Updated: Feb 5, 2019
Before I became pregnant with daughter, I was an active triathlete, half-marathoner and a regular in my hardstyle kettlebell classes. After I became pregnant, I continued to run, swim and swing bells- I ran 3 half marathons and a 25k trail run (a distance PR) before my body gave me some pretty clear signals around 22 weeks that I was done with running for the duration of that pregnancy. I continued to show up to my kettlebell class until about 35 weeks.
I tell you this not because I think this is what a #fitpregnancy needs to look like and certainly not because I think this is what all pregnant people should strive for. At the time, I was convinced that this was the only way to stay fit- and that if I dipped below this arbitrary baseline of activity, I would be “unfit” and never regain my former level of activity. Upon reflection, I was also worried about losing the part of my identity tied to my athleticism, my social circle tied to my sports, and “gaining” the post-baby body that I feared was an inevitable consequence of childbirth.
I didn’t go into my pregnancy totally naïve. I was a regular on GirlsGoneStrong and I had James Clapp’s Exercising Through Your Pregnancy on my bookshelf, cheering me on. I knew enough to cut out planks and sit-ups as my belly grew bigger. And I knew if I had contractions or bleeding, I should stop. But I did not know enough to recognize that the bladder pressure I felt was a sign to cool things off (… it is).
Jessie Mundell has written about the pregnancy “badge of honor” (1), and while I wouldn’t have said I was striving for it at the time- I think this picture of my newborn surrounded my race medals says it all. I was super proud that I could run those races. And truth be told, I still adore that picture.
‘Athlete Brain’ (a term coined by Brianna Battles) is a tricky thing. It refers to a mindset of a desire or desperation for control over ones body, that can be driven by athletic performance goals or by aesthetic goals. It leads a person to ignore signs and symptoms that the body is stressed or on the verge of injury. I definitely had a good dose during my pregnancy and even carried this mindset into the L&D suite with me too. Hell, my birth bag was literally an IronMan backpack and I was damn determined to reach the finish line: an unmedicated vaginal birth. What I wish I understood then was the difference between “pain versus suffering” (2) and had a little self-compassion. Here’s the thing: you’ll hear people say “birth is an athletic event” or “birth is the ultimate marathon”. Well, those things are true. But, it’s also true that it is a LOT more complicated than a marathon and requires a much more nuanced approach than pushing through a tough race (that’s a subject for another blog post).
And so, what was the outcome of that pregnancy on my body? Honestly, it was a pretty mixed bag. I achieved that unmedicated birth. But I also incurred a stage 2 cystocele (bladder prolapse) at some point during pregnancy or labor and delivery.
My body carries a lot of tension from (my Type A personality and) my athletic activities. This extends to tension in my pelvic floor, which can make a vaginal delivery a lot more challenging. During labor, I pushed for a long time, coached by medical residents who had never attended an unmedicated birth (this matters – a lot), at a hospital which I now know specializes in high-risk deliveries and delivered a large baby. So who’s to say whether my athletic choices during pregnancy or the circumstances of the delivery of my daughter led to the pelvic symptoms that I have learned to live with. Most likely, it was a combination. And I have learned strategies to live with them. I have even returned to running long distances, competed in a triathlon and continue to swing my kettlebells. As a consequence of my newfound body awareness, I was probably stronger leading up to my current pregnancy than I was before I got pregnant the first time. But, while I am very grateful for all my body can still do, this is still something I will always need to take into consideration and symptoms still impact my life.
I had no idea how my athletic choices during pregnancy and my physical tendencies would impact my labor experience (if they did, but they probably did). And I really didn’t understand that my self-competitive mindset had no place in the delivery room.
I don’t mean to come down too harshly on the woman I was when my daughter was born. I did what I needed to do for me at the time, with the information I had on hand. And I’m sure if current me could travel back in time and have a chat with first-time pregnant-me, I would have scoffed and ignored the advice. That journey was mine and I needed to go through it to learn what I know now. But this time, I’m doing things very differently, I’m still fit and I hope that my postpartum body will thank me.
As a pre/postnatal personal trainer and coach, I hope to become a resource for others that I wasn’t able to find for myself. As a result of all I’ve needed to learn to manage my pelvic health after delivering my daughter, I became physically stronger than I was before she was born. I ran faster, I lifted heavier. But what if I hadn’t needed trauma to teach me that lesson? My hope is that with the improved information available today, even compared to a few years ago, more women will be empowered to make educated choices during their pregnancy, labor and delivery, and beyond.
Please reach out if you ever have any questions about how to best exercise during pregnancy, how your athletic choices might impact your labor and delivery, or strategies for returning to fitness and high-impact exercise after pregnancy.