Last Sunday I ran a 5k race while 10.5 weeks pregnant. Even though this is my third pregnancy I still feel a little conflicted about how much I can push myself. Must I jog all the time or can I push a little bit or a lot? Will I know if I pushed too hard? I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling a little confused about what level of running is safe during pregnancy.
Is pregnancy a time to kick back, cut miles and run easy or is it ok for women to continue to push the pace? For years obstetricians set heart rate limits on pregnant exercisers eliminating this dilemma. The reason for these limits was to prevent the woman’s core temperature from overheating which some doctors worried could cause birth defects. But this is a myth and heart rate limitations are both unhelpful and unnecessary.
Still some doctors insist pregnant exercisers take it easy and keep things conversational and others suggest limiting the duration of exercise. But none of these restrictions are based on scientific study. The problem is, as mentioned in this great New York Times article on the subject, that to really study the limits of exercising during pregnancy would require some women to really push the envelope with exercise while pregnant and with even the potential for problems with the baby nobody is going to volunteer for that study!
But all experts seem to agree that exercise during pregnancy is extremely beneficial to mom and babies. The U.S. Government recommends pregnant women get at least 2.5 hours a week of exercise and even suggests pregnant runners continue running under the supervision of their doctors! But we all know by now that women experiencing an uncomplicated healthy pregnancy can safely run through pregnancy. This better not be controversial to anyone reading this!
So we know running at some level while pregnant is fine, but can we push the pace a little? A lot? Actually race?
Before Sunday’s race I thought long and hard about how I would approach it. I had a few things to go on. First, my midwife said I could do whatever it was I was doing before I got pregnant. Well, when I got pregnant I was just returning to running after being injured and doing some workouts.
Which leads to my second point: I’ve been continuing to do track workouts almost weekly since I’ve become pregnant. This is helpful for two reasons: 1) I have a good understanding of how my body handles faster paces and 2) I have a good understanding of specifically what paces are comfortably fast and what paces are probably pushing it too hard.
Finally, this isn’t my first time on this pony. I’ve been pregnant 3 times now and I’ve raced a little during all three. The first I was way overly cautious. The second I ran a marathon (and won!) while unknowingly pregnant and learned the pregnant body can handle a lot more than I thought. I ran a little less than I did when pregnant the first time, mostly because I was pregnant through the winter and spring and the weather kind of stunk to drag my son out in the stroller. However, despite not doing any workouts when I did run I ran much faster than I did the first time.
So with all this behind me I decided that I didn’t have to run easy. I could run about the effort that I’ve been running 800’s on the track and see how it went. I did one workout where I managed about 3 miles of intervals and I ran a little faster than 7:00 pace, so I figured I’d run about 7:00 pace for the the 5k. That’s what I guessed, but I also knew that the pregnant body is very temperamental and while one day that would feel great, that could also feel insane on another day. I could also feel fine running that pace and then crash at some point and have to jog it in or stop–and I was ok with that. I am a firm believer that the pregnant body speaks very loudly. I’ve heard it talking to me on the track when I attempt one too many intervals and I’ve heard it talk to me when I’m trying to get out the door to sit back and skip it.
So here are my rules for myself when racing while pregnant:
1. It’s ok to push the pace a bit, but keep it comfortably hard or tempo effort. Never go to the well. Never get to the point where you’re breathing super heavy. If in doubt start easy and slowly pick it up. You can push the last half mile and pass a bunch of people which can be fun.
2. Do not get involved in racing anyone or trying for a particular time or place. I’ve trained an awful lot to be able to turn off the pain monitors in races. I have to keep those monitors on while I’m pregnant. I can run my “tempo effort” and whatever it is, it is.
3. It’s ok to not start, to jog, to walk, to quit. Baby and my health first. Pride at the bottom of the list! So if I feel like crap or it’s hotter than balls or I just need a break I will take one.
4. Cheer others on. Say good job to everyone you pass and who passes you. It is not only a fun and nice thing to do but it’s a good test. If you can say good job to someone while you’re running with ease, you’re not overdoing it!
5. Have fun.
6. Drink a lot afterwards and eat too.
My rules apply to races from 5k – 10k. If I’m racing longer than that I like to run at least the first half at an easy pace and then I can pick it up from there if I feel like it. I’ve never raced longer than 10 miles when pregnant (knowingly!) and I probably won’t race further than that this time either. The longer races are harder on our relaxin-riddled bodies and we start getting into glycogen depletion and other potentially problematic issues. I know plenty of women have run marathons pregnant, but it’s not for me! But if you do, rock on (with the approval of your doctor or midwife of course).
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. These are my guidelines I’ve made for myself based on the research I’ve read and my own experience. Talk over your racing plans with your doctor or midwife and they should help you develop a plan that will work for you. I hope to see you and your beautiful belly at the races!
For more on running, training and racing through pregnancy pick up a copy of this book!