Running While Pregnant – what to expect when you’re expecting

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Without a doubt, pregnancy is one of the most transformative times in a woman’s life. The obvious physical changes, in addition to the less-obvious hormonal, mental, and emotional changes, coalesce in a way that few other bodily adaptations can. For a long time, women were relegated to bedrest for the duration of their pregnancy, due to fears that any physical efforts or exercise the mother took would be deleterious to the short-term and long-term health of her fetus. Certainly running while pregnant was out of the question for most.

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In its most recent declaration on the subject in 2015, the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) issued a statement decreeing that:

Physical activity in pregnancy has minimal risks and has been shown to benefit most women, although some modification to exercise routines may be necessary because of normal anatomic and physiologic changes and fetal requirements. Women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during, and after pregnancy. […] Regular physical activity during pregnancy improves or maintains physical fitness, helps with weight management, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes in obese women, and enhances psychologic well-being.

Runners thrive on routine, so it’s completely understandable for the female runner, upon learning that she’s pregnant, to wonder how she can have a healthy and thriving pregnancy and continue to run. It is imperative that you speak candidly about your concerns with your medical practitioner and heed his/her advice on the subject. You’ll soon find that each woman’s pregnancy experience can vary tremendously – and even one woman’s subsequent pregnancies can look and feel completely different – so in many ways, your pregnancy is an experiment of one.

I had been running for a long time when I became pregnant in 2010 (and again in 2014), and I was very fortunate to be able to continue to run through both pregnancies and very soon after giving birth. As I alluded to earlier, pregnancy looks and feels different on each woman, and the same woman’s subsequent pregnancies can go very different than those prior. My running looked and felt very different from one pregnancy to the next, but some things stood out to me that I thought were worth sharing.

Based solely on my own two pregnancy experiences, here are some things that you may want to keep in mind if you run while you are pregnant:

listen to your body and to your practitioner

If you weren’t running before you became pregnant, it’s likely that your practitioner will advise against you taking up the sport until after you’ve given birth, since your body isn’t already accustomed to the sport. Runners are typically in-tune with, if not also hyper-aware of, their bodies, and this meticulous attention to detail matters even more during pregnancy. Pregnancy literally affects every single aspect of you, so it’s understandable that one day (or many days) you might not feel like your usual self. This isn’t the time in your life to become beholden to a training schedule, so if you don’t feel like running, for whatever reason, then don’t. Running while you’re pregnant doesn’t make you a “badass,” and running through discomfort or pain is simply medically unwise for you and for your fetus. Definitely talk to your practitioner early in your pregnancy to get his/her opinion about your running, and follow it accordingly.

keep your goals in the day-to-day

My pregnancies quickly taught me that while I might feel like garbage today, especially in the first trimester, tomorrow I might actually feel a little better. It can be helpful (and fun, even) to create a very loosely-structured workout and running plan each week – because we are creatures of habit and tend to love our little routines – but if you physically or mentally aren’t feeling up to the challenge, cut yourself some slack for once. Even when you are feeling lousy, remember that just because you feel this way today, right now, doesn’t mean that it’ll be like this tomorrow. Hang in there. Just like with marathon training, trust the process that is growing a baby.

run for the joy of running

If you are fortunate enough to be able to run during your pregnancy – and you want to – you might find that doing so allows you to refreshingly hit the “reset” button on your running. It’s so easy to keep our running strictly adhered to a schedule of train-race-recover, season after season, in an attempt to notch some PRs, but sometimes running simply for the joy of running reminds us what attracted us to this sport in the first place and what keeps us returning for more year after year. Pregnancy running is less about training to PR than it is training to maintain health and to do some good for your growing fetus, and for this reason alone, you might even find that ditching your GPS, speed-tracking watch – since you might find that you’re no longer interested in hitting certain splits on each run any more – is even more tempting.

running on trails during pregnancy is an excellent way to run just for the joy of running. (second trimester from '15)
running on trails during pregnancy is an excellent way to run just for the joy of running. (second trimester from ’15)

comfort matters

As your pregnancy matures, you’ll find that it’s in your best interest to be comfortable, and you’ll likely find that this is especially true as you run throughout your second and third trimesters. You might have to invest in a sportsbra that fits your growing chest better (and honestly, you’ll probably also still need it for your immediate postpartum period, so it’s a good investment), if not also larger-sized clothes. You don’t need to break the bank to find good-quality workout clothes that’ll fit your pregnant self, but if you have the resources available, I’d encourage you to invest in some workout apparel that’ll allow you to run comfortably while pregnant when you want to. You may also find that a maternity belt provides some relief, too.

race solely for kicks – if you trust yourself to hold back

Even though you likely won’t be running down some time goals during your pregnancy, you can still register for races and run them solely for the fun that is race day. The caveat here, of course, is that you have to trust yourself to know that you won’t treat the race as you would if you were not pregnant, and just like with any other run during your pregnancy, you must listen to your body and pull back if you begin to detect that something feels awry. When in doubt, talk to your practitioner.

leading a shake-out run in advance of The San Francisco Marathon's 5k race in 2015 (36 weeks/9 months pregnant)
leading a shake-out run in advance of The San Francisco Marathon’s 5k race in 2015 (36 weeks/9 months pregnant)

celebrate your victories

During my first pregnancy, I stopped running at about week 35 of 41 because I had developed excruciating lower SI pain, and I didn’t run again until I was 6 weeks postpartum. During my second pregnancy, I ran until I gave birth at 38 weeks, and I resumed running again at 3 weeks postpartum, when my midwife cleared me for physical activity. Due to my experiences in my first pregnancy, during my second pregnancy, especially toward the end, I became a bit fearful that I’d end up repeating the same issues I had the first time around. I distinctly remember going out for my runs during my late third trimester, wondering if that’d be my last run of this pregnancy, and more often than not, I’d finish each run completely EXHILARATED that I had just healthily and safely run X miles at Y pace and Z weeks pregnant! The joy of being able to run was so apparent to me, and it made me feel like I was learning to run again for the first time, when every run was a milestone – the first time I ran a mile without stopping, the first time I ran two miles without stopping, the first time I ran for thirty minutes without stopping, and so on. When I’m not pregnant, I get so zoned into my training that it’s easy for me to forget that there was a time in my life when I was learning to run, and therefore train for endurance events, for the first time. Running while pregnant gave me opportunities to remember the joy and the feelings of victory at being able to do something that I didn’t know was possible before.

don’t rush the return

Postpartum running looks and feels different for every woman – much like pregnancy – and it’s easy to get sucked into the comparison trap when you see other postpartum women on social media already back out running soon after giving birth. Remember that your body went through an enormous physical change, and taking things too fast, too soon after giving birth can be a recipe for disaster. Heed your practitioner’s advice when he/she gives you the “all clear” to return to running, and don’t hesitate to return on your own time. Life with a newborn is unpredictable and exhausting, and running will always be there for you. Come back when you’re physically and mentally ready.

Running during pregnancy can be possible, provided you have the guidance and support of your medical practitioner, and while it confers a host of physical benefits to both the mother and the fetus, you may also look back on this time in your running career as being especially meaningful.

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