Training as a Pregnant Triathlete
My last blog – a 2017 round-up – reviewed a very satisfying season of racing and closed with the following words:
“2017 was an extremely successful year for me in sport. I got to experience another champagne podium, won several races and had a lot of fun across a range of distances. I made training and racing a priority, choosing to focus on completing my sessions, and recovering from them well, at the expense of some socializing. I don’t consider this to have been a “sacrifice” – it was a choice I made when we decided to aim for the Kona AG podium – and even with the hindsight of not achieving this goal, it’s not a decision I regret. But it’s not a choice I am prepared to make year in, year out and so I have also chosen to let sport become slightly less important to me in 2018. I am far from bored with Ironman and by no means am I burned out – I love racing and I love being at the front of a race with the best amateurs in the world – but I will prioritise my time and energy slightly differently this coming year in order to preserve that passion and desire in the long term.”
At the beginning of January, I discovered just how true these words would be, as my husband and I found out we were expecting a baby. As a result, 2018 has included very little in the way of competitive sport, and a now thrice-deferred London marathon was once again put on ice. I’ve learned a lot these last 34 weeks, and very definitely benefited from reading the experiences of other athletes who have chosen to stay active throughout pregnancy – people like Jodie Swallow, Rachel Joyce, Meredith Kessler and Melissa Bishop-Nriagu. One thing that rapidly became clear was that there are no guarantees and no easily-predicted template for what you can (or should!) do at what stage. Thankfully, gone are the days when any physical exertion on the part of a pregnant woman was totally frowned on by the medical establishment, and as the evidence mounts that exercise is beneficial for both mum and baby [1,2], official guidelines are changing in favour of staying active.
First Trimester (weeks 1 – 13)
I knew very early on that I was pregnant – I think this is more common with athletes who have been trained to be very much in tune with their bodies and who have several years of experience and data regarding perceived effort levels and outputs! I count myself extremely fortunate not to have suffered a single episode of sickness, but it turns out you don’t know fatigue until you experience the overwhelming tiredness of the first trimester. Some days I was able to train almost normally; other days I spent on the sofa, alternating between amazingly un-refreshing naps and coverage of the Winter Olympics. I learned to just take things day by day and that trying to push through the fatigue was a total waste of time and simply resulted in abandoned sessions, tears and 8pm bedtimes. I managed an off-road 10km race at the beginning of February and although I was significantly slower than I would normally have expected, it was fun to get out and run with other people and no expectations or pressure. What was less fun was the cold I caught in early March – the lack of drug options available when you’re pregnant really sucks! However, at around 10 weeks of pregnancy, the placenta takes over hormone production and I definitely experienced a resurgence of energy. On the bike, power was down 10 – 15 watts across all zones (I was still able to push pretty hard for short blocks, including up into threshold) and although I’d lost 5 – 10 seconds per km when running, I still felt like I had a range of gears. Overall, I was able to maintain the level of fitness I came into the new year with – I wasn’t getting any fitter or faster, but initially, I was also not losing fitness.
Second Trimester (weeks 14 – 26)
Since hitting race weight for Kona the previous October, I had regained a healthy couple of kilos and a strength phase at the end of the year had helped in this respect. Throughout what should have been spring in the UK (during which time Yorkshire, like most of the rest of the country was in a near-constant state of perma-frost), I continued to gain weight (with an increase in blood volume, the placenta and considerably larger boobs accounting for most of it at this stage) and often felt heavy and sluggish, particularly when running. I found this stage quite difficult – not being visibly pregnant yet and in the weeks before being able to feel the baby move, I just felt fat and ungainly. I found hill reps to be a successful method of varying pace or effort, whilst traditional interval sessions or fartlek runs were an early casualty. Beyond that, I was able to do fairly regular 80-90min steady runs – as long as there were regular opportunities for a pee! The weather was so bad I rarely chose to ride outside, and from 16 weeks onwards, I had to begin raising the front wheel on the turbo and later on fit a longer stem, to give my lungs a bit more room since they were being crowded from below! By about 22 weeks, I found it impossible to ride on the hoods and safely cover the brakes, so any outdoor riding was restricted to the mountain bike. I continued going to the gym, but dropped the weight a lot and upped the reps.
Third Trimester (weeks 27 – 40)
I am now about half way through my third trimester and the reality of my due date has really hit! The start of trimester 3 was when my fitness levels really started to take a hit, although a large part of the reason for this was that we moved house, back down to Surrey. Although the move itself is organized and paid for by the military, cleaning the old house and unpacking and tidying the new one was all on us and a big day of sorting out stuff took just as much out of me physically as a steady session – and the priority had to be making the new house habitable! In addition, with a rapidly expanding belly, I feel slow and cumbersome – everything now takes me longer to do. Both swimming and gym work have initially taken a back seat as I needed to register as a military dependent, and whilst I am just about still turboing (mostly all now steady at around 20 - 30 watts below Ironman effort, with the occasional few minutes at 70.3 effort and a break every 15 mins to fully sit up) I suspect it will not be long before this is no longer practical. In the last week I have also converted to run/walk intervals, because a continuous hour of easy running brought on Braxton Hicks contractions and a bit of cramping. I am now running at over a min/km slower than before and carrying more than 12kg of extra weight. As the weeks have progressed, I have noticed the desire to spend large chunks of my day training has decreased along with my fitness levels – currently I am enjoying exercising for about an hour a day, but work, friends, baby preparation and, increasingly, sleep are all becoming more important to me and this is a change in focus I am embracing. I sometimes look at my beautiful Cervelo P5 and wish I could spend some quality time in the sunshine hammering around the Surrey hills, but I know that time will come again soon enough.
Throughout my pregnancy I have been completely honest with my midwives about how much and what sort of exercise I’ve been doing, and have had their full support in continuing. There has been a natural, gradual reduction in what is comfortable (and possible) and although I have sometimes found ways to work around these restrictions, when things no longer feel right, I stop, or reduce the effort level accordingly. The midwives’ advice has always been to exercise for as long as I feel comfortable, and so far I have had a healthy, complication-free pregnancy. This in turn has made it easier to continue – for women who struggle with morning sickness, back or hip pain, heartburn or any one of the many far-from-delightful side effects commonly associated with growing a tiny human inside you, I can easily imagine that exercising might be the last thing they feel up to doing. For me though, I hope that having stayed active will help when it comes to labour and post-birth recovery too .
1. Exercise during pregnancy is associated with a shorter duration of labor. A randomized clinical trial. Barakat R, Franco E, Perales M, López C, Mottola MF. European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Biology. 2018; 224:33–40
2. The effects of maternal aerobic exercise on human placental development: placental volumetric composition and surface areas. Jackson MR, Gott P, Lye SJ, Ritchie JW, Clapp JF. Placenta. 1995;16(2):179-91
3. The course of labor after endurance exercise during pregnancy. Clapp JF. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1990; 163(6 Pt 1):1799-805