Running And Pregnancy

by Joan Marie Butler, RNC, CNM
Author of Fit and Pregnant: The Pregnant Woman's Guide to Exercise


The beauty of running is its simplicity. If you are already a runner, you will likely want to continue running during pregnancy. In general, running is a safe activity that many pregnant women continue, with modification, throughout pregnancy. If you've never run before, now is not the time to start. If you are a seasoned runner, you'll enjoy the journey ahead.

Several studies have looked at the safety of running in pregnancy. In 1981 the Melpomene Institute, a nonprofit organization which publishes research and educational material on fitness and health for girls and women, completed a study on pregnant runners (1990). One hundred ninety-five women, whose average age was 29.1 years, were studied. Three months before conception they were averaging 24.8 miles per week. 80.3% of the women delivered vaginally while 19.7% had Cesarean sections. The average birth was seven pounds, six ounces. All infants were born healthy and survived the neonatal period. This report and other studies (Hauth et al. 1982; Jarret and Spellacy, 1983) on pregnant runners are reassuring. You can continue to run as long as you follow some special guidelines.

Starting the Run
If you're the type who laces up your shoes and then bounds out the door without stretching, change your ways! Now that you're carrying a future runner, you need to take some extra precautions. More than ever, proper stretching both before and after running will help prevent injuries. Relaxin, the hormone that relaxes your ligaments, is working throughout pregnancy. Loose joints and ligaments make you more vulnerable to injury so concentrate on stretches for your large muscles ... hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, Achilles and lower back muscles. Gentle easy stretching is the best.

Listen to Your Body
You will need to modify the intensity, frequency, and speed of your runs. Remember, you are running to maintain your fitness, not to train. Slow down -- don't push your pace, and don't push your distance. Back off running a preset course if you just don't feel like doing it.

Stop and walk if you feel Braxton Hicks contractions (rhythmic tightening of the lower abdomen) or ligament pain. At seven months, I sometimes felt Braxton Hicks contractions during the first few minutes of a run. I would stop and walk a few minutes and then, when the contractions stopped, start up slowly again.

Stop if you feel pain, persistent contractions, leakage of fluid, fatigue, dizziness, or any medical problem.

Running in Early Pregnancy
You may experience bouts of nausea and fatigue the first few months. Several runners that I interviewed found that running in the morning helped. An elite runner stated: "As soon as I go out to run it's strange, but it [nausea] is almost immediately gone."

Try running outdoors if you normally run on an indoor track. The fresh air may help. If you find yourself losing weigh from vomiting, cut back on your running or stop until you are gaining adequate weight. Talk to your health care provider.

Fatigue can be perplexing the first few months. As an active woman, you are used to feeling energetic most of the time. Before pregnancy, if you felt sluggish, you probably went out for a run to regain some vigor. Now you may be more inclined to curl up for a nap.

Schedule your run at a time of day when you feel least tired. Don't push it. It can be frustrating -- in your mind, you know that running will probably make you feel better, but your body is saying "doze". If running seems too much for today, substitute a brisk walk, a few laps in the pool, or spinning on a stationary bike.

Running with tender swollen breasts is uncomfortable. Buy a good supportive bra with side adjustable straps or a sports bra. As weeks go by, you may need to move up to a larger size.

Urinary frequency, one of the early signs of pregnancy, is a challenge. For running you need to devise some strategic plans, Don't cut back on your fluids ... you need to stay well-hydrated. Plan your runs around a bathroom stop.

Be sure to immediately stop any racing, speed work, or vigorous long runs once you learn you are pregnant.

Running in Later Pregnancy
At midpoint (four to seven months) you may feel your best, but you'll also be aware of the added weight and minor aches and pains. It is time to slow down, decrease your mileage, and consider women running alternatives.

Most women I interviewed cut back their mileage 30 to 40% by the second trimester and up to 70% in the last weeks. Some women stopped running altogether because of the extra weight and abdominal pressure. Your running gait changes so be alert to terrain and traffic. You tend to not pick up your feet as high and your stride shortens.

If running becomes uncomfortable, consider non-weight bearing options for exercise. As a runner, you've probably already engaged in cross-training activities. If you are planning a pregnancy and run exclusively, now, before conception, is the time to introduce yourself to some other activities, such as swimming, paddling, cycling, cross-country skiing, Nordic Track, low impact aerobics, and walking (Note: Fit & Pregnant has wonderful information on each of these topics).

Joan Marie Butler, RNC, CNM is an experienced nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner, a recent mother, and a nationally-ranked Masters athlete. She lives in Syracuse, NY. She is author of Fit and Pregnant: The Pregnant Woman's Guide to Exercise.

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