Oh to Be a Pregnant Runner: Running and Trying to Conceive

Baby running shoes on the trackThis past spring, whenever I went to CVS for a pregnancy test or prenatal vitamins, my receipt included a coupon for tampons. (Other purchases warranted different coupons.) “Nope,” said CVS with a sneer. “No baby this month.” It was like a slap in the face. Because dammit, CVS, for months you were right.

I was originally optimistic about the ease of transitioning from serious runner to mother-to-be because of how many young mothers raced at the Trials. But once I was stressed enough to overanalyze it, I realized that in all the stories I’d heard or Googled the women got pregnant right away, within two months at most.

But then I started to wonder: What happened to all the women that took a while to conceive? Those that had to step away from the sport for longer, for all the months of trying, before they got pregnant? What about women who miscarried? Statistically, these women must exist. Do they not share their stories? Did I selectively forget them in an effort to be positive about quickly conceiving? (Very possibly yes.) Or does staying in the sport require getting pregnant right away to minimize time away?

Parsley wrote earlier this year about timing a pregnancy around running. She recommended things like considering timing a pregnancy so you can be sidelined during your least favorite season, and—while the post tried to gently mention this wasn’t possible for everyone—it made me want to punch the computer. (No offense, Parsley!) Who can conceive with such precision?! I’d just like to get pregnant sometime in the near future, please and thank you.

More recently I found an old post from Lauren Fleshman about how the unrelenting Olympic cycle makes this a serious problem for women pro runners. “You better hope your pipes work in the first few months of your off-season because the clock is a’ticking. Miss your window and you have to wait.”

But I’m not a pro runner. And while I do want to plan around the Olympic [Trials] cycle, my paychecks aren’t dependent on my ability to run. So it felt incredibly selfish to be stressed about getting pregnant right away because of running. I wanted a baby quickly for other reasons of course; I wanted to start a family, and generally when you want something, you want it to start as soon as possible. But every time I honestly thought about why I wanted it to happen ASAP, it came back to running.

Because my running was already a mess. At first I thought I could race some summer 5Ks, or at least aim for them, and then possibly skip them once the pink lines showed up on The Stick. But then I started to worry even that was too much … the books and literature made the odds of conception each month seem shockingly small. (I would not recommend them for a high school Sex Ed class.) Adding to the frustration, there’s not much you can do to help the process. You can try to time sex correctly, pray about it, not stress over it. (Good luck on the last one).

And—as every book on the subject will gently remind you—you can stop all that running nonsense.

Nearly all books about pregnancy aren’t written with a serious athlete in mind. They talk about hormones and how running too much (think over an hour) will mess up your chances of getting pregnant. But what if an hour run isn’t a hard effort for you? And pros have gotten pregnant in the middle of serious training or in the Olympic village, without giving their bodies a break. But obviously not everyone is that lucky, and who knows where I fell?

As the stress grew (What if this run is a hair too long or a beat too fast and I’ve screwed up this month’s chances??) the risk seemed too great. I gave up workouts, races, and long runs. Now that I’m happily and blessedly pregnant, I regret that slightly. I have a long road of reduced running ahead, and I wish I had started in slightly better shape. But it’s easy for me to say that now. At the time, I didn’t know who to believe and was too worried about everything I was doing. For the record, there are books like this one and doctors like my new one, thank goodness, who say it’s totally fine for athletes to keep up their running routine while trying to conceive, so long as you are normal weight and get your period. I didn’t have those influences at the time.

As soon as I stopped training, I missed it. I was still running, yes, but I immediately missed the hard workouts, looking ahead to a race, really pushing myself and feeling simultaneously completely spent and exhilarated. The books warned not to worry about the extra flab or squishiness you may gain while trying to conceive, but I didn’t give a crap about any of that. I missed the competition and the readying myself for it. And I kept ruminating on this idea of what if it takes a long time to get pregnant? Every failed month meant one more month away. But those worries devolved into wondering: What if I can’t get pregnant, ever? And then I’d berate myself: Why the fudge am I worrying about running?! Who cares about such a dumb, selfish hobby?! I just want a baby!

running stroller
No baby included? No problem.

But, in July, we got that happiest news that pee can deliver. Five months after the Trials and I was pregnant. I’m fully aware of how incredibly blessed I am to have gotten pregnant and to have had a healthy pregnancy thus far. But just because my struggle turned out to not be that long, I didn’t want to forget how frustrating it was. In my anxious Googling, I didn’t find much about balancing running and trying to conceive, just article after article about running while pregnant. And I certainly didn’t find anything about the emotional battles of being a runner and trying. Times of stress normally make me turn to a hard run for an emotional cleansing—but, in this case, that just led to more questioning.

I wish I had helpful advice for those struggling, but I don’t. (One of the unexpected annoyances of pregnancy, in my opinion, is the ever-constant reminder, “Every pregnancy is different.” There are no hard and fast rules about anything, including exactly how hard and fast you can work out. You’ll need to talk to a doctor—preferably one with a healthy appreciation for a running obsession—for individualized advice.) But I can lend some understanding and agree that it’s really hard and frustrating and annoying and discouraging and stressful and feels impossibly long.

But I really hope it’s not impossibly long. And that one day, you’ll get the pee result that will give an ultimate F U to those CVS receipts.

Did you struggle with what to do about running while trying to conceive?

I'm a science journalist with a background in neuroscience and a love of running marathons and baking marathon-worthy feasts. I started out as an over four-hour marathoner but whittled my PR down to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials. I write about the importance of chasing big dreams and -- as I'm currently pregnant with my first -- getting ready to chase around a little one.

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18 comments

  1. I totally 100% experienced this before my first pregnancy. Granted, it only took us four months, but every month that we failed seemed like it spelled doom. In retrospect, I feel like a jerk for thinking I had it hard in any way, but during that time, after having never been pregnant before, I was so scared I could never be. You just don’t know. And then adding in the complications that running brings, it is a sticky, confusing, and often frustrating time. I’m glad you finally got your pink lines and so thankful you are here to share your experiences so others know what they’re going through is normal!

    1. Yea, the feeling like a jerk is definitely real! I felt like a bit of a jerk for posting this (after all, it didn’t take that long for me) but I’m glad it’s relatable and helps people realize they are not the only ones with these thoughts!

  2. I’m a solid mid-packer, but I struggled with this too. It took us two years (and much intervention) to get pregnant. I trained for two marathons during the first year of trying, and never gave a thought to reducing mileage or intensity. I’m a healthy weight and cycle normally. Once I started fertility treatments, I had to back off due to ovarian hyperstimulation and risk of ovarian torsion. With each failed treatment I would resume running until I’d start another treatment month, but the inconsistent running killed my endurance and pace. That’s hard when running is your stress reliever. My fertility doc told me I shouldn’t run more than five miles when trying to conceive! I didn’t follow that advice – so many of my running friends became pregnant easily, and running had nothing to do with our medical issues. But it’s a struggle, to be sure. I always doubted myself!

    1. Thanks for sharing this. We are going on 3 years of trying now and working with a doctor. I gave up running for a while but am back at it now with a better doctor who is more understanding. My big annoyance is when people say things such as “if you just do X”, or “Limit exercise”. Been there done that. Don’t need to hear anymore wive’s tales or home remedies or stories such as “when this person gave up gluten, they were pregnant 2 weeks later”.

      1. nehiker – Ugh yes, the comments from other people are aggravating. Just because they got pregnant coincidentally while gluten free doesn’t make that the reason, haha, it’s SO much more complicated than that! Glad you found an understanding doctor — I’m hoping and praying you are successful soon!

    2. Emily- So sorry to hear about your struggle! And ugh the doubts are the worst part! If only we could know one way or the other, it’d be so much less stressful.

  3. I loved every part of this post! I can completely relate. After we miscarried in December last year, we tried and tried to get pregnant. I couldn’t figure out if I was running too much, too little, if I should race, etc. I wish there was a TTC algorithm you could follow… right?! Everyone kept telling me, “just relax, don’t stress about it.” I think that made me MORE stressed and less relaxed. Congrats on getting pregnant!

  4. I love this sentence: “But, in July, we got that happiest news that pee can deliver.” Awesome post! Congratulations!

  5. I’m another who struggled with infertility, which my doctors thought was training related – and I was just a recreational runner/triathlete! I learned – though it was hard to accept – that everyone’s bodies are different in terms of what stress/training load they can handle before it impacts their fertility. I had friends training for marathons and ironmans get pregnant with no problem, but my 10 hours a week of training was too much. I had to cut way back and gain weight on purpose (even though I wasn’t underweight to start with) plus fertility treatments to eventually get pregnant.

    Two things I found the hardest:
    -Going through infertility was an extremely stressful experience, and I lost running, which was my biggest stress reliever!
    -Losing the social network and support of my running friends – I still remember how hard it was to watch my group of girlfriends all training together for a marathon, while I was on the sidelines – not pregnant, but not training.

    All the best to to those still in the trenches.

    1. Exactly this. I’m so sorry you had to go through that, especially losing your running support network – how frustrating.

      Even though I was lucky not to face a struggle with infertility, I didn’t conceive until I switched from marathon training (which I’d done January to July) to a triathlon focus (July to September) and gained some weight in the process. There’s honestly no way to know what was coincidence and what was under my control, but I spent those seven months wondering if I should cut back on the running (‘but it’s my biggest stress reliever, which should help with trying to conceive, right?’ Grrr…).

    2. Ugh, I agree with Mango — losing the social network is so tough!! Even if you still see those friends, it’s hard not to feel out of the loop.

  6. Gosh, there’s so many areas where medicine isn’t yet as sensitive or knowledgeable as it could be when it comes to female runners – fertility, post partum, the whole reproduction thing. And the basic truths that every body is different, that some things are just totally outside of your control – such a hard thing to learn, accept, adjust to as an athlete. Great post!

    1. Thanks, sdb! I guess running gives us a few opportunities to learn to deal with things we can’t control (e.g. the weather on race day…) Such a tough lesson!

  7. So happy for you Tea- congratulations! I probably didn’t explain it very well in my post, but I think one of the benefits of trying to time your pregnancy around your running/race schedule is so that you’re not as conflicted about trying to train/race hard while also trying to get pregnant. Trying when you’re in a running lull attempts to take some of the pressure off a high stress situation to begin with, without worrying you’re doing too much running wise to hamper your efforts. Glad everything worked out for you and hope you have a healthy and easy pregnancy!