Congratulations–you’re pregnant! Cue the unsolicited advice from literally everyone who has birthed [or for that matter, seen] a baby. You should probably cool your jets right now since you’re in such a “fragile” physical & mental state (because, hormones). It’s time to stick those running shoes in the back of the closet, jump into your fat pants (but don’t literally jump because your uterus might fall out), grab a couple pints of Ben & Jerry’s and park it on the couch with your good friend Netflix for the next nine months (and sorry ladies, but it’s actually 10 months). Yeah, that sounds like the healthiest & most exciting way to fully experience one of the most mind-blowing seasons of your life.
I know you are more ambitious than to stoop to that uniformed and outdated approach to pregnancy. You’re an adventurer, researcher, mountain-mover and experience-seeker…you’re not falling for that unintentional approach towards your pregnancy (and for the record, if running is the lowest item on your priority list during pregnancy, that. is totally. cool. #youdoyou). While the dialogue surrounding pregnant running is evolving from a fearful & somewhat hostile tone towards a more supportive one, I always find it interesting when people balk at a 6-mile loop 8-months pregnant, but don’t bat an eye when it comes to eating an entire bag of chips because “baby gets what baby wants.”
With two very different pregnancies under my belt (first baby-on-board for the 2012 USA Olympic Marathon Trials and the second while rehabbing a stress fracture in a walking boot) and a love affair with running still going strong, I am here to vouch for pregnancy and running as two mutually beneficial ventures. You can (and should) maintain a healthy relationship with your preferred form of forward movement even if you get knocked-up. With that said, in order to fully embrace the process for what it is—growing a human while also maintaining physical & mental fitness—there are some things you should expect concerning running and pregnancy. While I could dedicate an entire book to this topic, I have outlined a handful of things to expect [while you’re expecting] and how to respond to them in a way that will keep your pregnant running journey safe and fulfilling.
Your body is, well, growing another body right now, and it seems like you need extra everything and to be honest, you do! Sleep, food, fluids, potty stops, patience, etc. Pregnancy is a lot like running in this respect so don’t worry—you’re more educated and prepared than you may have thought!
Volume & Intensity: To Run or Not to Run
Let’s cut right to the chase on this one—how much running is healthy during pregnancy and what are the signs that I should stop? The general rule of thumb is you can maintain the same amount of running you were engaging in prior to pregnancy as long as your pregnancy is uncomplicated. You can even continue to do speed workouts if your body is used to that type of intensity. However, be mindful that the faster you run the harder your body has to work at cooling itself. According to the go-to compendium, What to Expect When You’re Expecting (I think every OB-GYN gives a copy of this book to first-time moms-to-be), when your body heats up, it shunts blood away from the uterus thus decreasing the amount of oxygen baby receives. You want to make sure you are keeping your core temperature from creeping up so your body doesn’t have to work harder than it needs to in order to prioritize baby’s needs. Furthermore, the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (ACOG) has stated that exercise is not expected to increase core body temperature into the range of concern. So, as long as you are not running in the heat of the day in the middle of summer in South Texas, you should have the green light to continue running per your usual routine.
Your blood volume doubles during pregnancy which explains why every time you run you feel like someone has strapped a giant rubber band around your ribcage, restricting every breath. According to the ACOG, because of physiologic respiratory changes during pregnancy, “a woman’s ability to exercise anaerobically is impaired and leads to decreased oxygen availability for strenuous aerobic exercise, therefore, a decrease in the intensity of workouts is important.” You might read that with some initial sadness and frustration if you’re used to doing weekly hill repeats or track workouts (or you might be sighing with relief…can I get an amen?!). However, the key to this statement is adjustment. You don’t have to stop running at the intensity you’re used to, rather, you can try to maintain this intensity for much shorter amounts of time or switch to a pace that feels challenging but as soon as you start to feel yourself going anaerobic, you back off. Pregnancy is more a season of learning to listen to your body’s cues than of increasing your VO2 max. And in all honesty, your body will likely not be able to work up to your usual top speeds, because of, you know, that whole creating a human process going on and all the energy it takes to do so!
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my doctor eased my fear of “cooking the baby” during exercise by explaining to me that the pregnant body prioritizes baby’s needs above all else so you, mom, will start feeling bad during a workout well before baby feels any of those ill effects. So be vigilant and honest about how YOU are feeling. If you feel like you’re pushing too hard or are feeling overly tired, those are your cues to take it down a notch or two. As you begin this pregnancy journey, give yourself permission to purposefully make the mental shift from “training” to “training to have a healthy baby.” If you can swallow that pill first and foremost, it will allow you to make wise training decisions for yourself based on healthy expectations and intended outcomes.
Dehydration: Drink Up!
Drinking enough water should be one of your utmost priorities as a pregnant athlete, as hydration is responsible for maintaining proper fluid balance of all your bodily systems as well as core body temperature regulation. Beyond the sage advice of drinking a few extra glasses of water everyday to keep up with all the processes necessary for baby’s development, you should go a step further and increase the electrolyte profile of your fluid intake. I’m not talking about trading water for Gatorade, I am suggesting adding a supplemental ionic mineral profile to your regular water-drinking habits. Clearly running can dehydrate you alone, so think of how that can affect pregnant-you!
When I was pregnant with both my babies, I added Enduropacks Liquid Electrolytes to my drinking water. This spray in particular has a mild lemony taste and no added-sugar or sweeteners so it’s not nauseating (like a lot of other things you might be trying to keep down!). Maintaining a balanced pH is so important especially if you are also experiencing morning sickness [and actually vomiting] because you lose so much fluid and furthermore, electrolytes during these episodes. According to ACOG, if you do become dehydrated, you risk other complications like muscles cramping, headaches, dizziness and other more serious complications like developing an irregular heartbeat. I have provided a link here where you can purchase the spray and receive a 20% discount with code “LIZOTTE” .
Food Choices: Eat to compete with nausea, iron and baby’s needs
Traditionally, pregnant women are advised to stay away from soft cheeses, deli meat, seafood, undercooked meat and sushi for fear of contracting food-borne illness. But guess what? You can get food-borne illness from literally anything! If sashimi and Gorgonzola are the only things that sound good to you then, go for it! (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor and this is merely my advice based on experience and observation). I mean, like all the pregnant women in Japan are going to give up sushi? I don’t think so. However, make sure you’re observing smart food safety with everything you eat (read: don’t buy day-old sushi…and definitely not from a gas station).
In the first trimester, your body is laying all the groundwork for development and it is one of the most exhausting periods of pregnancy. All this development can cause frequent and intense nausea (but not always) which can make it really difficult to eat anything at all, so eat what sounds good to you so that you are fueling baby’s needs and also your own energy demands that running brings. The goal here is to simply eat food you can keep down and have snacks on hand so that you don’t find yourself in a situation where you’re both starving and nauseous. Keep a stash of go-to foods in your desk, purse, in the glove compartment of your car for a quick and satisfying post-run refuel. Making sure you are eating enough is so important not only to maintain your own blood glucose levels, but also for baby’s nourishment and development.
Most women typically start feeling a little more “normal” and less nauseous and fatigued during the second trimester and with that a healthier appetite often follows. This is a good time to intentionally eat nutrient-dense foods that will support your baby’s healthy development and your running at the cellular level. For example, women runners are often prone to low iron levels to begin with, so eating more iron-rich foods like red meat, eggs, liver, beans and spinach can help your body absorb iron and thus increase your oxygen carrying capacity. According to Laurie R Greenberg, MD of IGO Medical Group in San Diego, California, “pregnant athletes should maintain a good blood volume and hemoglobin by eating a healthy diet and avoiding dehydration and anemia.” When you pair your iron-rich food choices with foods also high in vitamins (specifically Vitamin C), the rate of absorption increases, thus giving you more nutrient bang-for-your-buck and allowing your pregnancy to veer from anemia and other mineral-deficiencies. Another example of eating with the intention of making an impact at the cellular level to compliment pregnancy and running, is pairing your fat sources with foods high in fat-soluble vitamins. For example, eating a steak with a kale salad or roasted carrots. Leafy greens (kale salad) are a good source of fat-soluble vitamin K and carrots are high in beta-carotene which the body converts to fat-soluble vitamin A.
Instability: Watch Your Step!
Because your abdomen is expanding, you are likely feeling a little less sure-footed and clumsier by the day (even if the bump hasn’t made a grand entrance yet!). Not only is your belly growing, but your joints and ligaments are loosening up in preparation for delivery (this starts happening upon conception!) thanks to a little hormone called relaxin. Because of all this loosey-gooseyness going on in your body, your proprioception can be a bit of an enemy if you’re trying to put one foot in front of the other on the trails. Taking a fall while running pregnant can be detrimental for baby (not to mention mama!), so try to keep your route choices less technical and more mild & manicured. It’s wise to avoid trails that require some root-hopping and boulder-scrambling until after baby is born. Even if you feel confident in your body’s position relative to your surroundings, some women, without warning, can experience vertigo and other out-of-body sensations given all that movement and fluid retention.
Mama Needs a New Pair(s) of Shoes!
According to the ACOG, change in the center of balance has been shown to cause strain on the lower back, called lordosis. Not only does relaxin help loosen your pelvic joints and ligaments in preparation for baby’s eventual grand entrance, but it can loosen the structure of other ligaments in your body for example, your feet. Because of this, your feet can actually get bigger during pregnancy. This happened to me and I’m grateful it did—a women’s 6.5 is much easier to find than a size 6! With yet another expansion project going on in your body and the potential for back pain, you’ll want to start your pregnancy with a fresh pair of running shoes to support your gradual weight gain and compromised stability of your joints. You might even need to go up in size so that you’re not risking blisters and even worse, injury. Be prepared to go through 2-4 pairs of running shoes by the time baby arrives if you plan to run consistently.
Pelvic Floor: Under Pressure
Your pelvic floor takes a beating during pregnancy. With your belly getting bigger, there is more pressure on your bladder so the urge to “go” will strike more often and more urgently. Be prepared to make a bunch of potty stops and even more the closer you get to your due date. Keep up with your daily kegels (I’m sure your OB-GYN tells you this at every visit) as these exercises can increase the strength of your pelvic muscles which will be hard at work during delivery trying to get that baby out! Think of these as a great replacement to your former core routine, which you will need to heavily modify given baby’s positioning and the inevitable separation of your abdominal muscles. Doing kegels will not only help give you a strong pelvic floor for the delivery process, but can also ward against incontinence following birth.
Pregnancy is a wild ride of learning patience and flexibility—ultimately preparing you for the coming adventure of self-sacrifice, unexplainable joy and resourcefulness. Many women identify this as a season of surrender and I would agree to an extent. You are surrendering your body and your agenda to the greater purpose of growing a human, but not to the point of becoming devoid of your own desire to set goals and pursue what makes you happy. It’s likely not your season to run a PR or maintain a running streak, but that doesn’t mean you won’t PR ever again, nor does it mean that you will come to a point in your pregnancy when you feel like you should stop running (I ran 4 miles the day my son was born!). Personally, making a conscious effort to shift my mindset from “training” to “training to have a healthy baby” made all the difference in the focus and purpose I maintained while running and it allowed me to experience running in a way that was enjoyable and amazing rather than frustrating and exhausting. The key throughout your pregnant running journey is to adjust your attitude and outlook in a positive way so that you can embrace the process and still find fulfillment from exploring on your own two feet…even if it’s just to the freezer for those two pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
[Editors Note: The information in this article is being shared as experience and advice from one mom to future moms. Always heed the instruction of your doctor first.]