of professionals working with nonprofits. Now with a kid added to the equation, Jesse is looking forward to the challenge of balancing family, work, and fitness while maintaining a good sense of humor and equanimity.

3 Responses to Exercise During Pregnancy

  1. Good for you! What an inspiration :) I did Zumba weekly until 33 weeks pregnant and the ladies in my class were awesome. I definitely got some strange looks if there was a new person in the class though!

  2. Such an inspiration, thanks for sharing!

  3. Pingback: Senna's Birth Story Mama Say What?! | Mama Say What?!

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