The Pregnant Athlete
Spoken by Lucy Young, a Pregnant Athlete Herself and Certified Pre / Postnatal Exercise Specialist
When it comes to exercising during pregnancy, “just listen to your body” is common advice that is intended to empower pregnant female athletes to look within for guidance on exercise intensity and necessary modifications. The expression, well-meaning as it surely is, puts the onus on the athlete to trust their intuition to tell them what is happening with their changing body, including how far is too far, and how much is too much, when it comes to training.
As a track & field athlete and a certified pre/post-natal exercise specialist (CPPC), I have always questioned how sound this advice is. Personal experience and my work in the field has shown me athletes (particularly elite endurance athletes) are most accustomed to pushing their body past fatigue, hurt and psychological discomfort. In fact, it’s their default setting. In March this year- I discovered it’s mine as well.
"I found out I was 6-weeks pregnant after weeks of racing 200-400m sprints. I was preparing for the gruelling winter months ahead, determined more than ever to get fitter, faster and more powerful with a pre-season that my coach advised would be “deadly”."
"Having always dreamed of being a mum, I was excited by the news and the added bonus that after years of working in the pre/post-natal sphere I could finally get a taste of my own medicine and become my own pre/post-natal client."
However, as an athlete used to pushing my body day-in and day-out, it didn’t make for an easier readjustment of my training. Block starts and speed sessions became increasingly more challenging and unlike the ups & downs of coming back from injury, these physical changes felt confronting. In all honesty, at first, I didn’t feel like I understood my own body! So how could I possibly “just listen to my body” if I felt disconnected from it?
In the realm of prenatal and postnatal exercise, information proffered by “Dr. Google”, online chat forums, and friends and family, can be polarising, misleading and overwhelming. In fact, after surveying many past and current clients, it appears there are two common approaches to exercise during pregnancy: women who try to continue with their habitual exercise, blissfully unaware if the entirety of what they’re doing is safe; and there are women who back off all together, terrified to do anything in case its risky. Neither approach is ideal, and many high-level athletes often slot right into the first category as they can’t possibly imagine their lives without that familiar endorphin fix!
Interestingly, conversations surrounding what pre/post natal exercise looks like for female athletes is more readily discussed now than ever before as athletes such as Olympian Allyson Felix are showcased as the epitome of how elite-level training doesn’t need to stop entirely when you’re pregnant. For this category of athlete, realising an Olympic dream is indeed possible after birth.
Yet, despite there being more real-life examples and medical support for exercise during pregnancy, the confusion surrounding which exercises to perform, and at what intensity plagues many pregnant athletes. Having recently pivoted from what was looking to be a year of intense training in athletics myself, I’ve pulled together advice to reassure and motivate any woman navigating their pregnant exercise journey.
1. Shifting Mindset
Reaching for the positive, my mum suggested one day I might try and “treat childbirth like an upcoming event that I am training for”, to which I replied somewhat despairingly “it’s not the same”. She was not the only one trying to reassure me as I struggled to run consistently. However, for me it wasn’t going to work to prep for childbirth as I would for race-day.
When I’m training for a race, I push harder knowing my competitors are pushing too, I allow my competitiveness to take over and rest only when it’s programmed by my coach. Being pregnant doesn’t work like that and I quickly realised I needed to pull back at the first sign of pain - in this case pelvic floor pain.
While ‘prepare for labour like race day’ is an approach that might work for some, I’d suggest for most of us we could look at it from a slightly different angle. Try shifting your mindset to acknowledge that whatever you do now can set you and your baby up for success later. Your training may temporarily involve less intensity, sweat and tears but there are other channels that will reward your prenatal mind and body, and perhaps your Type A personality, including schooling yourself up on prenatal exercise and nutrition.
2. Moderate Intensity
If you’re someone who loves to exercise regularly, you might be relieved to know that becoming pregnant doesn’t mean you can no longer enjoy a sweaty workout or experience muscle soreness from lifting weights. In fact, on top of knowing what exercises are safe to perform, what’s equally important is the intensity at which you train!
If you are unsure of how to moderate your workout intensity, here are a few pointers:
Follow a ‘perceived effort scale’ as this helps estimate training intensity based on feel (intensity of load and effort). Typically, when pregnant you never want to exceed 8/10, 10 being maximum intensity. An 8/10 allows you to speak a sentence or a few words at a time but requires you to take rest quickly after - you’re essentially on the verge of becoming uncomfortable. It’s important to consult a pre/postnatal coach to tailor this advice to your exact circumstance, however it’s important to note that you shouldn’t remain at an 8/10 for the entire workout. This is the max intensity reached during a training session. For strength sessions, look to reduce the number of sets, reps or weight. This doesn’t mean you need to reduce all three categories immediately; it simply means if you’re used to performing 4 sets of 6 reps, you might look to drop your number of sets and perform 3 sets of 12 reps at a lower weight. In this case, dropping the number of sets and weight, allows you to increase the rep count slightly given the overall intensity has been modified. In short, a reduction in overall volume reduces intensity.
"Wearing a heart-rate monitor is an accurate way to ensure you are never pushing yourself to the point of complete exhaustion."
Given many smart watches have a record of your max heart rate history, they can assist you by providing coloured zones to monitor the intensity of your workout. Aim to avoid working in the ‘red zone’ (90-100% max heart rate).
3. Focus on the Long Game
I’ll admit it can feel great when you’re pregnant and “crushing” a workout because exercising in and of itself can be hard enough, so doing it with added baby weight, a round stomach and feeling sleep deprived is pretty extraordinary. This does come with a caveat – understand that just because you think you can physically do something, doesn’t always mean you should do it. For example, if you begin to experience pelvic floor ‘heaviness’ or pain these can be signs your pelvic floor isn’t coping with the additional load being placed on it from your baby, and it might be time to reassess the long runs or any form of impact work. The silver lining? Safeguarding your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles now can help prevent you from causing any damage and help you speed up your recovery post-baby!
"Athlete or not, becoming pregnant can be both an exciting and a challenging time."
It provides an opportunity to surrender to the way in which your body is changing, and it also opens the door to understanding what it truly means to ‘listen to your body’. When much of your life has been spent training for your sport, pregnancy teaches you the art of being flexible- accepting that your style of training and frequency might differ day-to-day...and that’s okay.
Build your support ‘team’ (GP/obstetrician, midwife, pelvic floor PT & prenatal exercise coach), trust the process, and remember that any goals or ambitions you have set for the future are not automatically relinquished because you are having a baby.
Remember there are so many positive benefits to exercising while pregnant- both mental and physical, so keep moving and enjoy growing your own little athlete!