Running is a huge part of my life. Most of my social life involves running. It's my preferred form of therapy. I almost always have a race on the horizon, and I get up early to log miles before work more often than not. In other words, I'm one of "those people" - the generally eccentric bunch of fitness nuts that make Colorado Springs a top running town.
When we found out I was pregnant with my first child in January, my husband and I were thrilled. After the initial excitement wore off, I began to think about the implications that held for my daily life, especially running. Every woman - and every pregnancy - is different, and my guess was as good as anybody else's on how my body would hold up through the nine months of creating a human. You hear about women having to stop exercise entirely, but there are also people running marathons with giant bellies.
It turns out, it really is an individual journey, and the best anyone can do is listen to her body and her doctor.
When I talked to my OB/GYN early on, she recommended modifying my pace by tracking my heart rate, keeping my exertion below 140 beats per minute. Through a bit of online research, I learned that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had removed the specific heart rate recommendation from their exercise guidelines several years ago. Instead, they encourage training by perceived exertion level: keeping all efforts to a pace where it's easy to carry on a conversation.
However, because my doctor was insistent on the heart rate monitoring, I decided to give it a try. I bought a chest strap monitor to pair with my GPS watch and learned just how little effort it took me to get up to 140 beats per minute. My 9- or 10-minute-mile pace ballooned to 11 or 12 minutes. Speed workouts were a no-go. For the rest of my pregnancy, I used 140 bpm as a guideline, but I wouldn't freak out if it spiked a little higher but I could still carry on a conversation.
During the first trimester, your body goes into overdrive, and your circulation system is producing extra blood to support your baby. I found that my heart rate would spike and I would get winded going up stairs, let alone running up a hill. My favorite running routes are on the trails through the mountains and hills surrounding Colorado Springs, so the 140 bpm limit seemed oppressive at first. My body wasn't much different externally, but I had to slow down a lot to keep my effort level moderate. It took me a little time to get my head around this new physical challenge I was "training" for.
Once I accepted my new parameters, though, I was able to stay fairly consistent, running four to five days a week at a slower pace. I was fortunate enough to avoid many of the discomforts of early pregnancy, such as consistent morning sickness. (I imagine a large chunk of people just stopped reading right there.) Trust me, I consider myself extremely lucky.
Maybe being fit to start out with helped, or maybe my body just handled this burden really well. As my belly began to expand in the second trimester, I noticed pain in my round ligaments, which run on either side of the belly, supporting the abdomen. I bought a support belt that I wore for a while, but I found that into the third trimester the pain decreased and the belt didn't make a whole lot of difference anymore, so I started leaving it behind.
As the third trimester wore on and the baby began exerting more internal pressure downward, I began requiring numerous midrun bathroom breaks on even the shortest of runs. I could draw a map from memory of the port-a-johns and favorable bushes in the local parks I was frequenting. I also noticed that the extra weight was taking a toll on my joints and muscles. I'd feel as tired after four miles as I used to be after eight. Another unfortunate side effect of carrying extra weight on the front of one's body is a lack of balance: I took a couple of spills and bloodied my knees pretty well, not expecting the tug of gravity to be so strong.
My biggest accomplishment was finishing a 10K race at 38 weeks. It wasn't pretty: I used every bathroom opportunity available and had to walk up the "hills" on the course. I joked with my friend Carrie, who ran with me, that she had to be ready to call 911, catch a baby or provide cover if I had to duck into the bushes - it was a big job!
I think all this activity will pay off: using endorphins to weather the emotional roller coaster of pregnancy hormones, being fit and healthy to undertake the marathon of labor and delivery and being able to bounce back faster afterward. As a bonus, I've already shared so much with my unborn child (about 700 miles' worth of experiences, if we are keeping score). My husband and I want to set the example of a healthy, active lifestyle right from the beginning. Plus, someone has to be able to keep up with this kid.
Since the 10K, I've slowed down quite a bit, but I still think about running all the time. I worry about what postpartum running will be like, both physically and from a time-management perspective. Right now I'm pretty eager to get back at it for many reasons (go ahead and Google "maternal fat stores"), but I know I'll need to temper that enthusiasm and follow my doctor's recommendations about when it's safe to start. I plan to ease back in, building mileage slowly (we've already bought a jogging stroller) and making sure to incorporate plenty of yoga, stretching, cross-training and strength training. I've learned through years of running what it takes for me to stay injury-free; I'll just have to be even more aware of what my body tells me as we all adjust to our new family member.
I feel lucky to have run as long as I did, but now I imagine what it will feel like to be able to run at a faster pace, to actually push myself. I picture the freedom of bombing down a rocky mountain trail, feeling the sun on my face and the wind in my hair.
And perhaps most of all, I dream of being able to cover more than 2 miles between bathroom stops.
Miles run (or hiked) while pregnant: Just over 700
Farthest distance: 13.1 miles at eight weeks along
Average weekly mileage: About 20 (until the last month, when it dropped to 10 or so)