Having a baby on board does not mean running has to stop. Liz Wynn reports on Serpie expriences of running whilst pregnant.
Serpies run for many and varied reasons, and it’s rare that these motivations desert a Serpie when expecting – happily, medical science also sees little reason to stop in the case of the majority of healthy expectant runners.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) is emphatic: “If you exercised regularly before pregnancy, you should be able to engage in the same higher intensity programmes, such as running and aerobics, with no adverse effects for you or your baby”, provided you are exercising with the support of your health care team and after discussion of your own individual risk factors.
Remember that nothing can replace a proper medical consultation – so if you are reading this and thinking about running while pregnant, please discuss with your doctor first. If they agree, running can continue with only moderate adaptations:
- Don’t get too hot – particularly in the first 12 weeks. If body temperature exceeds 39C, stop and cool down. Drink lots of water before, during and after exercise.
- Don’t over exert yourself – RCOG suggests a “talk test” conversational effort limit, or a maximum heart rate intensity of 60-90% (overriding the arbitrary 140bpm limit set by medics in the 1980s, but which you may still see referenced).
- Maintain blood sugar levels – eat well, and ensure you are well-fuelled for your run.
- Avoid physical injury – pregnancy hormones will cause your joints to become looser in preparation for birth. Warm up and cool down carefully, pay attention to where you are running and consider wearing a pelvic support belt in later months.
While nothing visibly changes, from conception your body is flooded with hormones, causing morning sickness and exhaustion for many, but also significant and rapid blood volume increases – resulting in reduced cardiovascular capacity for the runner. Many pregnant Serpies report the first indication of their pregnancy on the road: in my case, a memorable Wednesday club run around the Embankment to Tower Bridge. For Sam Ludlow Taylor, it was a track 5k: “I had a 18:30 target and ran strongly to 3k with someone who went on to 18:15… let’s say the last 2k didn’t go very well…”.
Exciting as a pregnancy can be, these are often worrying times. Sadly, as many as 1 in 4 pregnancies will end in miscarriage, for runners and non-runners alike (and almost always because of fetal genetic abnormality). As Tamara Lopez recalls, “Nobody tells you about the constant worry… it is by far the worst thing about being pregnant”.
Consequently, many women like to keep their news hidden until their initial scans – but this is not always straightforward. After all, there are only so many excuses one can make to miss consecutive Met Leagues, Cross-country Championships, Tuesday track and Thursday training. As Tamara puts it, “It was easy to make excuses to hide the pregnancy with non-Serpies. I could just say I was training hard and didn’t want to drink, but it was so much harder with the Serpies!!”.
With the priority switch from competition to sustaining a healthy pregnancy, runners typically need to cut intensity – no more flat-out training sessions and racing – and avoid overheating, but other than that, quantity and frequency of training can continue pretty much unchanged. Sam recalls it as an opportunity to reassess: “I discussed with Dave [Chalfen, her coach] and we agreed it was right to take a step back, so I set myself another goal – to run every day for as long as I could… and managed it right the way through until 32 weeks”. It was not without challenges, especially to avoid over-heating: “I was travelling a lot with work, so would train with a bottle of water on the treadmill… one sip every five minutes normally, every two minutes when it was super hot”.
Running becomes a comforting constant. Tamara remembers that “It was really easy to give up alcohol, but giving up running was quite different” – her partner Damien echoes that “You have to recognize that there is a lot of change in her life and how important it is to be able to hold onto this bit of normality”.
Most people report the early days of the 2nd trimester as some of the best of the whole pregnancy – the doubts, fear and sickness of the first three months are behind you and the real physical changes don’t kick in until after 20 weeks. If you haven’t already got one, you’ll need a new running bra (or two), and to become very familiar with the loo-stops on your regular running routes – but on a positive note, you will finally find a use for all those old race t-shirts you have been hoarding until now.
Many women find it is possible to do more than they had expected at this stage. For Sam, “If it felt good, then I assumed it was OK – my body simply wouldn’t let me push harder anyway”. Tamara likewise found she was able to join in the last 5-10 miles of friends’ long-runs, racing the handicap a few times and a 5k around 5 months: “While it was great to race without pressure and enjoy running without a watch, it was weird not to push myself”.
It is easy to forget, however, that even in your pregnant state you are still a runner. My own gait changed, with the wear pattern on my shoes shifting, and calf tightness and hamstring twinges appearing as I neglected stretching and core strength work. Sam recalls how she “turned up at the doctor’s with severe pelvic pain and he assumed that I had a pregnancy complication, rather than it being a straightforward running injury. After two weeks off I had recovered, and could run again”.
That said, this is not the time to over-reach. Many women find a full or partial switch to run/walking and cross-training in the gym, spinning and swimming to be more enjoyable, comfortable and just as effective as slow running. It’s also important to bear in mind that the changes in your body may lead you to view some regular activities (like cycle commuting) as off-limits.
Sam’s husband, Andrew, remembers the challenge: “You have to remember that it’s her body, she knows it and what it’s capable of, and how much she benefits mentally and physically from running – but you do need to speak out if you are concerned. I also realised that my own training would change – especially when she was injured and couldn’t carry on her daily streak. I had to stop too. We were in this together!”.
There’s something pretty heroic about running in the final trimester as your bump attains quite epic proportions. Those that still run can attract the odd ill-informed comment, but we all found this to be very rare.
If anything, the attitude was very supportive. As Damien put it: “I knew that it was OK to run and the doctors recommend that you keep doing as much as you can, so I wasn’t surprised to see Tamara run – but I was impressed!”. Andrew Taylor agrees that “While everyone will have a view on it and tell you what they think, nonetheless they were all impressed. My boss said it best when he said: “Andrew’s wife is a very driven woman”.
The very late stages of pregnancy bring with them special challenges – swollen feet, backache, and the increasing pressure of the child bouncing on the pelvic floor. Tamara stopped running about six weeks before her due date: “I was getting pain at the top of my bump, but I carried on swimming, doing yoga and walking right to the end”. For Sam the real change came a few weeks later, when “all of a sudden I’d lost 1 minute-a-mile of pace as the baby’s head dropped further and further into the pelvis – I felt like a Weeble with a watermelon between my legs. In the end I was running 5k every other day, but it allowed me to run right up until the day before he was born”.
As difficult as the final weeks can be, they bring some great memories. Sam recalls the club championship 5k in 2015 – she set off at a measured tempo, only to sweep up a certain male Serpie who had fallen off the pace midway. Suitably chastened for being overtaken by a pregnant runner, our man picked up again, only to be finished off by Sam’s constant acceleration through the final kilometre, propelled by her need to get back to the bathroom: “He still talks about it. I think he’s been left slightly traumatised by the experience, but we were definitely not last”.
So we can see that running when pregnant is not without its challenges, but has been shown to contribute positively to the physical and mental wellbeing of the mother, with healthy outcomes for their infant, fewer birth complications and faster maternal recovery.
My own experience and that of many Serpie women bears this out – my daughter Phoebe was born 1 September 2016, a picture of robust newborn health. There are no guarantees with birth, as we all find out – I required a caesarian section because she was in an awkward breech position – and while it is still early days, my recovery has been encouragingly rapid and more straightforward than most so far.
So if you are pregnant and considering how to approach your fitness plans for the nine months ahead, I’d advise you to talk to your doctor – and, assuming all is straightforward, off you go! Stay active and run for as long as you feel comfortable, as you and your baby will both benefit.
Liz Wynn has managed to finalise this article whilst adding a new member to her family. Our Editor is exceptionally grateful and sends his massive congratulations.