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Being an endurance athlete under the microscope – what pregnancy can teach athletes, both male and female.

So, the second trimester of my pregnancy has come and gone and I am now in the home stretch. For me, the second trimester was far easier than the first, however it did teach me a lot about myself as an athlete. I have learnt quite a few things that I will be implementing on my return to full training. I thought that I would share some of the things that I have learnt while being pregnant, because on reflection they are lessons that can help all endurance athletes become better athletes.

At times during pregnancy it can feel like your body and everything you do is magnified. Every ache, every movement, fatigue and so on all become more noticeable. This can be frustrating at the time, but it makes it easier to analyse what is going on and learn from the experience.

One of the things that I have noticed as the weeks have passed, and as Baby Forrest has grown bigger, is how differently my body can feel and function depending on whether I am actively focusing on my “core” and good posture or not. When I now run I sometimes get a few aches in my glutes and lower pelvis. However, the minute I focus on my breathing and activating/lifting my pelvic floor and lower abdominal muscles I can run more comfortably as well as faster. This makes me think that this must be the case with non-pregnant athletes too, it is just not as immediately noticeable.

Our “core” is the foundation for all movements that occur in our body. Without a strong foundation our arm and leg movements become less efficient, less well controlled, and are likely to result in injury in the longer term. As a Physiotherapist, the majority of injuries I see and treat in endurance athletes are essentially self-inflicted. Or to put it another way, they are completely preventable. Athletes need to spend time developing a stronger foundation (core) so that their arms and legs can move in healthy movement patterns. When I talk about “core” this includes the scapula and shoulder girdle, hips and pelvis, diaphragm (breathing muscle) and pelvic floor, not just the transverse abdominals and obliques as some people believe.

I have also been focusing on good technique with my strength training in the gym and I am also focusing on breath in conjunction with each exercise more than I have in the past. Did you know that the pelvic floor muscle contracts and rises on each exhalation, while it relaxes and descends on each inhalation. It is therefore best to exhale on the concentric (usually most difficult) part of the exercise as this will drive the unconscious activation of the pelvic floor and also assist to activate the other muscles of the ‘core’. This is beneficial during all strength training and I have noticed that it makes my exercises in the gym.

During pregnancy I have definitely been forced to run slower than I would like. I do think it is beneficial however to keep running as long as I feel comfortable, regardless of how slow it may be. The bones and tendons in our body are highly responsive to the load placed upon them, and consequently weaken in the absence of load. Maintaining a consistent load will help to prevent bone and tendon injuries on my return to full training post birth. This is an important point that athletes often fail to remember. A 16 week Ironman campaign is often followed by winter sitting on the couch. Inevitably, on your return to training in the spring, bones and tendons will have weakened and may not be ready to tolerate the load you place upon them. You therefore have 2 options – maintain a more consistent load year round, or factor in the need for a longer and slower build up before races in order to prevent injury.
significantly easier as muscles are unconsciously recruited to assist in the movement.

Something else that I have learnt while pregnant is that you really can’t fight your hormones. As much as I would love to stay in race shape throughout pregnancy, that just isn’t going to happen. Your body knows what it needs to do in order to properly prepare itself, and so it lays down some extra fat that is then used to help the baby grow in the later stages of pregnancy and also when breastfeeding.

As much as we all try to control and manipulate our bodies with training and diet in order to get leaner and faster I think it can be a good reminder that at the end of the day our hormones often reign supreme. If you are training hard or perhaps over-training, missing sleep in order to fit training sessions around work, or are stressed at work or home, then likely your cortisol and other stress hormone levels will be high. This is hardly conducive to good recovery, muscle building or improving endurance. Cortisol reduces bone formation and down-regulates the synthesis of collagen. It also negatively affects the immune system and electrolyte balance in our body, just to name a few of its roles. Don’t try and fight your body in order to get faster, be kind to it, give it the recovery time, nutrition and hydration it needs following training and it will get stronger for you.

On the topic of nutrition and hydration; I feel that during pregnancy the focus is too often on what not to eat (e.g. soft cheeses, raw fish, etc) rather than on what is best to eat for baby’s development. The human brain is comprised of approximately 60% fat. If you are growing a human, then surely it would make sense to focus to consuming adequate healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids to ensure optimal brain growth (as well as all the other nutrients needed to help baby develop and grow). Athletes also often need to focus more on what they should be eating for health and performance rather than focusing on avoiding foods to get to race weight. For example, omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial in reducing inflammation and enhancing recovery in the body following hard training.

One other area that has parallels between pregnancy and racing is the psychology and mindset needed for both. During pregnancy I am reminded day after day (9 months worth of days!) that there is nothing you can do except to focus on the process of staying healthy and doing what is best at each moment for the growing baby. There is no use focusing on the outcome because that will not help it to change. This is the same as in training or racing; focus on the process and what you are doing at each moment and let the outcome/result take care of itself.

A couple of other quick bits of information:

  • Did you know that most prams weigh around 12kg? It is essential for pregnant women to stay strong if you want to be able to safely lift that pram into your car. Endurance athletes can be fast at their specific sport but are you functional in every day tasks? Can you lift and carry the shopping without back and knee pain? If not, then perhaps it is time to address this.
  • The number of posterior birth presentations (baby facing outwards rather than inwards during delivery, making it harder and more painful to deliver) has increased in recent years and this is believed to be due to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Pregnant women now spend a greater proportion of the day sitting and in sedentary tasks rather than being physically active and squatting and lunging frequently as in the past. A large number of male and female athletes present to Physiotherapy with neck pain, upper back pain, lower back pain etc. Most of this is due to poor daily postural habits and too much sitting at work/school and on the couch ‘recovering’. Aim to become a “healthier” athlete and address poor postures at work and when doing day to day tasks. It will ultimately improve your athletic performance too.

Thanks for reading my ramble and I hope that maybe you have picked up a piece of information that has made you think about your daily habits, actions or thoughts. For now, I am focusing on getting through the third trimester as actively as possible, and staying as healthy as possible. Hopefully before too long I will be back out racing. A comprehensive (but ultimately unrealistic) race schedule is forming with more races added every day.

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