Advice for Running Through Pregnancy (or Not) from a Mother of Three

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I assumed I would barrel through the nine months of running six to eight miles per day feeling wonderful and eating healthy post-run meals. I was sure my fitness would stay strong and that I would jump back into racing post-delivery with minimal time off and an edge against my competitors thanks to my newfound pain tolerance. While many women can (and do) run well through pregnancy, the opposite was true for me.

Before I even got a positive pregnancy test I noticed my energy level plummeted. I struggled to keep up with my husband on runs (he usually has trouble keeping up with me). OK, I thought, I can deal with this. But it got worse.

It wasn’t much more than three weeks later when I woke up to nausea and a long first trimester full of morning sickness. Day and night, I was caught in a cycle of nausea, headaches and bizarre food cravings always followed by vomiting. Six to eight-mile runs were a distant memory. I felt lucky to make it to four. Often, I didn’t leave the couch. I watched in vain as other runners posted about their wonderful pregnancy runs. I grew frustrated and depressed. My running became walking. It took time, but I slowly accepted that was enough.

As time went and babies came, I learned from experience that every pregnancy is different, and that you have to ride them out one day (or one hour) at a time. I recommend that you try to make the best and healthiest choices you can in each moment, know that is the best that you can do, and then let it go. Hard as it may seem, this is a practice in self compassion and self care. Don’t compare yourself to your friends, pregnant or not.

As any runner embarks on this nine-month journey, an expert can help you make informed, confident choices. So I asked my gynecologist, Dr. Jamie Straub, of Polson, MT, a few basic questions:

Q: Is it safe to run while pregnant?

A: Yes, as long as your pregnancy is low risk and you have already been running, your doctor will likely give you the go ahead. Pregnancy isn't the best time to take up running if it’s new to you.

Q: What are some indicators that a pregnant person should stop running or slow down?

A: If you feel shortness of breath, dizziness or tightness in your chest, you should stop and walk.

Q: For someone who is a distance runner with a tendency to push the envelope, what do you recommend for duration or amount of running or exercise while pregnant?

A: Don’t increase from your baseline and be aware that you aren’t burning all your extra calorie stores.

Here are a few important tips and tricks to make running through pregnancy as easy as it can be.

[Note: If you are pregnant or expect that you could be pregnant, you should speak with your health care provider about your current activities and health status before assuming you have the green light to move forward with any exercise regimen.]

Stay hydrated and always have a snack before you run.

It’s a good idea to have an easy pre-run snack like a banana or crackers. It’s also much harder to do an early morning pre-breakfast run, and you may find it helpful to pack a little snack to have on the go as well. I often brought along bananas, pretzels and string cheese for longer runs or hikes. I made sure to eat something after exercising too.

Dehydration can cause premature labor and can be harmful to both mom and baby. So, in hotter seasons it's more important than ever to stay hydrated, and bring water with you. A hydration vest or belt may become uncomfortable, so find something that works for you. I like carrying handheld water bottles.

Photo courtesy of @christina_runs_carolina

Try a Belly Band

Many people find the weight of a pregnancy belly heavy and cumbersome. Belly bands help alleviate back and abdomen pain. Some even have additional straps going between your legs and added support down under. Check with your physical therapist to see if they can help you with the fit.

Around 20 weeks into one of my pregnancies, the baby was head down and pushing into my pubic bone. I was very uncomfortable, and it became difficult to walk. It isn’t important to keep the baby head down at that stage of the game, so I went to my physical therapist and they fitted me with a belly support band. The pressure of the band actually caused the baby to flip upright again, and I didn’t even need to wear the band anymore.

During pregnancy, it’s common to find yourself with a problem that feels too personal or embarrassing to share with others, but talking to a friend or healthcare worker is better than keeping uncertainty to yourself. A good support system is priceless during pregnancy.

Find the right shoes (in the right size)

Don’t skip out on your shoes. Go to Fleet Feet and get the perfect fit. Even if you’ve been outfitted before, it’s a good idea to get new measurements with a baby on board.

Your feet swell, sometimes a lot, especially in the third trimester. “Relaxin is more prevalent during pregnancy, while lactating, and during menses,” says Jeff Christopher, a physical therapist in Polson, MT, who works with runners. “This is equated with increased joint laxity. This decreases the stability of the natural arches associated with the foot.”

He goes on to say that the weight of the body associated with ground contact while running adds additional stress on the arch. This combination, along with fatigue can have a big impact on not only your foot, but the entire kinematic chain.

“Orthotics, specifically dynamic custom orthotics, can provide evenly supported and widely dispersed forces and assist in maintaining the natural arches,” he says.

Photo courtesy of @christina_runs_carolina

According to a study published in The American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, women are disproportionately affected by musculoskeletal disorders. The combination of increased weight on joints with potentially greater laxity during pregnancy could lead to permanent structural changes in feet.

It’s commonplace in the postpartum world to hear someone say their feet grew half a size after pregnancy. The best thing to do is be proactive with your footwear. Make sure to wear supportive shoes while pregnant, especially in the last months.

Be mindful that you may need a larger shoe size if your feet swell, and sometimes that swelling can be quite dramatic. It doesn’t mean that your feet will stay that size afterward. While not everyone ends up in a larger shoe forever, your feet will thank you if you don’t cramp them in the meantime.

Remember that running can help ease labor (and more)

Kathrine Wright, a runner in Missoula, MT, sums up how a lot of women feel. She says of her pregnancy, “I just needed to run. It’s something I hadn’t done in my previous pregnancies and I wanted to go for it. I needed that group of women, and to get out the door and get going.”

According to WebMD, it's recommended that pregnant women do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Exercising may help prevent preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and the need for a cesarean section as well as improve your mood and ward off depression. The website also suggests that pregnant women who exercise tend to have easier and faster labors as well as a quicker recovery.

Walking and running can also help with constipation and mild back painassociated with pregnancy. Staying fit and keeping weight gain in check will help with postpartum recovery as well.

There are many reasons to run, pregnant or not. But if you are planning to run while pregnant, try to keep it light and fun. Keep your baby’s health, and yours in mind. Be prepared for dramatic changes in your body and don’t be afraid to slow down and walk. In fact, anticipate walking a lot. If you feel that running is too uncomfortable, walking is a great choice with all the same benefits.

As your pregnancy progresses it usually becomes harder to run. Keeping an open mind and a loose set of goals will allow you to feel good about each day’s accomplishments no matter how small. And please, if you are having trouble accepting the changes with your body and its performance level, reach out for help.

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