Questions and answers on pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum for endurance athletes
Lindsay Goldman, rider and general manager of the Hagens Berman-Supermint Pro Cycling team, found very little information targeted towards athletes while she was going through pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. So she decided to share everything she could about all of the questions she had. “I’d have killed for this sort of insight a year ago,” she wrote in an email. “Now I’d mostly just kill to have a normal bellybutton and a kid who swallows at least 50% of what goes into her mouth.”
I’m 13 months postpartum after giving birth to a healthy baby girl in February 2018. It’s been a long ride from the time I found out I was pregnant, in June 2017, until now, when my kid can pick up and chew Cheerios on her own and my body vaguely resembles what it was before the whole process began (while clothed, at least).
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, mostly from a mental perspective. I went from being a professional athlete in full control of my body to being entirely taken over by another human. Then I got to start raising that human in the outside world while reshaping my body back to what it was before. Or trying to, at least. Truthfully, there is no coming back unchanged from pregnancy.
Along the way, I ended up racing a mostly full season, which was a gift. At the start of pregnancy, my goal was to come back and race “decently” by the end of the season, in late August. Instead, I started racing in April and won the last race of my season. It felt like a miracle, except that miracles don’t typically involve nearly as much blood, sweat, and tears. And dear God there were a lot of tears. I coped with fear, anxiety, stress, fatigue, and joy all throughout this process in one way — crying. Welcome to parenting!
The biggest challenge from the first moment of pregnancy was the lack of information available to guide me through the experience. Every pregnancy and postpartum resource speaks in generalizations that can safely be applied to the entire population of women having babies. You might be 15 and obese or you might be 46 and an Olympian, or any permutation in between, and pregnancy literature has only one message for you: This is what is safe, and nothing more.
But women are not identical physiologically and I got tired of not knowing what to expect or what I could do with my pregnant and postpartum body. It’s not hard to figure out why information is so limited: more medical studies are carried out on men; nobody wants to experiment on pregnant women for ethical reasons; not many women are clamoring to work out hard while pregnant; it’s safer to make generalizations when it comes to babies “just in case”; and there just aren’t that many pregnant elite athletes. But there are at least enough of these women that more information should exist. We are out there trying to stay healthy and fit for our babies and ourselves, and we should have support that is more helpful than one-size-fits-all.
In the absence of that, I’ve tried here to at least document my experience, and to answer the questions I had throughout the process. Make no mistake: This is not medical advice. I am not a medical expert, but merely an expert in Googling and pushing forward stubbornly.
This is based on my experience combined with everything I’ve learned from research along the way. It may not apply to you at all. Just because I did something does not mean it was right, or that it will be safe for you. It just means that somebody did it without adverse outcomes. Take this with a grain of salt, but at least take this to know you’re not alone. There are pregnant and postpartum athletes out there that have had babies and athletic careers. Becoming a mom does not have to mean remaking your whole identity, giving in to mom jeans, and buying a minivan.
I work out a lot. Am I going to be able to get pregnant?
If you get your period regularly, probably. If not, talk to your gynecologist. Amenorrhea is not healthy so it’s worth checking out even if kids are the last thing you want. Being fit and lean doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant; it may mean it takes a bit longer, that you’ll need medical assistance, or that you’ll get pregnant easily without trying. The start of 2017 had been hard on my body: I’d had bronchitis, a heart arrhythmia that had to be fixed by a cardiac ablation, an antibiotic-resistant UTI that persisted for a month, a crash that resulted in a collarbone repair surgery and a concussion, a full race schedule, and a body weight that had people asking if my eating disorder was acting up. Nothing about my body seemed hospitable to new life, and yet in June 2017, I had a positive pregnancy test.
How will I know if I’m pregnant?
Pee on a stick or get a blood test from your gynecologist. If you have any suspicions, don’t wait to find out. You need to know as soon as possible so you can adjust your training, racing, and nutrition accordingly. Do not waste time guessing based on “signs” from your body or try any nonsense you read on the internet about peeing on weird concoctions of baking soda and bleach or some other crap. Take a test.
I just found out I’m pregnant. Now what?
Congratulations! Or not, whatever applies to your situation. Nothing is more presumptuous than people assuming this should be joyous news. I was happy but also absolutely terrified. While I wanted a baby in theory, I was not prepared for the moment of realizing one was most certainly on the way. When I got the positive test, my initial reaction was to cry. So much change was coming and I was overwhelmed and suddenly scared to let go of everything I’d known as my life and body. Let yourself have whatever reaction you feel and take your time processing. Making a human and raising it is a big effing deal. Then get out your phone and find an obstetrician (OB). And tell your coach. Oh, and your partner.
How should I choose an obstetrician?
I picked one because the practice was close to my house, thinking proximity was what I’d care about the most. This was a mistake. While it was nice to have a short drive to my monthly appointments, I would have much preferred to drive several hours each way to work with a doctor that understood the demands and desires of an athlete. Not to say my OB wasn’t good or kind or qualified, but not one piece of advice I got for the whole nine months was tailored to my body as an athlete. For example, I was told to not get my heart rate above 160bpm while working out because that is The Official Pregnancy Guideline. It didn’t matter that I’d been training and racing at much higher levels for over a decade: I was told to follow the same guidelines as the completely sedentary pregnant woman in the next room. That became frustrating and left me to do my own research and worrying. I’d highly recommend finding an OB that works with athletes and understands that our bodies are different and can handle a lot more while still being healthy and safe.
How does it feel to be pregnant?
I hated it. The first trimester left me constantly queasy and totally lethargic, with weird food aversions and massively expanding boobs. I would ride in the morning and spend all day in bed too tired and sick to even make polite conversation. The second trimester was better, but I started feeling bigger and slower and cranky as a result. The third trimester brought the small relief of the impending finish line, but I felt huge, anxious about the long-term damage to my body, exhausted because sleep was nearly impossible, and completely on the sidelines from every active person ever. It was extremely isolating. Pregnancy was not my friend and I’m still elated to be done with it.
But you might love being pregnant and feel glorious the whole time. Or you might have crushing morning sickness and hate it even more than I did. It’s finite. Remember that. It will end and you get a baby out of it. There is joy in feeling your baby kick, and being pregnant, and giving birth, will make you so much tougher.
I’ve struggled with body image and eating disorders; what’s that like during pregnancy?
I had a really hard time with this. I knew my body had to change to grow a baby and knew that weight gain was inevitable and healthy. But I still obsessed constantly. Was I eating too much? Or not enough? Was that a baby bump or fat? Was I gaining too much weight? Was I too lean for my baby to grow properly? Was I going to be able to lose the weight? Would I get my body back?
The good news is that the baby will take what it needs from your body, and you get what is left. That protects your kid even if you’re not eating quite enough or burning too much, but you’re going to feel like shit because you’re under-fueled and exhausted. Better to eat more than less. I say that now, but every single day was a battle. Every calorie was a tug-of-war and I was so afraid of gaining too much fat. My poor belly was sore from the amount of time I spent poking and pinching it to check for fat. I cried a hundred times from frustration and anxiety and could not shut up about my body fears.
In the end, I gained 25 pounds. Two weeks after birth, 20 of that was already gone. The rest of it came off over time; when I stopped breastfeeding, my body took about two months to finally normalize but now it’s back to being a “regular” body — too much cake will make me gain weight, not enough cake will make me angry. If you’re mindful and healthy during pregnancy, your body will come back. Try not to panic.
If you do find yourself really struggling or possibly harming your baby with food deprivation or over-exercising, seek help.
What kind of exercise can I do while pregnant?
That’s up to you and what feels comfortable. I rode a bike outside until I crashed and realized I couldn’t safely ride outside anymore. I also ran a bit in the first trimester and did a lot of hiking and walking. In terms of core workouts, I did my usual program until the second trimester, when I modified exercises to take out anything that worked my abs.
Be smart. It’s not a good time to take up marathon running or mountain climbing. You should probably not continue kickboxing, playing football, or engaging in other contact sports. You will not set personal bests. Altitude will hit you harder, especially during workouts. In general, you’ll start to feel slower and heavier and that’ll change what you can handle. Your center of gravity will be different, probably more so than you realize. Listen to your body.
Do not listen to people who tell you to “just take it easy and enjoy being pregnant” or that “you can always exercise after the baby comes” unless that person is your doctor and there is a medical reason. Staying active is good for you and your baby. There is actual medical research that supports this.
How hard can I work out while I’m pregnant?
Medical experts don’t know because nobody is willing to test pregnant women to find the actual limits and every woman is different anyway. The result is that you will likely be given a rule on this, something like “don’t get your heart rate above 160bpm (or 140bpm)” or “don’t exercise to a point where you’re out of breath.” These guidelines are designed to be conservative enough to be safe for everybody, which makes them extremely unhelpful if you’ve spent years training your body to be fit and capable of handling intensity.
The one source I found to be helpful was this published study, titled “Exercise and pregnancy in recreational and elite athletes.” But even this offers limited data and no concrete rules. It was just helpful to read and feel like I was getting at least some fact-based relevant information.
Ultimately, I did my last race three days after finding out after I was pregnant. Then I rode outside for the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, gradually sticking more and more to the 160bpm ceiling. When I crashed and fractured my humerus, I transitioned to riding indoors and spent the rest of pregnancy riding 10-13 hours a week just under that heart rate threshold. I’d get anxious anytime I passed that ceiling by even a few beats, which was probably stupid because it was such an arbitrary number.
I also checked the baby’s heart rate with an at-home Doppler (purchased on Amazon for less than $50) all the time to make sure she sounded okay. All of my lab tests and ultrasounds showed a healthy baby growing normally, so I didn’t see a reason to stop. In the end, my kid came out kicking and screaming at a healthy weight.
What you feel comfortable doing and how much risk you’re willing to accept is a personal choice. My advice is to stay hydrated, fuel properly, make sure you don’t overheat, don’t take risks with falling, make sure you can take in enough oxygen at all times, and listen to your body.
I’m tired and don’t feel great. Should I take today off from exercising?
If something is really wrong or off, it’s fine to slow down. But pregnancy is hard and you’re going to feel crappy more often than not. In the absence of a medical reason to stop, it’s better to exercise and not give into the urge to be sedentary. When I say “listen to your body,” I mean pay attention to pains or bleeding or other warning signs. I don’t mean “stay glued to this couch and have another bag of pretzels.” (At least that’s what my body was requesting.) Even on the days that felt the worst, I was always glad that I’d exercised, largely because it actually made me feel better and helped curb nausea.
I had a subchorionic hemorrhage. How worried should I be?
I had a bleed at 12 weeks and it was terrifying. Everything was fine and normal, and then I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and blood rushed out. It was so scary I wanted to hide in a hole and die. The ultrasound at the hospital revealed a small subchorionic hemorrhage (a bleed around the placenta). When I saw my OB the next day, she was not overly concerned but said no exercise and pelvic rest for four weeks. I was still terrified, so I listened (as long as listening can be defined as “walking five to seven miles each day,” because the doctor approved walking).
Then when I returned for my next appointment four weeks later, the OB didn’t even do another ultrasound. I’d spent four weeks on edge waiting for something terrible to happen again and she was so relaxed about it that I was cleared to return to exercise without even a physical exam to check if everything was fine.
It felt like the doctor might as well have consulted a Magic 8 Ball for the problem. How did she decide I needed four weeks off? Was that just because that was when I was due for my next appointment? Was there any medical basis for it? If so, why weren’t my uterus and placenta examined before I was allowed to work out again?
When I asked the OB at that appointment about ending the pelvic rest, she pondered the question for a moment and then replied, “Ummm, wait another two weeks.” Highly scientific stuff.
If you have a bleed or any other medical surprise during pregnancy, I’d advise that you listen to your doctor but know that they will likely give you conservative guidelines. In my case, I was fine waiting four weeks when it came to the health of my kid. I’d have waited the whole 28 remaining weeks if needed. But I also knew it was somewhat arbitrary. It’s just a matter of assessing how much risk you’re willing to accept. You only get one chance to make that kid properly, so probably better to err on the side of caution.
Also, it was amazing to see how fit I was able to stay while just walking. Granted it was a lot of walking, but it was worth every step when I got back on the bike and was able to get back up to speed pretty quickly.
What can’t I eat or drink during pregnancy?
There are long lists of things to avoid. Read them and then decide what works for you. I found that American rules are much stricter than other countries and thus felt that many were unnecessarily conservative. I did switch to decaf coffee and only had sips of my husband’s alcoholic drinks, but I ate prosciutto and soft cheeses and cured salmon and the occasional sushi dinner. It’s more about being smart: Don’t eat a piece of chicken that’s been sitting on the counter in the sun for hours and don’t buy sushi from a rural gas station. Common sense.
During workouts, I ate and drank all of the same things I did pre-pregnancy minus anything caffeinated. I did eat more bars, waffles, and actual food versus energy gels and chews, but that was just a personal preference. The important thing is that you eat enough and stay very hydrated.
What if my baby is breech?
I know several other athletes who have had breech babies (breech = not head down in the mother’s pelvis) but that’s the only evidence I have for correlation between athletes and a propensity for breech babies. Did my athleticism or constant riding contribute to my baby’s inability to go head-down? Was it my size? The shape of my uterus? The stubbornness of my child? The luck of the draw? Nobody, including the doctor, could say. At 30 weeks, the baby’s breech position was noted but not of concern. “She’ll almost certainly turn,” they told me. “Almost all babies do.”
At 34 weeks, no change. Same at 36 weeks, and again at 38 weeks. At that point a caesarean section was scheduled (in almost all cases, a breech baby means a mandatory c-section, as very, very few OBs will vaginally deliver a breech baby due to safety concerns). My delivery date was set for 39 weeks on the dot and right before the doctor cut into me, she verified that, nope, the baby had still not turned.
Along the way, I tried every method possible to turn the baby: lying in an inverted position, kneeling on the couch with my head on the floor, putting ice at the top of my stomach, playing music and talking to the bottom of my stomach, politely asking the baby to turn, repeatedly seeing a chiropractor versed in the Webster technique, acupuncture, wishing, crying, etc. I also went to the hospital to try an External Cephalic Version procedure, in which two OBs tried to manually turn the baby by pushing aggressively on my stomach. It felt terrible and also did not work. If your baby is breech, you can (and should) try any or all of these things, but also be sure to spend some time reminding yourself that it’s not the end of the world and your kid is almost certainly going to come out just fine.
Do I want a c-section or vaginal birth?
I wanted a natural vaginal birth so I could recover as quickly as possible. That did not happen; Caroline was breech and required extraction by caesarean section. While this was devastating at first, I got over it. The only thing that actually mattered was a healthy baby.
There are pros and cons to each type of birth experience. Obviously a quick birth, free of complications, tearing, and intolerable pain is the ideal, but few people get the ideal. Birth is messy and painful and hard. Accept this and know that you’ll recover in the end no matter how the kid comes out.
If you’re thinking of scheduling an elective c-section, though, I would reconsider unless it’s medically necessary. Why would you choose to have somebody cut into you?
What is childbirth like?
See above — it’s messy and painful and hard. I would not do it again for fun. I can’t tell you what a vaginal birth is like, but it looks uncomfortable. I can tell you that a c-section is a very quick procedure, you will feel things but it will almost certainly not hurt until the drugs wear off, and that regardless of how the baby arrives, it will be an incredible moment when you two meet.
Also, the first time I really had to “suffer” on the bike again, I definitely thought, “You went through childbirth. This is nothing.”
How is a c-section recovery?
The recovery is not fun. You’ll feel amazing at first because you just met your baby and all of the painkillers are in effect. Then that will wear off and it’s awful. Do not get behind on the pain medication. Do not. It’s critical that you not let the real pain arrive, because if you do, you will hate your life for a while. You want to be present for your baby and you cannot do that if you’re in agony. Don’t try to be tough and don’t be forgetful; stay on the drugs.
There were two kinds of pain post-surgery: the actual incision wound, and the nerve pain. The former was definitely not fun, but was manageable. The latter was terrible; it was a hot, stabbing, burning feeling that was highly unpredictable. Sometimes I could move easily without triggering it, and sometimes a heavy sigh would set it off. It was debilitating and lasted substantially longer than the incision pain. I was afraid to get up to pee for fear of being struck by the nerve pain, but holding urine crated internal pressure which led to more pain. Drugs didn’t do a lot to stifle the feeling, either. Only time made things better. I could still feel remnants of it two weeks after the surgery and was getting concerned about having it last forever and then one day I never noticed it again.
Honestly, your first week after the c-section is going to be hard. The good news is that your new baby will be so distracting that time will fly by. Take care of yourself, ask for help, don’t push your body at all, and be willing to sit down a lot. This part is temporary.
One lifesaver was the Belly Bandit BFF; it’s a support band that holds in your deflated belly postpartum. I wore mine low to support the incision and it was a godsend. It kept me from straining the incision site and made it feel less like my insides were going to fall out. For a while, I even wore two overlapping at once to cover the length of my full torso. The band made getting in and out of bed and lifting my baby post-surgery more manageable.
Also, brace your incision site with a pillow anytime you sneeze, laugh, cry, cough, or strain to take those first few postpartum poops. You’ll be glad you did.
How bad is the first postpartum poop?
Dear God, it was like childbirth all over again. Take laxatives. All of them. But like childbirth, the payoff is worth it. You’ll be so relieved when it’s done.
How will I feel and look after birth?
At first, probably terrible. Instagram is a dirty lie — most women do not look awesome postpartum. I looked six months pregnant at first, and by two weeks after still looked at least a few months along. It was depressing. My stomach looked like a deflated balloon, my skin was mushy, the separation between my abs could have been used to prop up a phone book, and my stretch marks were vivid red.
At eight weeks out, things had improved; I wouldn’t have wept (much) if forced to put on a bikini and visit a public beach. Now, after a year, the weight is gone, my boobs have deflated, and my c-section scar has faded considerably. My belly button is a work in progress, but is finally looking better after having umbilical hernia repair surgery.
It took a lot of recovery and work to get to this point. I treated my c-section scar with silicon gel for months, did extensive work to repair my abs, and exercised and ate well to trim off baby weight. Don’t expect payoff without putting in the work, but know that if you do, it will be so worth it.
Using some sort of belly binder can also help squish things back into place, although I still can’t decide if the impact was only temporary or if it actually helped healing. I think it’s the former (because my belly started to stick out again after not wearing the binder for a day). Regardless, I wore mine for an excessively long time (six months) because I was afraid of worsening my diastasis recti (more on that later) and because confronting my bare stomach in the mirror was depressing.
Patience is key. Avoiding mirrors helps as well. Give your body time.
How long does it take a c-section incision to heal and how will it look when it’s healed?
Mine was glued shut post-surgery and closed up fairly quickly. The glue came off by about two weeks later. The scar was still red and very visible and I could feel scar tissue and lumps of internal stitches underneath. At that point, I started using a prescription silicon scar gel. Get that from a dermatologist and use it religiously, especially if you’re prone to hypertrophic scarring.
Now the scar is looking damn good considering that it was a baby doorway. It still feels a little thick and sinewy underneath, but hopefully that will continue to resolve.
What nobody tells you at any point is that you need to massage your scar once it starts healing. Massage the scar itself, massage the area around it. Get that tissue moving. Otherwise adhesions can develop, scar tissue can build up, and you can develop a host of issues as a result. I massage my scar every day and there is still lumpiness and pulling down into my leg and up into my abs. Don’t be squeamish; get after that thing or find a physical therapist to do it for you. Tightness in that area can impact a lot more than just the surrounding muscles, so be mindful of that and rehab the scar like you would any other injury.
How soon can I start working out after childbirth?
Your OB will likely tell you six weeks. The Internet will agree. This is a magical, totally arbitrary number that every pregnant woman seems to be given for when it is “safe” to work out.
To put this in perspective, I had an appointment with my OB at two weeks postpartum to check my incision. At that visit, I was told to come back at seven weeks postpartum for a follow-up but that I could resume normal activity at six weeks postpartum. So basically it was assumed that I’d be totally fine to exercise without anybody actually looking me over.
There is not one number that fits everybody and every birth. That’s impossible. It’s far too generic and doesn’t take any medical factors into account. It also tells women to sit on their butts for likely far too long in the name of being “safe” when they really need to be moving, stretching, and actively healing.
My advice is to listen to your body. Don’t do anything that hurts. Don’t ignore bleeding or startling symptoms. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion. Be smart. Move carefully and cautiously at first. Err on the safe side. I started with very short walks and built up gradually from there. If I felt badly, I backed off. In time, I was able to resume normal activity. For me, that was within a few weeks of birth. I don’t know what that is for you, but it’s probably not exactly at six weeks on the dot. Don’t force yourself to sit around waiting to hit that arbitrary milestone if you feel good and ready to move.
Breastfeeding or formula?
Feed your baby. That’s the only thing that is mandatory.
There is such a huge push now for breastfeeding; it’s absolutely overwhelming and dominating. The nurses literally made me watch videos in the hospital extolling the benefits of breastfeeding and demonizing any other choice. Everything everywhere is all about “Breast is Best.” And sure, it’s great and natural and healthy, but it’s not the only acceptable way to feed your baby.
Insisting that breastfeeding is the only good choice puts a huge weight on new mothers, especially because breastfeeding is not easy or intuitive at all. I’m not even going to dip a toe in the pool of that debate here. What I will say is that you need to feed your baby and you need to be happy and sane. How you get there is between you and your baby. There is a special place in hell for mothers who judge other mothers about their breastfeeding choices.
Personally I started with breastfeeding at night, pumping during the day, and adding in formula when I worried that something was lacking. Then I started exclusively pumping because Caroline struggled with her latch and breastfeeding was making us both unhappy. It was a relief to have other people help with her feeding, too. Originally I was hoping to keep her on breast milk for at least six months, but with the way things progressed, I ended up making it a little more than five months and stopped. She’s thriving, healthy, and happy. She gets a combination of formula and real food and seems just fine.
As a side note, while pumping is a fabulous invention, it’s also terrible and you’ll have to accept that. It was tedious, uncomfortable, and the most unattractive process. I felt like a dairy cow. It didn’t help that I’d pump with a hands-free bra while trying to do core work or household tasks. Productive, yes, but absolutely ridiculous to witness. When I was finally done pumping, I wanted to set the whole device on fire and drive over it with my car.
Can I start exercising while breastfeeding?
Yes, please do.
How can I keep milk production up if I’m training?
Eat and drink a lot. I found eating healthy fats seemed to really help my production — things like salmon, avocados, and nuts. Drinking an ungodly amount of water helped as well, especially with added electrolytes. My rule was that if I didn’t feel like I was drowning inside, then it was time to drink more. I did try fenugreek herbal supplementation and Mother’s Milk tea to increase milk production. The only thing those seemed to do was make my sweat smell of maple syrup in an unpleasant way.
Is lactic acid in breast milk a concern?
Studies have found that if you work out to an exhaustive level (aka, me on group rides), your breast milk is clear of lactic acid by 90 minutes post-activity. So hold on feeding or pumping until then to be on the safe side.
What about postpartum depression?
This topic deserves its own conversation entirely, which I’ve done here.
In short, postpartum depression is real, common, and important to address. Even the most stable and mentally sound women can struggle. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period are huge adjustments and so much is happening inside your body and mind. It’s easy to lose your footing after birth. Know that you deserve to be happy, it’s possible to be happy, and it’s okay to need help getting there. I got treatment and am so grateful I did. It gave me back my sanity and joy. Talk to your doctor and know that you can safely treat your postpartum depression even if you’re breastfeeding.
How do I fit working out into my schedule as a new mom?
I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive husband and grandparents who are willing to help. Without this support, I’d have been riding the trainer with breaks every three minutes to put the pacifier back in my child’s mouth or change the setting on her swing.
But regardless of having help or not, I’d make it work in my schedule because exercise is what I need to stay sane and happy. You cannot be a good mother if you are not at least somewhat sane and happy. You must take care of yourself before you can properly care for anybody else, and that means making time to look after your health and well being. It’s not selfish. You’re not a crappy mother for having needs and trying to meet them (assuming you are not putting your baby in a cage and going for a long jog in the woods).
I fit in workouts by riding early in the morning (starting between 5-7am) with a mix of indoor and outdoor rides. Core workouts happen before and after that. Sometimes that means I’m squeezing in exercises while doing activity mat playtime with my daughter. She doesn’t give two shits if I’m doing bridges with my abs if I’m also wiggling her feet around with my spare hand. It may take five short sessions to accomplish what I could do in one pass before, but that is a balancing act that’s worth it so we are both happy.
Also, pumping helped. Being able to make bottles so other people could feed my kid was a huge help. Pumping is a pain in the ass for sure, but it buys you a lot more freedom and flexibility. Plus you can schedule pumping and know when you’re on tap next, whereas a baby’s appetite can be much more unpredictable.
I’m tired and don’t feel great. Should I take today off from exercising?
You can be kind to yourself when the fatigue and change is just too much, but really it’s probably going to make you feel better if you get up and move, even just a little. You are going to be tired — that is the nature of having a new baby — but just keep pushing through it and take it one hour at a time. Nap when you can. Or don’t. I wanted to slap people that told me to “nap when the baby naps” because I had other shit to do and also just wanted a few minutes to myself. Expect to be tired, because that’s your reality for now, but know that you can exercise through it and that the endorphins will actually perk you up.
My weight is close to my pre-pregnancy size, but I still have a belly pouch that makes me look pregnant. What is going on?
You may have diastasis recti (DR), which is a separation between your six-pack muscles. You can Google this for a lot more information on the subject. I spent roughly 86% of my waking hours reading these resources trying to figure out why the hell my belly was still poking out. (Did somebody accidentally leave the placenta in there? Maybe a ball of surgical gauze?) When I did the at-home self-test for DR, I was horrified to see just how many fingers I could fit into that separation. I could have hidden a chipmunk in the gap. No wonder my insides were slumping out.
How do I fix diastasis recti?
I started by trying various things I read on the Internet, which is always an effective treatment plan for any medical issue. When, shockingly, that didn’t fix the problem quickly, I started to work with a physical therapist who specializes in DR recovery. She gave me very specific exercises to do several times a day (none of which were crunches, which are basically the worse thing you can do for DR). Between doing those for months, working with her for abdominal massage to release adhesions and tight tissue, and the good old passage of time, my abs seem to be on their way to recovery. The end state remains to be seen, but I suspect it will be less like my “before” than preferable. It turns out growing and birthing a person is not a process without physical consequences.
When will my stretch marks go away?
Maybe never. They will eventually fade and be less noticeable. More importantly, you will start to care much less about them in time. I literally wept over the stretch marks that popped up around my bellybutton at 38 weeks along and now, while they only look marginally better, I hardly give them a thought.
When will my period come back?
Probably a few months after you stop breastfeeding or pumping, but this is very personal and different for everybody. Mine arrived two months after I stopped pumping, lasted for five days, and then didn’t come back for nearly 40 days.
Periods for athletes are always a weird business in terms of regularity, flow, and physical impact. Pregnancy adds in a whole other variable, so it’s really hard to guess what your body will do postpartum. My first period was terrible; I bled out intensely for three days and felt awful, both in life and training. My second period was less in terms of intensity and duration, but still pretty horrid for two days. The good part is that it seemed to impact my training less. I still felt miserable, but did so while riding decently well. Now everything down there functions like it did pre-baby.
Will I get a massive fitness boost from pregnancy?
I don’t know. There is some scientific literature about this, but I haven’t read much of it because the answer didn’t matter. Either I would or wouldn’t, but the goal of having a baby wasn’t to get fitter, it was to have a baby. Plus I didn’t want to learn anything that would temper the vague hope that I would get a boost. Better to just smile when people would talk about “mommy watts” and assume maybe that’s a real thing.
Surely there are physiological adaptations around pregnancy that can help athletes. Increased blood volume, for one. But on the flip side, training takes a hit for the better part of a year, you put on weight, your body is very busy doing non-athletic things, and caring for a newborn is physically exhausting. So who knows what the net impact is?
I can’t really compare my numbers from fitness testing today to fitness testing before pregnancy because too many things have changed – I have almost two years of riding and training under my belt, along with pregnancy. My body composition is different. Even my approach to suffering is different.
The one boost I can promise you’ll get is mental — pain and struggle in sport will seem more manageable when you think about how hard it was to grow, birth, and raise a human. When things get tough on the bike now, I try to think about how hard I had to fight to stay strong through pregnancy and birth, and then what I’m facing now seems easier. (“You think this hill is hard? Try staying up all night with a newborn somebody just cut out of your body.”) I have a new appreciation for what my body can do, and how mentally tough I can be when called upon to stay strong.
Also, there is no prize you will ever win in sport that compares to your baby. In the back of your mind forevermore, you will know that while your sport and training matter, they don’t matter as much as your kid. I have a more relaxed approach to racing now; that’s not to say I suffer or fight any less, but rather that I have a new perspective. Family matters more than anything, and when my kid is smiling at the finish line, it will always feel a little like I’ve won.