I will never forget the moment I found out I was pregnant with my first child. It was Labor Day (yes, seriously) and the day before I had started my first semester of grad school. I was up early preparing to run a local 10K and, on little more than a whim, decided to take a pregnancy test. Positive. Knowing little about pregnancy, numerous panicked questions flooded my mind. Not least among them, “Are pregnant women even allowed to run 10Ks?” That the answer might turn out to be no kind of scared me. Running, racing, and exercise in general are hobbies of mine—ones that I’d rather not give up for the better part of a year.
To my surprise and delight, my doctor was very supportive of my desire to stay active throughout pregnancy. Official guidelines have evolved over the years, but today the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) advises that healthy women with normal pregnancies “get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.” Those who are “very active” prior to pregnancy “can keep doing the same workouts with your health care professional’s approval.” But ACOG also encourages women who don’t exercise regularly to “start out slowly and gradually increase” physical activity. Doing so can promote healthy weight gain, ease back pain and constipation, and reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean delivery.
As reassuring as it was to hear that it is safe and even recommended to continue exercising while pregnant, I found that doing so was—hmm, how should I put this—really, really hard. The obstacles to maintaining an exercise regimen during pregnancy were unlike any I had experienced throughout numerous marathon, half-marathon, and triathlon training programs. That said, 2.5 years and two beautiful, healthy baby girls later, I am proud and grateful to report that I’ve stayed active pretty much the entire time. I have even continued racing—albeit much less competitively—in 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and a triathlon. I understand this is not for everyone. Truly, this article has a lot less to do with my personal goals than how I stayed motivated to achieve them. Was it difficult? Absolutely. But impossible? Not at all. Worthwhile? For me, yes. Here’s how I did it:
I scrutinized my motivations.
I am the first to say that health ought to be the primary goal of exercise, rather than maintaining a particular weight or clothing size, running a certain speed, or lifting X number of pounds. But when I became pregnant, I was surprised to find how much I had relied on things other than health—be it losing a few pounds, picking up speed, and so on—to get moving. It makes sense: even if you believe that your weight is just a number, seeing that number fall after a few weeks of dedicated training is often a sign that something is working—a sign of progress. And progress is a very powerful motivator.
Unfortunately, the motivational thrust of progress works in both directions. In other words, it can be really hard to stick to a workout regimen when all of the usual markers of progress are going in the opposite direction. This makes staying active during pregnancy uniquely challenging, because no matter how much you exercise, the number on the scale will trend upward, your clothes will stop fitting you as your body increases in size, and you will struggle to hit speeds and lift weights you once easily could.
The upshot of all this was that in order to maintain the drive to stay active, I had to truly detach from weight, size, strength, and speed, and find other sources of motivation. Luckily, there are plenty of great reasons to exercise during pregnancy! I chose to focus on my desire to resume training postpartum. I knew that by the time I gave birth, best-case scenario, I’d be running shorter distances and a lot more slowly. But I also knew that building the confidence and ability to jog two miles when you can already run one is a LOT easier than learning to run one when you haven’t been running at all. I figured that maintaining any level of fitness would have tremendous value when I was ready to start training for races postpartum—and it did!
I took it one day at a time.
You want to know what my absolute worst ever pregnancy workout was? Maybe the 8K I “ran” at 37 weeks? Maybe my last jog two days before I delivered my first child? NOPE. I was just six weeks pregnant. The workout I had planned was pretty short and manageable. I had no reason to think I wasn’t feeling well; I was well-hydrated, well-rested, and (at the moment) nausea-free. But within seconds of starting, I felt awful—like I was wearing shoes made of concrete and trying to do jumping jacks in a kiddy pool filled with pudding . . . or some other less disturbing image. “If this is how I feel at six weeks pregnant,” I thought to myself, “how am I going to feel at six months? Or eight?” I started to give up, not just on that workout, but on the idea of staying active during pregnancy altogether.
Thankfully, my marathon training came to the rescue. I remembered finishing a 20-mile training run, knowing in my soul that I couldn’t survive even half a mile more and wondering, “if I can barely finish 20 miles, how will I ever run 26.2?” And yet, when race day came, I finished strong. In racing, I’ve found that the key to conquering moments like that is to recognize that how you feel today is not necessarily how you’ll feel tomorrow, or the next day, or race day. So I applied the same reasoning. And with that, I stopped thinking about the daunting task of getting through nine months of tough, unenjoyable workouts and focused on getting through one tough, unenjoyable workout—which is a lot more manageable.
For the record, it turned out that I was absolutely right. My energy level oscillated from day to day while I was pregnant, just like it does when I’m not.
I kept long-term goals low and flexible.
Given pregnancy’s inherent lack of predictability, I think there is a strong case to be made for avoiding long-term exercise goals altogether during pregnancy. Unfortunately, that's just not how my brain works. I needed some kind of overarching “pregnancy goal” on which to focus; something I could break down into short-term components and check off my to-do list each week.
For context, at the start of my first pregnancy, I was at the tail end of a pretty intense half-marathon training program. I was running faster and more often than I ever had in my entire running career, and I was tempted to challenge myself. At the rate I was currently running—anywhere between 20 and 40 miles a week—I could cover more than a thousand miles over the course of 40 weeks! I found numerous pregnant runners on Instagram who did it, so why not me? But, having never been pregnant before, I wasn’t sure how difficult running would become, or how long I’d be able to continue doing it. So I set my goal at 400 miles, or just 10 miles a week. And I’m really glad I did. Because what I've learned about setting long-term goals is that it's not enough to set a target you're capable of hitting during your typical week, but one you can hit during your worst weeks. And during a nine-month pregnancy, your worst week is likely to be pretty rough.
I surpassed that goal pretty handily, and was even able to incorporate a lot of other types of exercise into my routine. But when I found out I was pregnant again, I didn’t increase it. It’s not that I think there is anything magical about the number 400. On the contrary, the same reasoning could apply to any number of miles or modes of exercise, depending on one’s circumstances and abilities. But choosing a goal that felt a little too easy, one low enough to allow for skipped workouts and flexible enough to come back to after falling behind, helped ensure that exercise remained a relief from stress, rather than a source of it. And the last thing a pregnant person needs is more stress.
I avoided faulty perfectionist logic.
I’ll admit that when it comes to training, I can be a little bit of a perfectionist. This means that through some weird twist of logic, I can convince myself that doing nothing is less pathetic than doing less than I planned—that no workout is better than a sluggish or shortened one. Of course, that makes no sense. Walking for 10 minutes is better than walking for no minutes, regardless of what you had planned that day.
To be clear, particularly during pregnancy, paying close attention to what your body is telling you is important. Sometimes skipping a workout is exactly the right move. But I’ve found that my desire to skip a workout is often motivated less by my legitimate need for rest and more by my distaste for doing a workout imperfectly or incompletely. In order to distinguish between days that I truly needed a break and those that my perfectionism was getting in the way of my goals, I would start with the workout I planned and work backward. If I wasn't up for the three-mile jog I planned, I would ask myself if two miles seemed manageable. No? What about one? What about half a mile? How about a ten-minute walk, a few minutes on the stationary bike, or a quick swim? If, after considering all the options, nothing seemed feasible, I took the day off. But more often than not, I found that I could handle a shortened or altered workout.
It is easy to think of doing less than you planned as a kind of failure. But it’s not. Doing any amount of exercise, especially during pregnancy, is always a victory. So when I found myself questioning the value of doing a shortened workout, I asked myself one question: is it better than nothing? And the answer was always, “Yes.”
I gave myself a chance.
Yes, staying active during pregnancy was hard. But believe it or not, the most surprising part of exercising during pregnancy was not how little, but how much my body could accomplish, even during its later stages. I constantly surprised myself. I can’t count the number of times I started a jog, fully convinced that I would turn around and waddle home after 200 meters, only to discover that as I put one foot in front of the other, I felt stronger and lighter, and moved faster than expected. Yes, sometimes the lethargy never lifted, and I did in fact turn around after less than a quarter of a mile—and that’s okay! But a shocking number of times I found myself able, even wanting, to continue. Those little victories did wonders for my mood and confidence; I don’t think I have ever been prouder of myself than when I finished a 1.5 mile run on a 10:30 pace at 39.5 weeks pregnant. I looked ridiculous, but I felt like a badass. And I wouldn’t have experienced that exhilarating pride if I hadn’t given myself a chance in the first place.
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