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How Running During Pregnancy Prepared Me for Giving Birth

"Karla, you run every day, right?" My obstetrician sounded like a coach giving a pep talk. Except the "sport" was labor and delivery.

"Not every day," I whimpered between breaths.

"You run marathons!" my doctor said. "Now push!"

In the throes of delivery, I was suddenly very glad I'd run throughout my pregnancy.

Running while growing another human being was a lot like giving birth. There were good moments, bad moments, and downright ugly moments. But it proved to be a beautiful experience worth every—ahem—bump in the road.

The Benefits of Running During My Pregnancy

Running helped normalize a period of my life that was anything but. I felt like an alien parasite had taken over my body, wreaking havoc on my energy, sleep, appetite, immune system, performance, mood, sense of humor, productivity, you name it. (Pregnancy comes with some weird side effects.) Simply, my body didn't feel like mine. Instead of the reliable machine I'd come to know and love, my body was transformed into someone else's home.  I made each decision about every single detail of my life with that other person in mind. I was a "mom," and it took awhile to fully wrap my brain around that new identity. It left me feeling out-of-sync with myself at times.

But running was different. Running helped me feel like me. I needed that more than ever when everything else was topsy-turvy: round-the-clock nausea, frequent illnesses, debilitating fatigue, and that gnawing holy-crap-I'm-going-to-be-a-mom feeling. After all, running has always been my "me" time, when I shut out the world and sweat out the stress. Stroller shopping at the colossal buybuy BABY store nearly gave me palpitations. But going for a run afterward helped me find some zen. I'm more tuned in to my body, mind, and soul than at any other time. Simply, I always feel better after a run. Science agrees. A single sweat sesh can improve your mood during pregnancy, according to a study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.

So I laced up every chance I got. At four months, I completed an open-water swim as part of a triathlon relay, winning first in the team competition. At five months, I ran the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon with my husband. And at the six-month mark, I enjoyed a hard-but-conversational 5K.

When the going got tough, I knew that I was doing something good for my baby and myself. "Pregnancy is now considered an ideal time not only for continuing but also for initiating an active lifestyle," according to a recent paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Prenatal exercise decreases serious pregnancy risks like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean delivery, eases common pregnancy symptoms like back pain, constipation, and fatigue, encourages healthy weight gain, and strengthens your heart and blood vessels. That's why the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists encourages women with uncomplicated pregnancies to get at least 20 minutes of moderately intense exercise just about every day. Sweating during pregnancy may also shorten labor times and lower the risk of delivery complications and fetal stress, according to a study at the University of Vermont. (Just make sure you know how to modify exercises appropriately.)

Babies benefit too; your prenatal workouts might actually give your child a healthier heart, says research published in Early Human Development. They're better equipped to handle fetal stress, mature behaviorally and neurologically more quickly, and have lower fat mass, according to a review out of Switzerland. They're also less likely to have breathing problems

Of course, these benefits weren't always so obvious. "Ten years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my gynecologist made me go in for all these tests," mom and marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe told me at the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon. Radcliffe said her doctor was skeptical about running during pregnancy. "At the end, she actually said, 'I really want to apologize for scaring you so much. The baby is really healthy. I'm going to tell all my moms who do exercise to carry on.'"

That Doesn't Make It Easy

Sometimes running during pregnancy was downright difficult. I ran my second-fastest half marathon during my first week of pregnancy (and dry-heaved eight times in the process). Just five weeks later I could barely eke out 3 miles. (Major respect to Alysia Montaño who competed in the USA track and field nationals while pregnant.)

"I literally felt like I fell off a cliff," elite New Balance athlete Sarah Brown says about those early weeks in the documentary series Run, Mama, Run.

Surges in hormones can cause whammy levels of fatigue, breathlessness, nausea, and a suite of other symptoms. Sometimes I was demoralized, feeling like I'd lost all my fitness, strength, and endurance at once. My weekly mileage dropped by half and some weeks I couldn't run at all thanks to the flu (scary!), bronchitis, colds, round-the-clock nausea, and energy-depleting exhaustion that lingered during my first four months. But I often felt worse sitting on my sofa than I did while running, so I slogged along—vomiting, dry-heaving, and sucking wind much of the way.

Thankfully, I got my breath and energy back in the second trimester. Running became my friend again, but it brought along a new buddy—the ever-present urge to pee. Just when I felt strong enough to go longer than 3 miles, pressure on my bladder made that impossible without bathroom breaks. I mapped out pit stops along my routes and turned to the treadmill, where I could pop into the bathroom easily. If nothing else, running during pregnancy forced me to get creative. (Related: This Woman Completed Her 60th Ironman Triathlon While Pregnant)

Did I mention the vomit? Well, it's worth mentioning again. I walked down the street retching and gagging at the wafting smells of garbage and dog urine. During runs, I had to pull to the side of road when a wave of queasiness washed over me—most often during the first trimester, but even into the months beyond.

If hurling mid-run isn't awful enough, imagine someone heckling while you do it. Yep, naysayers still exist. Thankfully, they were rare. And when someone I actually knew spoke up ("Are you sure you should still be running?") I rattled off the health benefits, mentioned that my doctor told me to keep running, and explained that the notion of pregnant frailty is an antiquated idea at best, a dangerously unhealthy one at worst. Yeah, we had that conversation. (The idea that exercising while pregnant is bad for you is a myth.)

But that wasn't the worst of it. I strained a muscle in my chest when my sports bras could no longer handle the force of my rapidly expanding breasts. That was painful. I got a new wardrobe of maximum support bras.

The ugliest moment? When I decided to stop running altogether. By 38 weeks, my sausages-for-feet felt like they were going to explode. I let out the laces in all my sneakers and some wouldn't tie at all. Concurrently, my daughter "dropped" into position. The added pressure in my pelvis made running too uncomfortable. Cue the ugly cry. I felt like I'd lost an old friend, someone who had, quite literally, been with me through thick and thin. Running was a constant in my rapidly changing existence. When my doctor yelled, "Push!" for the last time, life started anew.

Running As a New Mom

I started running again, with my doc's blessing, five and a half weeks after giving birth to a healthy baby girl. In the meantime, I walked every day, pushing my daughter in her stroller. No palpitations this time. All those months of prenatal running had helped ready me for my new role as a mom.

Now 9 months old, my daughter has already cheered me on at four races and loves zooming around on her hands and knees. Little does she know she's prepping for her first diaper dash at the Disney Princess Half Marathon, where I'll run my first postpartum 13.1-miler. I hope my running will inspire her to make fitness a priority throughout her life, just as it was during her earliest days.

 

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