Exercise During Pregnancy

I’m a runner.  Not the marathon runner I once was, but a runner nonetheless.  And I always just assumed that my running days would be temporarily over once I got pregnant.  I always hear of pregnant women being told to “take it easy.”  I always see pregnant women “eating for two.”  The good news is that isn’t fully true. 

The bad news is that things DO change.  Quite significantly towards the end of my pregnancy.  But I was able to continue my workouts up until 3 days before giving birth.  And, many days, these workouts were the only link to my pre-pregnancy self; the only activity that made me feel like ME again.  Hey, I’m all in support of becoming a vessel of life, but sometimes you just need a break from it.

I talked to my doctor about continuing workouts immediately upon becoming pregnant.  She was all for it.  She said to basically listen to my body, and not push the limits.  Now wasn’t the time to be shooting for personal records.  If I was tired, I was to stop vs. pushing through it.  I was to not elevate my heart rate too significantly.  A little sweat was fine; drenched and dripping was not.  So off I went, smug in the knowledge that I was going to gain a mere 20 pounds this pregnancy and spring right back into shape a week after giving birth. 

Fast forward  12 months… Well THAT was a humbling experience.  Not only did I not gain 20 pounds (it was 36), it is taking much much longer than expected to now take the weight off (6 yo-yo-ing pounds to go at 15 weeks postpartum). 

But back to pregnancy-time.  I admit I did give up my exercise routine altogether sometime around the end of the 1st month.  I was simply too sick to work out.  I guess the so-called silver lining of that is the fact that I was also too sick to eat.  So they canceled each other out? 

The second trimester comes along.  Still sick.  Then, somewhere around the 4th month of pregnancy, it begins to improve.  Slowly.  So I tentatively creep back into the gym one day, head hung, and suspiciously eye the Stairmaster.  It’s mocking me.  I step on it and begin a light workout (light as in 8 levels lower than my normal starting point).  I set an easy goal of 30 minutes, but achieve only 20.  But that’s okay – I did it!  And I didn’t vomit!  Good. 

Next day, I attack the Stairmaster again.  This time I do the entire 30 minutes, albeit at an even LOWER level.  That’s okay.  I didn’t vomit.  I didn’t even have the urge.  I feel extremely happy with myself.

Next comes the treadmill.  My nemesis.  I start to jog, again very slowly.  I’m doing it!  Shockingly, the jogging is easier than the Stairmaster.  I crank up the speed a bit.  I get into a comfortable rhythm.  I feel great.  The jog ends, I am sweaty (but not drenched), and I feel fabulous.  For the first time since becoming pregnant, I feel a trace of my old self.  Sweaty and satisfied after a good workout.  Endorphins.  I’m back!

After that, I stepped right back into my regular workout routine.  But with a few twists.  Every cardio workout was completed at a lower rate and lower intensity.  When I felt tired or lazy, I stopped.  It was quite liberating, actually.  We always train to push through those times and to simply listen to my body and give myself permission to stop was freeing.  I drank tons of water.  I took more days off than I normally would. 

I had to force myself to stop silently competing with everybody who stepped onto the treadmill or Stairmaster or spin cycle next to me.  I never realized what a motivator that silent competition was.  I wished that my “competitors” knew that I was usually much faster/stronger than this, that I was pregnant and that was why I was so slow.  I had to swallow it. 

I had to deal with my growing belly.  I had to modify my running gait so that it wouldn’t bounce as much.  My calves started to burn with the increasing weight.  I started to feel sharp twinges in my belly and pelvic area, and would have to stop as needed.  Reflux and heartburn were not my friend during these workouts.

I had one run where I felt extremely strong.  I ran much longer and faster than I probably should have – but I felt so great, I wanted to continue.  Afterwards, I was drenched.  And continued sweating.  And sweating.  And sweating up to two hours later.  I was really scared I had done some damage.  I promised myself at that point that going forward I would always stop well before the point of exhaustion…  and I did.  I didn’t experience that again for the remainder of my pregnancy.

Then along comes the third trimester.  My belly is huge.  My ankles are swollen.  I can drink gallons of water and still not quench my thirst.  But the running still helps me maintain my sanity.  I am going much much slower now.  I compensate by increasing the incline.  That makes my calves BURN BURN BURN but I rationalize that they’re going to be so strong and running is going to be so easy once I give birth (I was wrong, BTW). 

I get looks.  A few women commend me on staying fit for so long into my pregnancy.  A few give me dirty looks (what – am I expected to be holed up at home eating bon bons?)  Men are scared to look at all. 

Then – Sciatica.  This is no joke.  I can barely roll out of bed nor make it up the stairs, never mind RUN.  By this time, I am working from home so it is all I can muster to simply take the dog for a walk down to the end of the street.  I’m embarrassed by my limping.  It really hurts. 

But now, more than ever, when I’m miserable and just “over it,” is when I need my workouts.  Simply to feel sane.  The treadmill is out of the question now.  I try the Stairmaster and elliptical machines, and I can’t do those either.  The only thing that saves me is the cycle.  I love that I can multi-task (iPhone + cycle makes for a fun workout).  I read my pregnancy apps and ask my pregnancy forum questions while on that bike. 

So I begin cycling every day.  I ball up my towel and stick it behind the small of my back for better support.  I cycle, cycle, cycle.  Never mind that it takes me upwards of 10 minutes to waddle up the gym stairs and over to the cycle, as long as I can sit down and cycle and break a sweat, I feel good. 

Then the day before I go into labor arrives (although of course I don’t know it at the time).  I am MISERABLE.  Swollen, sore, in pain, and I swear I can feel a little head just pressing pressing pressing down into my pelvis.  Now I’m really over it.  I’m not hitting the gym anymore (even I am embarrassed now by my limp/waddle/wincing gait) but I want this baby out.  Doctor says MOVE.  So we go to the mall.  It must take 30 minutes just to walk INTO the mall.  But hubby is patient.  It’s not as embarrassing with him there.  We stop at pretty much every storefront for a rest break.  We linger at the food court for far too long.  Hubby keeps checking watch and tapping foot.  He helps me up.  We walk from one end to the other and now I am REALLY sore.  But hoping it helped.  I collapse into the car and don’t want to get out to go into the house.

Sure enough, 2:30am the following morning, labor begins.  And I will say, during labor, I am SO glad I had worked out.  I can’t imagine doing it without that “training” per se.  I had a pretty long labor (think: 24 hours with 3.5 hours of pushing) and I’m glad, at risk of a potential c-section, that I didn’t poop out.

So my advice is to continue the workouts.  Slow them down and stop when you’re not feeling it, but continue.  It’s no longer about maintaining a “girlish figure” but rather maintaining some semblance of self during the long and arduous pregnancy journey.  Ignore the looks, embrace the compliments.  Simply celebrate the wonderful expanding YOU.

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