The Endurance Dietitian: Exercising During a Healthy Pregnancy

By Kim McDevitt, MPH RD on September 1, 2015 , categorized in Endurance

Healthy Pregnancy

Welcome to The Endurance Dietitian! If you’re like me, and define a large portion of your life with training plans, run clubs, “long-run-Sundays,” and chasing PRs, you’re in the right place. It seems daily we’re reading about the next best ingredient or trend we should be including into our running lifestyle. I’m here to share my passion for sports nutrition by breaking down the technical jargon of the current trends, weeding through the research and explaining what you need to know. Think of this as our runner girl talk (don’t worry—boys can still eavesdrop).

I always thought I would be one of those women who ran 30 miles a week throughout pregnancy and at least 5 miles on her due date. You see, running has played an integral part in my life for a very long time. It’s been with me through personal growth. It’s provided me emotional stability, creativity and mental clarity. It’s where my best thinking happens and my thoughts unfold. And being able to stay active, and specifically to run, when pregnant was (and still is) important to me. I maintained that 30 mile week until I hit about 6 months pregnant. And that’s when things started to unravel.

I’m excited to be able to tell you my story, as seeking out others runners and their pregnancy stories really helped me through my pregnancy. The biggest thing to remember through all of this—and something I frequently have to remind myself—is that just like no two women have the same pregnancy, most women’s exercise experience during pregnancy is quite different.  Definitely consult with your doctor or midwife about your fitness routine, things you’re feeling and any changes or concerns you’re having as you “run” through your own 9 month journey.

Exercise for Healthy Pregnancy

Exercising Prior to Pregnancy

My husband and I talked about having a baby for over a year and then solidly “tried” for 6 months (which seemed like forever) before conceiving. There’s a lot I could share with you about that entire process, but the short of it is that I had several doctors tell me that in order to get pregnant I had to gain weight and stop running…which was very hard for me. As a dietitian who specializes in nutrition for runners, I pride myself in practicing good eating habits (with the occasional–or nightly–treat) as well as my ability to coach others on how to dial in their nutrition for optimal sport performance.  And, as someone who personally has a long relationship with running, being told NOT to run felt like a prison sentence. And somewhere deep down I didn’t believe it.

When I got pregnant I wasn’t racing or pushing myself, but I was averaging 35 miles per week.  With a lot of emotions tied to trying for a baby, running was the one constant de-stressor in my day. The one thing I could depend on to relieve my stress, to get lost in my thoughts, to not worry, and to just be me. And as it turns out it didn’t prevent me from conceiving. So, needless to say when that pregnancy test came back positive I wanted to do everything I could to not jeopardize the health of my growing baby – but I also wanted to continue to run.

Safety of Exercising During Pregnancy

There are a lot of personal testimonials and “old school” medical advice that range from “don’t even think about running” to “run your heart out”, and everywhere in between. But as it turns out, there aren’t many books out there on running and pregnancy.  When I went to my doctors, they casually let me know I could just “keep doing what I’ve been doing.” But that felt vague, and slightly dismissive.  I wanted facts. Evidence.  Anything to tell me that “Yes, you can run and no, it won’t hurt the baby” There’s one book out there that you should order if you’re like me and want the research. It’s called Exercising Through Your Pregnancy  and it’s the only clinical book (I could find) that examines the effects of exercise on women and their babies. It presents case studies and research and it was just what I needed to assure me that I could, in fact, keep running.

Healthy-Pregnancy-Kim-Running3

Your Changing Pregnant Body

Even though none of us will have the same fitness experience while pregnant, there’s one thing I can prepare you for. You will quickly learn that no two days of exercise are the same when pregnant. One day you might feel invincible and have a killer spin class and another day just sitting on a bike makes your whole body cringe. Be prepared for that.  There are A LOT of changes happening in your body as that baby grows, and as invincible as we might feel, the baby is the priority and your body will kindly (and sometimes not so kindly) remind you of that. As I mentioned, it was my goal to stay active during my pregnancy. There’s no arguing that women who do moderate exercise during pregnancy reap advantages including less weight gain, easier labor and delivery, and lower incidence of gestational diabetes14Mudd, L.M., Health benefits of physical activity during pregnancy: an international perspective. Med Sci Sports Exer 2013 Feb;45(2):268-77. Accessed on 8/3/2015 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22895379.

That being said my mindset around activity and activity level had to shift. When you enter into second trimester your body gets a surge of the hormone relaxin. This hormone, produced by the placenta, is released to prepare the body for birth, relaxing the ligaments not only in the pelvis but all over the body. I definitely felt the effects of this hormone during exercise. While it should be understood that during pregnancy you should never push your limit in a workout, meaning you should maintain moderate intensity and be able to carry a conversation, I believe it’s relaxin that doesn’t let you actually push hard. It reminds you that your body’s priority is baby, through pulling in your groin, twinges in your pelvis, aching in your feet, and so much more. And while this can be frustrating and painful and annoying, it’s the aches and pains that have helped to remind me that I am growing a child in me for a short 9 months and that exercise will always be there.

Adapting to These Changes

Around 24 weeks I stopped running. After a really hard 5K followed by a lot of painful walking (I looked like I had just run a marathon, not 3 miles) I knew my body was telling me that I’d done too much, and I knew my relationship with running and pregnancy was coming to an end. I really struggled with this and, honestly, it was one of the hardest things for me to accept about my pregnancy. I had so many feelings and emotions wrapped up in this that made me feel sad and discouraged and frustrated and then guilty for having these feelings over something like running. But when I really stopped to reflect on it, I realized (and reminded myself) that there was no point in painfully shuffling my body 3 to 5 miles down the road just to say that I did.  Being able to recover quickly and really go after my running goals post-baby was more important to me. And moreover, the way my body was responding to running told me that if I didn’t stop I would be hurting myself or my baby (potentially more seriously than aching muscles). And if one thing was for certain, I love this baby WAY too much to do anything to compromise her health.

Essentials for Exercising During Pregnancy

Once I felt strong post-race, I slowly returned to exercise sans running. Throughout my pregnancy a variety of workouts have felt good, with lower impact definitely being key, and I’ve been able to continue to maintain all of them. I love (and now have learned to love even more) spinning and swimming and as I grow and expand the dreaded elliptical and I have bonded more and more. Strength training has also felt amazing and I’ve maintained multiple Barre classes each week. There are also a few essentials that have become part of my pregnancy exercise regimen.

1. Belly Band.

I’ve used this one and this, though have had friends who have used a variety of other brands. I’m not totally convinced they help during the workout but I definitely love the support (especially on my back) post workout.

2. Water Bottle

Thirst is a real thing during pregnancy (especially in the first trimester). I cannot work out without a water bottle and don’t advise you to either. Maintaining proper hydration and fluid levels is incredibly important throughout the pregnancy to maintain both your health and your baby’s.

3. Supportive Shoes

I’ve long been a Brooks wearer, and love their minimal style Pure Project shoes. As the weight started to increase in my body I quickly learned (through aching feet) that minimal shoes were not going to cut it. I chose a more stable shoe from Brooks but any shoe that’s comfortable and offers solid stability will work. Perhaps the biggest thing I can share with you through my journey is this: None of us are the same, and none of us will have the same experience when it comes to fitness and pregnancy. Some will need to stop running completely to get pregnant, while others might be able to run marathons and more until due date. Most of us, however, will be able to maintain moderate exercise a few days a week, which I really encourage. It makes you feel good and keeps you strong strong as your body is quickly growing and changing.  And it shows potential benefit to the little babe inside of you, too!15Mandigout, S., A. Melin, L. Fauchier, L.D. N’Guyen, D. Courteix, and P. Obert. Physical training increases heart rate variability in healthy prepubertal children. Eur J Clin Invest. 32(7): p. 479-87. 2002. Accessed on 8/3/2015 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12153547  

During pregnancy (and I can only assume with baby) flexibility suddenly shoots to the forefront of your vocabulary. Being able to adapt and change mentally as changes are happening physically is something that no one can prepare you for and something that you’re going to have to be able to work out on your own. And it’s not always pretty, and it doesn’t always feel good, but hearing that little heartbeat, seeing that sweet face, and remembering that it’s an absolute miracle that you have a healthy body that can grow and expand and support the development of another human being is truly remarkable and makes it all worth it.

Fitness is important but you’ve got bigger things coming. Remember that!

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Kim McDevitt, MPH RD

Kim McDevitt works at Vega as a National Educator. A runner, cooking enthusiast, plant-focused flexitarian, Kim has passionately built her career in nutrition. Noticing that her running performances were closely tied to what she was eating, Kim decided to study nutrition and pursue advanced degrees in Dietetics and Public Health, to better understand the power of food in performance. Today, Kim specializes in sports nutrition to enhance athletic performance and focuses on realistic and approachable ways for improving health through educated dietary choices within an active lifestyle.

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