Everything I Know About Coping with Pregnancy I Learned from Being a Triathlete
After spending a good chunk of my life as a triathlete, it's no wonder I have applied much of my approach and methods for training to my pregnancies. I didn't do this consciously, but I've come to realize that the triathlon lifestyle and a healthy pregnancy are excellent partners. Let me elaborate...
1. Ice is nice. After finishing my third marathon (Big Sur--a must run) I saw kiddie pools filled with ice water available for the runners. Because marathoners' brains are a bit addled after 26.2 miles, sitting in a pool of ice water seemed heavenly. And it was. Even better was the next morning, when I had enough spring in my step to walk the hilly streets of San Francisco. From then on an ice bath became my ritual after any run longer than 18 miles. Fast forward many years later, about midway through my first pregnancy--heavy with twins--it occurred to me one night that I felt like I had run 18 miles. And then I realized that an ice bath might make my aching legs feel better. Getting in the tub of as-cold-as-I could make-it-water wasn't quite as easy that time, but once there, and especially after, the benefits were worth the initial discomfort. So much so that I took an ice-cold bath almost every night until I had those babies. I've never had swollen cankles or circulation problems in my pregnancies. Am I lucky or is it my affinity for a polar plunge?
2. Don't be a martyr: modify. So often athletes want to power through their workouts, even when injured or fatigued (not the sleepy kind, rather the overtrained kind). To persevere can be a wonderful trait. Or it can be really stupid. Sometimes it's more ego than will. Smart athletes know this kind of attitude most always does more harm than good. I've aspired to be that woman who ran the day she gave birth, and yet, with each pregnancy I've had a wake up call that I'm not meant to be that woman. It's come at different times with each pregnancy. I ran up until 22 weeks during my last pregnancy. Sure, I could have continued to run, but my gait felt strange and my quads felt tight. Pain in this case, is not gain. Walking worked better. That is, until I hit 30 weeks. My low back ached, my tailbone throbbed. So I had to modify my modified workout by walking in the pool. My purpose for working out during pregnancy wasn't to impress my friends and neighbors, it was to maintain some semblance of fitness and have the healthiest pregnancy I could. Do what feels right for you.
3. Be good to your training partner. Most of my big races I've teamed up with friends for the training. These relationships require a hefty dose of respect for each other's time and needs, and lots of cooperation, too. For me the upside of training with a friend for long runs and rides, is worth any potential downside: a slower-than-anticipated workout if your partner is having an off day or, say, stopping for a potty break even when you don't need one. For me, the journey is most important, and I like to share it. Being pregnant means you always have a training partner along for the workout.
4. Follow the sleep rule. Somewhere in my mental training notes I've accumulated in nearly two decades I remember reading that for every hour of hard training effort you should sleep an extra hour. Sleep is, after all, the mode in which our body uses to repair and heal. I think intuitively or by default, I adopted this rule for pregnancy, too. I noticed on days when my effort was more intense I either needed a nap, crashed early, or ignored my internal alarm the next morning. Sleep while you can.
5. Eat with purpose. Using my first pregnancy as an example again (because let's face it, all women are obsessively healthy the first time around and tend to slack with subsequent babies), I can say with confidence I consumed food in the same way I did while training for an Ironman. Coincidentally the calories I needed for IM training were the same for fortifying a twin pregnancy: 4000 daily. This sounds luxurious until the reality of 4000 healthy calories sets in. Consuming 4000 healthy calories is not easy. Squeezing in 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables became a daily contest for me, along with the other over-the-top food group requirements, most notably protein. Data on twin studies show that gaining half your pregnancy weight in the first half of your pregnancy increases the chance of having bigger, term babies. This is extremely important when the norm for twins is small, premature babies that spend time in the NICU. So, being goal oriented and knowing what "finish line" I wanted, I followed my nutrition training plan with a passion (and, well, yes, triathletes like to think they can have some control). While training for my two Ironman races and throughout my twin pregnancy everything I ate had a purpose: either to fuel my next workout or to grow healthy babies. In both instances I experienced successful outcomes. Again, luck? I don't think so. This is not to say I didn't indulge, but my indulgences either had some nutritional value or my daily requirements for everything else had already been met. It's a good rule, anyway. Want dessert? Only if you've had all your servings of vegetables, first!
6. Massages are not frivolous. This one doesn't take much explaining. Massages are always an integral part of serious training. How else could you recover in between hard workouts? Pregnancy is hard work. Certain muscles become taxed with little effort, pregnancy posture strains muscles you didn't know you had, circulation is challenged. Massage works.
7. Don't get dehydrated. Another easy parallel between the athlete and pregnant woman. Both have greater hydration needs and suffer the consequences when not properly hydrated. Part of my "triathlon lifestyle" is to carry a water bottle at all times pregnant or not.
8. Listen to your body. Pretty much every point I've made has had some component of "listen to your body," within it. But, just to be clear: Listen to your body. Generally, I believe athletes are very good at this. The mind-body connection allows an athlete to excel when capable and pull back when physical harm lurks. This connection is central to our health, our fitness potential, and naturally, to pregnancy. This is important when you go into labor, too. My second pregnancy I wasn't listening so well when labor began and my daughter was damn near close to being born in the car.
9. Be prepared. Until I became a triathlete I was always a "shoot from the hip," kind of gal. Figure it out as you go person. Everything will work out fine. This isn't necessarily a bad way to live, but it doesn't apply to certain situations, for instance racing a triathlon, say, or childbirth. Triathlons require you to know what you're getting into, have a plan for training and racing, perhaps even a coach, know the route, use visualization techniques to anticipate the race and your desired outcome and even the plan B, C or D that might evolve. To be prepared for a baby, is not to decorate the nursery. Put down "What to Expect While You're Expecting," and pick up "The Thinking Woman's Guide to a Better Birth." If you do nothing else, hire a doula. In the November 2008 American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an article titled "Evidence-based labor and delivery management," gave doulas the highest level of recognition and support among all other interventions. I don't think I could finish a triathlon without support, same is true for childbirth: I need to hear "You can do this! You're so strong! You're almost there!" (And, as was the case in my second pregnancy, had we not had a doula encouraging me to get to the hospital our baby would have been born on a highway.) Bottom line is: Think about what you want out of your birth. Is your doctor or midwife going to "deliver" that for you? How about your hospital? And remember, every birth might be different. For my twin delivery I wanted to have the babies at a hospital with a level II NICU with my above-and-beyond competent OB present. For my third, low-risk pregnancy I switched to a midwifery practice at a hospital that provides more support for labor: tubs, massage, volunteer doula support, among other things. My needs were different. (On a side note, as I make all these comparisons between triathlon and childbirth I'm here to say that giving birth is not like finishing a triathlon, which I explain in this essay of the same name.)
10. Don't fear change. I am not the same person I was after finishing my first triathlon. No doubt, I like this person better. I think women come to that same conclusion after pregnancy, too, albeit some more reluctantly and in due time. The fear of change starts with the changing body. For those of you who don't know this already: it doesn't matter how little weight you gain, your body will change. And if you can let go of that fear, you'll be able to revel in the amazing process. The science and miracle of how the human body adapts to the needs of creating a life and giving birth to a life is mind-blowing phenomenal. The next fear we may harbor is how our life is going to change post baby. Some people may feel adamant that their life absolutely will not be altered once baby arrives: work as usual; training as usual; or whatever else consumed life before parenthood. But then, what's the purpose of having a baby? Isn't the point of having children to change your life? We're pretty adaptable creatures, we humans are. I've had to make concessions in just about every aspect of my life since having kids, but I like the process of growing, expanding, adapting, changing (which is not to say I haven't struggled with it at times). But the thing with parenting is that you never figure it out. Because kids are growing and changing every day, parents have to as well. And the goal, of course, is to wake up each day feeling like you finished a triathlon (and some days you will literally), that is with a sense of accomplishment you can feel proud of as much as those little darlings you call your children.