Running (or not) While Pregnant
Throughout my pregnancy, and now during my postpartum period, I’ve had so many interactions with other women, both pregnant and not, about my experience of running during this time in my life. When I first found out I was pregnant, like any good type A, detail oriented person, I scoured the internet for information on how to safely run while pregnant. You know what I found? A lot of contradictory information and countless stories of women who ran seemingly effortlessly all the way through their pregnancies. Where were all the stories of women who did not run effortlessly through their pregnancies, who had roadblocks and discomfort (I found them in the comments section of above mentioned stories). I don’t think my story is particularly remarkable but if I learned one thing during my pregnancy, it is that more women should share their experiences to help normalize the variety of pregnancy experiences out there. I am lucky that I did not have fertility issues, or any particularly serious complications during my pregnancy, but many women do and many suffer in silence. Sharing my journey on social media helped me feel less isolated and enabled me to connect to people with whom I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to interact. This approach isn’t for everyone, and pregnancy is a highly personal experience, but my hope is to provide one example of how a women who loves running and has a full-time job approached running while pregnant.
The TLDR is that I am very fortunate to not rely on running sponsorships for my primary source of income. This, plus having an amazingly supportive sponsor (Salomon), meant I felt no pressure to push my limits while pregnant. I had hoped to run consistently throughout my entire pregnancy, but ended up running a lot less because I was constantly very tired and it became uncomfortable and not enjoyable. Ultimately I was able to develop a strong intuitive connection to my body which enabled me to find the balance between staying strong and storing energy before the most physically demanding experience of my life (unmedicated childbirth) followed by the most emotionally demanding experience of my life (having a newborn in the ICU). I developed stronger relationships with many women in my life who were either also pregnant at the time, or were already moms and learned about the immense power of the mom tribe. Finally, I developed a respect for my mind and body beyond what I knew was possible.
When I found out I was pregnant back in November 2019, my plan was to continue running all through my pregnancy. Even though theoretically I knew there were many reasons I might not be able to run consistently while pregnant, I thought I could will myself to avoid them. I hoped to run several races while pregnant (all of which ended up being cancelled because of COVID-19) and run all the way through my pregnancy. I was inspired by women like Alysia Montaño when I signed up for the Broken Arrow VK which I was planning to participate in at 8 months pregnant. I was emboldened by trail runners like Alicia Vargo who ran long, adventurous trails all the way through her pregnancy. I thought “If they can do it, why can’t I?” I knew running would be different, but I thought I could will my way through it. My reality was very different than my expectation and I found myself battling feelings of inadequacy because I wasn’t able to maintain the same volume or consistency as other pregnant runners I knew. I realized there was a need to share a diverse range of experiences of running (or not) while pregnant so other women didn’t fall into the same trap I did.
I want to start by saying that everybody (and every body) is different and everyone should do what they and their doctor are comfortable with. My situation is that I am 36 year old full-time sustainability consultant, part-time semi-pro trail runner who has chronic strength imbalance issues and a tendency to over compensate with my right leg. I have never missed a period, have a blood clotting disorder, asthma and a short torso. All of which I feel contributed to my unique pregnancy experience. I’ve had lots of people ask me questions about my running and training, so I am providing a summary of each trimester not for comparison, but as one example of a fit, healthy pregnancy.
First Trimester – Coming to Terms With My New Reality
My pregnancy story starts with a failed attempt at racing, a 28 oz stein of beer and a pregnancy test taken on a whim. In November of 2019, I was just returning from four months of diagnosing and healing a bone stress injury and another three months of rehab and rebuilding. I was just starting to feel fit again and was ready to return to high level training and racing after a very disappointing year. My plan was to really give my all to one high-level race in 2019 to kick-off my comeback and celebrate being healthy. The North Face Endurance Challenge Championship 50k in Marin County, CA was supposed to be a celebratory party with the best community around and a chance to test my newly regained fitness. However, things did not go as planned in large part because I was unknowingly 4 weeks pregnant at the time. I felt off in a way I have never felt before during my warmup. My legs felt like they were simultaneously made from lead and noodles and I never got out of this funk. I ended up stepping funny, straining my quad and dropping out at mile 13. Fun-fact, the female body starts increasing production of the hormone relaxin from the very beginning of pregnancy. This hormone loosens ligaments which is great for childbirth and avoiding sprained ankles, but is not so great for maintaining pelvic stability.
A week after I DNF’d at North Face, I decided to take a pregnancy test. Despite knowing how human reproduction works, it still came as a bit of a shock when I saw those 2 pink lines show up. I was still rehabbing the strained quad, so my pregnancy experience kicked off with a week off from running and never really returned to “normal”.
I experienced pretty consistent “morning sickness” (spoiler alert, it actually can happen any time of day and even lasts all day sometimes) throughout my first trimester. I never actually threw up but had a constant feeling of nausea and fatigue which I just couldn’t shake. I also experienced a couple migraines which were new to me and really threw me off my game. Add to this the cultural practice of hiding the pregnancy and related symptoms and I was not feeling very good at all. While being nauseous and tired is par for the course in ultra-running, the unrelenting nature of it during pregnancy really took its toll on me and I ended up running a lot less, and a lot slower, than I had initially hoped. I felt the impact of any incline and since I was trying to generally control my hear rate while running, I found myself slowing down and even walking uphill from pretty early on. Adjusting to these unexpected physical limitations was challenging, but learning to listen to my body and take it day by day turned out to be really good practice for the rest of what 2020 had in store.
I have never been a particularly high mileage runner and incorporate a decent amount of strength training into my regular routine to try to keep injuries at bay. I also really enjoy road cycling and gravel biking, both of which had been an integral part of my rehab after my stress reaction. Before pregnancy, a typical week for me would include 50-60 miles and two 30 minute weight sessions. I expected to be able to maintain training volume for a good chunk of my pregnancy, but in reality I capped out at 32 miles a week, and only hit that a few times during the second and early third trimester. I ended up running between 3-5 days a week in the first trimester and managed a few longer efforts around 13 miles, but my overall volume and frequency was significantly reduced. I also did not have the energy for as many strength sessions as I would have liked, and ultimately I think the reduction in prehab exercises had an impact on my discomfort later on. In the end, I started to feel better around week 15 or so, but never had that infamous pregnancy glow and never felt great.
Second Trimester – The Rise of COVID-19
The second trimester brought a relief from morning sickness and the comfort to share the exciting news with more than just our immediate family. Because of the timing, I had actually shared my pregnancy with my primary sponsor very early since I felt it was the right thing to do when discussing contracts for the next year. I’ll admit that I was nervous about telling any of my sponsors that I was pregnant. I had a terrible year in 2019 in terms of being able to represent my sponsors since I was injured and only completed 2 events, and I thought that being pregnant and missing another year or more of competitive racing would be a huge deterrent. Both of my managers at Salomon are women and one is a mom and they were both super excited for me. My pregnancy had no impact on my contract and I have felt loved and supported by them the entire time. I did have two sponsors drop me, though neither specifically cited my pregnancy, I can’t help but feel like it was a contributing factor.
Once the morning sickness symptoms subsided, I was able to run more consistently, but quickly found myself huffing and puffing my way up any and all hills. As a trail runner, hills are a part of the deal. I accepted the (much!) slower pace, but it meant I could not cover nearly as much ground in the time I had allotted for my runs. I also needed water and food for anything longer than about 45 minutes. My flat terrain, easy pace went from between 7:30 – 8:30 min/mile about a minute per mile slower. I was still unable to really get into a groove; one week would go really well and then I would be too busy or too tired to build any momentum in terms of training. I did manage a few speed sessions and was proud to run 6:00 min/mile pace for 800 meters a few times. I also completed a few double digit efforts, the most memorable of which was one of the last Saturday community runs with the San Francisco Running Company before COVID-19 shut everything down. I was 20 weeks pregnant but still felt pretty good on the flat portions and couldn’t help but chase the dude in front of me for the last mile to the store. The look on his face when I told him I was 20 weeks pregnant was priceless.
The San Francisco Bay Area went into pretty strict shelter-in-place lockdown in mid-March when I was 21 weeks pregnant which obviously threw a huge wrench into every aspect of my life, including running. To top it off, I moved from Marin to what I call the far-east bay (Orinda) the second week of shelter in place. Between moving, respecting the letter of the shelter-in-place regulations and fear of this unknown disease, I ran once in 10 days. My body felt like it was put together wrong: my low back was hurting and stiff, my hips felt creaky and my chronic adductor issue reared its ugly head. My bump “popped” pretty early and I had put on over 20 pounds by the time I was about 22 weeks pregnant. I was really feeling the extra weight, change in center of gravity and the inevitable anterior tilt of my pelvis was aggravating my pre-existing core issues. To top it off, the extra weight started to make my feet hurt when I ran (thankfully I worked through my shoe rotation and found the Salomon Predict reduced my discomfort on the road and the Ultra 2’s eliminated it on trails). Generally, running did not feel very good and I was concerned I might not be able to continue much longer.
Despite the onset of these discomforts, I decided to re-commit myself to strength training and mobility and to keep trying to run. I am really glad I did because I found after a couple strength sessions, things started to feel better. I also got a maternity support belt which alleviated some of the pressure on my pelvis and back. As the world settled into the new normal of coping with COVID-19, I found a routine which included strength training, yoga, running and riding my indoor trainer. For me, maintaining this level of exercise was crucial for my mental health as I learned to cope with the isolation caused by restrictive sheltering in place and the fear of the unknown future.
This time also saw the rise of virtual racing events and I was really proud to put up 10 reps of the hill behind my house for the I Run Far Operation Inspiration at 24 weeks pregnant and ran 50 miles in 10 days at the very end of the second trimester for the Aravaipa Strong event.
Third Trimester: The ever-expanding bump
The third trimester was actually the most consistent and adventurous for me. The consistency of the final weeks of my second trimester had me feeling good physically, and I was in the groove of preparing for Little Pun’s arrival. Shelter in place restrictions loosened enough that we could visit our favorite local parks and I had figured out how to use the newfound flexibility of working from home to get workouts in when I felt good throughout the day. I also spent a lot of time napping with my cat on the couch and stress eating as the COVID-19 situation and everything else that has happened this year continued to develop.
By this point, I was only running flats or downhills, so the majority of my runs included a significant amount of power hiking as I tended to prefer routes with elevation. I found myself setting arbitrary goals to remain motivated, but still allow for the flexibility to chill out when I was feeling very tired. I exercised for at least 60 minutes every day in May. I hiked to the summit of Mount Diablo and Mount Tam with my husband. I ran a half marathon around a local reservoir for the Salomon Women virtual race and I ran one final “Lakes Loop” in my old neighborhood in Marin. I drew a lot of stares given the size of my bump, and a few comments (one guy asked if I was 8 and a half months pregnant when in fact I was only 7 months pregnant) but generally, I received lots of support from people out in the world and on social media.
I wanted to keep moving as long as it was comfortable. I raised and flipped the handlebars on my bike trainer so I could keep riding. I incorporated more yoga to alleviate the growing tightness in my back. I found myself hiking more and running less on weekend trail adventures and eventually, though I never “officially” stopped running, I pretty much stopped running around 36 weeks. By the final 4 weeks of my pregnancy, I had gained 35 pounds and the extra weight combined with the infernal heat of CA summer just made running very uncomfortable. However, the extra weight was very useful for bodyweight exercises which I did continue, in addition to riding the trainer, hiking and yoga.
I gave birth on my due date and two days before was going so stir crazy I decided to go out and run some intervals. I managed several 1-2 minute intervals around 7 minute/mile pace proving that there is some truth to the old wives tale that you get a burst of energy before you go into labor!
Despite having a totally different running experience during my pregnancy than I had expected or hoped for, I think in the end it was the best way I could have done it. I listened to my body and didn’t try to force anything to live up to imaginary standards and non-existent external expectations. I managed to achieve a good balance between exercise and rest and most importantly, my body was prepared for the demands of labor and delivery. I ran far less than I had initially hoped but I grew a happy, healthy baby to full term and developed a deeper appreciation for the joys of being on trails. Finally, I developed a much stronger intuitive connection to my body and respect for what it can do.
I can’t wait to get back to running and to share my love of the outdoors with my daughter, Aila Peberdy Engel aka Little Pun.