One world-class runner's tale of how pregnancy and training go hand in hand

Credit: Adam Pretty/Allsport
When I began running in the late '60s, the world for women was quite different from what it is now.

We were still in the throes of women's liberation and the world of women's distance running was nascent, fraught with inequities of opportunity compared to the men. And old wives' tales were rampant about what women should and shouldn't do.

Women breaking barriers

Ignorant of many social proprieties, I ran simply because I loved to do it, ignoring dire warnings of the masculinizing effects that mileage would have on my "woman parts." If my uterus didn't fall out from all that jarring then I would surely have trouble giving birth from over-tight abdominal muscles.

Fortunately I drew inspiration from the few brave pioneers who ran ahead of me. One such trailblazer was Val Robinson, more than a decade older than me and a four-time unofficial world cross-country champion (unofficial because the IAAF had not yet legitimized it). In 1969 Val became pregnant and continued running 10 miles a day until the day her baby was born; that day, she only fit in five. Her running buddies, a group of hardy farming men, dropped out of runs with Val as her belly rounded for fear that they would have to deliver the baby on a forest trail.

Her baby was born healthy (in a hospital) and Val was back on the trails several days later and continued not long after to win everything in sight. Val quite simply did just what was comfortable and natural for her, somewhat oblivious to what the experts of the time would have recommended. For them, distance running for women in itself was dubious, but running while pregnant was so new that they had not even had a chance to consider it.

How exercise helps your baby

Val was ahead of her time, for science now validates her actions. Within certain parameters, exercise is good for your unborn baby. Consider the following:

  • Those feel-good hormones that you release during exercise also cross the placental barrier and reach your baby. Your baby gets the same surge of energy from your release of adrenaline and also experiences the same runner's high that you get from the effects of endorphins.

  • The tranquilizing effect of endorphins lasts for up to eight hours after exercise.

  • The motion of exercise is comforting to the baby and the rocking motion gives stimulation to the baby's vestibular system.

  • The contraction and expansion of your abdominal muscles gives the baby a soothing massage.

  • The baby benefits from the increased blood flow of exercise. Extra oxygen is indeed delivered to all your baby's tissues, optimizing your little mite's growth and development.

    When exercise may harm your baby

    Of course, one can always have too much of a good thing, and too much of a good thing always turns into its opposite, a bad thing. Not many women could do the volume of running that Val did and should not even try. But if you continue your regular exercise levels, run comfortably and stay aerobic, as Val did, then both you and your baby should be healthy.

    Exercising in hot climates or at such an intensity that you raise your body temperature to extremes can be fatal to your fetus. Anaerobic exercise that puts you in oxygen debt will certainly starve your baby of oxygen.

    Likewise, be wary of dehydration. Pregnancy greatly increases your need for water intake, since the placental water is being replaced every three hours. Take water regularly and before you are thirsty like all athletes should. Finally, stay away from uneven terrain because there will come a time when you can't watch your feet even if you want to.

    Pregnancy as a performance enhancement

    In 1982, elite runner Ingrid Kristiansen ran a 2:33 marathon and on investigating why it was (for her) so slow, discovered that she was four months pregnant. Four months after giving birth, she won the Houston Marathon in 2:27 and three months later set the women's world record in the London Marathon in 2:21.

    Such phenomenal performances set off much speculation that childbirth was responsible for improving your running and it became almost faddish to pop a kid in the hope of getting another five minutes off your marathon time.

    Pregnancy does, in fact, have a training effect on you much like exercise does. It is nicely graduated as the baby grows, and unlike your exercise routine, there is no taking a day off!

    Here are some of the systems in your body that are enhanced by pregnancy:

    Cardiovascular: During the course of pregnancy your blood volume increases by about 40 percent and your heart rate increases about 15 beats a minute to supply the growing baby with nutrients and oxygen. This is the equivalent of doing mild exercise 24 hours a day over 40 weeks, adding just a little more load each day.

    Breathing: Your respiratory rate increases, thus raising your oxygen uptake.

    Musculoskeletal. Your skeletal system strengthens in response to the progressive weight training that the baby affords. At the same time, the hormone relaxin, released to expand the pelvis for the birth, will make you the most flexible you have ever been in your life, and you can get a real jump-start in your stretching routine.

    Hormones. Your body pours out huge amounts of hormones to support and strengthen itself and the developing fetus.

    Forgetting to have children

    Being one of six siblings, I always believed I would one day have my own brood, dropping them out in the middle of my workouts, taking just enough of an interval to tie the umbilical cord. But unlike Val and Ingrid, I didn't manage to mix motherhood and career.

    By the time I hit 40 I was like the woman in the cartoon who lamented, "I forgot to have children!" It seemed I was always trying to fit in one more Olympics and babies were just not a part of that picture.

    At 41 I ran my fourth Olympic marathon. Suffering from chronic asthma and adrenal exhaustion for much of the year, I knew that I had seen my best days running-wise and that it was time to get on with something else. When I discovered that I had run that marathon pregnant, I retired.

    It seemed magical, too good to be true and it was. I miscarried at 10 weeks, a devastating and humbling experience. After all, I had come to believe that my will was lord and master over my servant body, and I could do anything if I just put my mind to it. But when it came to having a baby, the rug was whipped out from under my feet. I suddenly found I had no control.

    By the time of my fourth miscarriage, I was getting desperate. I had stopped running completely, in case that was the culprit. The Olympics in Sydney were coming around and now I was neither a contender nor a prospective mother. I felt cheated. At 44, doctors were quick to point out that my chances for a full-term pregnancy did not look good. And I worried that I would go through an early menopause like many of my running friends. With no running and no child, I felt I had nothing.

    What running taught me

    Thirty years of running taught me many things. One is that life consists of tests, challenging us to continually expand our awareness of who we think we are. Times of difficulty are opportunities to which we may rise, giving birth to qualities that lie buried and undeveloped in our psyche.

    Running also taught me to defy the odds. Personally, I hate statistics. If I had listened to the experts I would have been happy to have just been at the 1992 Olympics and not have had the audacity to consider myself a contender. In fact, I would never have subjected my delicate female body to distance running in the first place.

    So I let go of trying to control my body and relaxed. At age 45 I defied the experts and gave birth to my first child, a robust nine-pound girl, born during the time of the Olympic Games in Sydney. My faith in magic was restored.

    Complementary teachers

    Competitive sports teaches the development of the will and how to be tough. Motherhood teaches the ability to surrender and experience ultimate softness. These are not opposites. They are complementary.

    Because I had sports I am a better mother. I don't give up or get discouraged. I trust my common sense and ability to get things done. I can handle physical discomfort and tiredness from lack of sleep and I am strong enough to carry this burgeoning bundle of joy on my hip for hours on end.

    If I had had motherhood during my competitive career, would I have been a better athlete? Maybe I would have been physically stronger. Certainly I would have listened to my body more, trusted my intuition, been more easily able to surrender to the pain without quitting, relaxed more, and breathed into it and gone faster. And then again, maybe I would have just chosen to sit at home gazing endlessly at a small miracle and been perfectly satisfied.

    Lorraine Moller lives in Boulder where, in addition to being a full-time mom, she conducts seminars, writes and coaches runners.

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