Life is not without its challenges. Physically I had a sub-11hr ironman and a sub 3 hr marathon under my belt, I was a 70.3 age group winner and Vegas qualifier at Galway 2011, I spent a year as an officer cadet a Sandhurst in the 90's and had been on operational tours. Pregnancy was going to be a breeze, right? Wrong! I have never been in less control of my body and never been more aware of it and what I can and can't achieve.
As triathletes, we are all about control, so I had a strict lesson in patience achieved through 8 weeks of bed rest in my first trimester. I'd failed at the first hurdle and barely started. So I reassessed my goals - my ambition of being a super fit triathlon mom ready to race as soon as I'd popped out Junior went out the window. It was probably optimistic in the first place but the Internet tells you about people who have done just that! Instead I decided to focus on gaining back some of my aerobic fitness, working on my core and basic strength, and concentrating on my swim technique. My secondary aim was not to join celebrity Jessica Simpson in her 60lbs weight gain.
I spent hours on the Internet researching triathlon, pregnancy, pregnancy fitness, post pregnancy racing and training, ironman after pregnancy. I even bought a book called 'how to exercise when you are pregnant'. There is a wealth of information out there, most of it blogs and personal experience and very little around guidelines. Even the book was aimed at people just starting out exercising or who were moderate exercisers- very little on cardio except walking and basic strength work and nothing for the really fit. I even emailed a female doctor, who was also a mother and an ironman and asked advice. The reality is that the advice is very cautious because pregnancy is so personal to the Individual and in a lot of cases the risks are high so you have to go by how you feel (again something as triathletes we should be used to doing) or what the doctor and scans are telling you. Those who breeze through pregnancy, maintaining decent levels of training, race at 4 months, don't suffer morning sickness or back pain, pop out a baby in 3hrs whilst on their blackberry and are back training or at work after 2 days are a rarity.
So after 2 months of bed rest generally feeling worse than I ever have in my life before, once given the all clear, I decided to go back to basics and find out what I was physically capable of, then take it from there. Some of the effects of pregnancy are that your muscles become more flexible, the ligaments stretch and many of your systems (digestive for one) slow down, all due to a hormone called Relaxin, so actually this can put you at risk of injury, especially back (sciatica) and pelvic injuries and your core stability decreases. Considering I have a history of pelvic instability and hamstring injuries during running, I decided that it was pointless to even try and run whilst pregnant. I could regain aerobic fitness doing other things and my focus should be on maintaining core strength and stability and try to prevent postural problems and back pain in later pregnancy whilst giving me a robust platform to build on post pregnancy. From this perspective, I actually found the book quite useful as a starting point because of the basic core and strength work, although the best advice I was given was from 3 triathlete friends who had experienced pregnancy themselves, every one of them different – even if one of them did actually race at 4 months! That said one common piece of advice was not to cycle (outdoors) after the first trimester due to the risk of falling.
In the first week post bed rest (I was 14 weeks by now) I did a 20 minute treadmill walk, a 500m swim and 2 core/strength routines. The first thing I noticed was after each session I felt less lethargic and had more energy. I took that to be a good sign. I took two weeks of alternate days activity to build up my basic fitness levels and by the end of this period, I could swim 1500m, do a 40 min elliptical trainer with a low HR (130bpm) and my strength during weight sessions was improving. I was actually surprised at how quickly my basic fitness came back and actually that I had still retained a lot of core strength despite the inactivity over 8 weeks. On review, I found that it was harder to come back from 6 months of injury with no training than 8 weeks of bed rest having experienced both. There’s a lot to be said for prevention rather than cure!
By now, I decided it was time to get back in the pool with Andrew. I stuck to the slow lane, wore a heart rate monitor and focused on my technique. When pregnant, your body experiences a 40% increase in blood volume, your lungs start to get squashed, as does everything else to make room for the baby. It becomes important to monitor your heart rate to avoid going anaerobic which decreases your ability to take up enough oxygen and could potentially reduce the amount of oxygen the baby gets. With the extra blood volume and smaller lung capacity, it's very easy to hit a high heart rate quickly. Medically the guidelines around HR are to go no higher than 140bpm (or 160 if you are an athlete) but these were put in place about 20 years ago, so are no longer truly recognised. That said it’s a useful benchmark and I tend to stick to around 150bpm as previously this would still have been aerobic for me.
I also decided to use a personal trainer to help with my core and basic strength (back and legs), and more challenging exercises whilst in a safe environment. I considered pre-natal Pilates but was told it would be too easy for me. My trainer focused on core in the transverse (rotational) plane, as sit ups were out of the question, plank work, upper and lower back strength and a lot of one legged stability exercises and supported squats. Supine (on your back) positions once you are into the second trimester become more difficult because of the weight of the baby on your main vein leading to the heart but many supine exercise can be done in an elevated position. Prone (front lying) is completely out of the question and just too uncomfortable.
By my 18th week of pregnancy I had developed a routine, 3 x 75-90 mins wim sessions a week covering about 2.5km each time, 2 PT sessions, a spin class/turbo for 60 mins, a 45 min cross train session and a 2 hr hike on the Sunday. Probably 10hrs in all but all very low intensity, and if I was feeling too tired then I might not do a session. Everything was done with my HR monitor on - I noticed during some of the more challenging strength sessions my HR shooting up with effort so wanted to make sure I was taking enough break time. I have a high pain threshold and don't always recognise when I need to slow down so the HRM proved invaluable. By 20 weeks I was settled in my routine, and loving most of all, swimming. I am very average swimmer and normally dislike training sessions, because I find them hard. I was still finding it hard due to my decreased lung capacity but was enjoying the weightlessness of the water, the ease at which I moved in it through increased buoyancy and redistribution of weight, and the fact that I could smugly watch everyone else thrash out their hard sets whilst I swam leisurely under no pressure. I stopped hiking about 21 weeks mainly due to time issues but I was starting to find the hills more and more difficult from a
breathing perspective so actually it stopped being enjoyable. I had no need to push myself at this time, and it only made me more tired.
I also decided to train to be a Pilates instructor so this took up weekends starting at 22 weeks. I found during my Mat 1 course that I was still capable of some of the advanced moves, which is generally uncommon in women of 22 weeks and that many Pilates moves could be modified to make them safe for pregnancy. During my 22nd week, I even managed to swim 3km in one swim session, the longest since before my collar bone surgery in May. At 24 weeks now, I am expanding and this is making any aerobic exercise that much harder as my lungs get even more squashed so I am having to slow down. In swimming this means concentrating even harder on my technique to pull through the water more efficiently as kicking or any form of speeding up sends my HR through the roof. Push ups and tricep dips even in modified positions are the hardest thing I seem to do due to the extra 20lbs I am carrying around. Core work is all modified so I can keep progressing but I know as I get bigger this will get more difficult. The spin bike is getting a bit uncomfortable unless I raise the handlebars, but my TT bike on the turbo is fine.
As I move into my third trimester it is going to get harder so I am going to have to adapt but I feel I now have a good level of base fitness - nowhere near triathlon levels of base fitness but a good platform nonetheless which I can build off post birth. The next three months remain a challenge and as yet are untested - I may still suffer back problems, or complications of a different sort, I am going to get more tired and exercising may become very difficult. I will continue to see my exercise habit as 'training for pregnancy, birth and what comes after' and make sure at the very least I keep doing something even if it is walking. Swimming is still the activity that is most comfortable and as triathlete Bella Bayliss managed a 3km swim the day before birth, I’m hoping that I will still be swimming by then too.
On the plus side, Pregnancy is a performance enhancer and I will maintain the improved flexibility, I will have an increased VO2 max, and the increase of blood volume I experience will have a similar effect to ‘blood doping’. Apparently I have a window of opportunity post birth to experience these welcome side effects. How long this will last remains to be seen - in 1983 Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen won the Houston Marathon five months after having her first child for example. In the meantime, I have set my sights in Ironman WA 2013. Ambitious, maybe, but we all need a goal!