In the not-so-distant past, pregnancy was viewed as a major hindrance to a woman’s day-to-day capabilities, let alone athletic performance. In fact, exercise during pregnancy was virtually unheard of until the mid-1980s when the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists finally released their first set of guidelines for exercise during pregnancy. With research demonstrating the benefits of exercise for both mother and baby over the past several decades, the guidelines continue to become less rigid, and are now quite accommodating to the trained triathlete looking to return to competition.
Beyond experiencing a quicker recovery post-labor, including shedding the baby weight faster, triathletes who continue to train through pregnancy will also benefit from physiological changes that may be conducive to faster swim, bike, and run splits post-baby. However, with these physiological changes come a handful of performance roadblocks. In this follow-up piece to my first article, “The Athlete’s Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy: Part I,” I’ll share tips on how to overcome those barriers and achieve success during your return to fitness.
What to Expect
Lack of Vitamin Zzzzzzz: Accumulating less than six hours of sleep over four or more consecutive nights — common for breastfeeding moms during the first year of their baby’s life — has been shown to negatively affect mood, glucose metabolism, and immune function, all of which can do a serious number on overall performance. While a magic sleep wand for baby sadly does not exist, enlisting the help of a partner or family member is essential and especially helpful in the days leading up to a key workout, race, or during heavier training blocks. Many mom athletes also utilize their baby’s nap time to log an hour or two of extra sleep. “Get it while you can” is the mother’s mantra.
Iron Hunger: Depending on how exhausting labor was, the recovery in the week after is likely to include copious amounts of food to erase a calorie deficit that rivals race day. Choosing healthy foods will enhance recovery. Hunger will continue to linger far beyond labor day if breastfeeding, which contributes an additional 300- to 500-plus calories to a mom athlete’s already high daily metabolic demands. It really is like another workout, making nutrition an even more integral fourth leg of the triathlon-performance picture, and also key to maintaining milk supply. Some fret about the affect triathlon training may have on breast milk, but rest assured there is no evidence to support the notion that the overall nutrient composition, including important immune factors (SIgA, lactoferrin, and lysozyme), is changed. Even lactic acid, which is slightly elevated in breast milk after maximal-exertion efforts, has not been shown to elicit any harm to a breastfed baby.
Supermom Advice: Elizabeth Waterstraat, three-time Ironman Hawaii finisher, and supermom athlete of two, successfully nursed both her kids through six months and had no problems with supply even on weeks where training exceeded 12 hours. During nursing, she has found success with eating more frequently, adding calories from healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado), and increasing fluid intake.
Gumby Joints: Thanks to the hormone relaxin, as well as other hormones that kick into high gear during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, varying levels of pelvic floor instability and abdominal muscle weakness can be expected and can elevate risk for injury if an overzealous training routine is adopted too soon. Adding pelvic floor exercises to your daily training regimen before, during, and after pregnancy is a great way to ensure a more flawless return to training.
Supermom Advice: As a pro triathlete, Beth Gerdes, supermom athlete to one, felt a bit pressured to get back on the training saddle sooner than the recommended six-week period (for vaginal birth). While swimming and biking felt great, she admits that her run was off and felt a slower return to training would be beneficial. To aid her recovery, she spent several hours a week working with the physical therapists and sports trainers at San Diego’s Rehab United on a variety of functional exercises.
Bone-Density Loss: For the nursing-mom athletes, it’s important to note that breastfeeding can reduce bone density by as much as 5 percent, thanks to calcium being drawn from the bone to accommodate a baby’s increased need for the mineral. This bone mass is generally recovered once the baby is weaned, but until that point, the risk for stress fractures are heightened. Thus, it is essential to keep on top of calcium intake, which falls 1,000 mg per day while nursing. I recommend consuming kefir or yogurt, which contain 3 to 40 percent of daily calcium needs per cup, as well as a cocktail of other minerals important to bone health. Waterstraat actually found she craved milk and cheese, something she does not normally consume outside nursing. (Dark, leafy greens are also high in calcium and a good option for those with a dairy sensitivity. Ask your health practitioner about supplementation if you have concerns about low calcium levels.)
Hit-or-Miss Training: When a little one is demanding your attention 24/7, it can be hard to disappear to the grocery store let alone for a Master’s swim workout, strength circuit, spin class, or track session. This makes flexibility in a training schedule imperative, as well as a creative challenge. Remember that “get it while you can” sleep mantra? It also applies to training. On any given day, you can find me doing planks and pushups over my smiling baby and getting my toddler involved with my lunges and squats. If you have the budget, investing in an in-home gym can be a huge help as time is almost always pinched. Finding a gym that offers built-in help as part of its membership is also key. Lastly, there is no doubt that a helping hand is an invaluable tool when managing life and training with a new baby, so say yes when someone offers it. All in all, remember to be kind to yourself. A rigid schedule is not needed to reach performance peaks.
A Post-Pregnancy Performance Boost
Overcoming performance roadblocks is not an easy feat. But with perseverance — no doubt a mom-athlete trait — there are key physiological benefits from pregnancy that can actually speed the comeback trail. According to James Clapp III, MD, a renowned researcher in the area of exercise and pregnancy, women who regularly train at a moderately hard level of perceived effort for an hour a day throughout pregnancy and are able to resume a similar pattern soon after delivery will experience significant improvements in exercise economy. This means the cost of oxygen to perform a specific workload is lower, and maximum aerobic capacity will increase about 10 percent, even if overall training load is lighter compared to pre-pregnancy. These benefits are thought to carry for about a year postpartum, and possibly longer.
While scientific evidence supporting the translation to athletic performance in high performing endurance athletes is lacking, it certainly is thought to be one reason why so many swimmers, cyclists, and runners come back stronger post-baby.
When asked if they felt their performances have improved since having kids, virtually every mom athlete I spoke to answered yes. Jennifer Garrison, mom athlete of three, posted personal bests in everything from about five months to one year postpartum, adding a USATF Age Group National Title to her resumé a year after her son was born. Garrison feels motherhood has forced her to train better and more efficiently. Elizabeth Waterstraat, three-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher, and mom athlete of two garnished a PR and top-10 Kona finish 15 months after her son was born. Waterstraat preaches efficiency in training and also feels her endurance, mental focus, and overall fortitude is significantly stronger since having kids. Beth Gerdes, pro triathlete and mom athlete of one, has already posted three top-five IRONMAN finishes between four- and nine-months postpartum, including a new IRONMAN PR and marathon course record at IRONMAN Western Australia.
Originally written for IRONMAN by Kimberly Mueller, MS, RD, CSSD. Posted here with permission by IRONMAN.