Should Pregnant Women Run Marathons?

Is it safe to run when you're expecting?Is it safe to run when you're expecting?When a woman becomes pregnant, it's no surprise she may have to give up some of her normal habits. Last weekend, Kate Middleton was the center of some pregnancy criticism after fashioning a pair of heels for the St. Patrick's Day parade, begging the question of whether or not pregnant women should even wear heels. On the other hand, we're seeing less women slowing down--women are now encouraged to remain physically active throughout their pregnancy. So where should moms-to-be draw the line?

Somewhere along the way, we went from running for fitness and health to training and completing long distance races. The "I am woman, watch me race" mentality is celebrated in our culture. When the woman in question is expecting, like the mother who ran Chicago in 2011 while nine months pregnant, she can attract lots of media attention. But this is not the time to prove we can run a marathon. This is also not the time to prove how strong and wise we are. It's the time to adjust our goals, focus inward, and train for delivery and our new lives as running mothers.

It's not that we can't do it, we can--but at what cost? This is the time in our lives when we learn what it means to put our goals second to the needs of our baby. Once the baby arrives, you begin to heal, create your new life schedule, and get back to running for yourself. (Related: Are you at-risk for Post-Partum Running?)

Don't get us wrong--we're not saying running while pregnant is a no-no. But there's a tipping point at which you have to ask yourself, "Why am I really doing this marathon?" If the answer is, "Because I've already paid," "it's been on my bucket list," "it will keep me motivated," "I'm in shape for it," or "I want the shirt"--you are more focused on your goals not your team's goals (you and baby that is).

Many elite runners complete half-marathons without injury or harm to the baby, but it's important to understand that a light effort for them is an impossibility for most of us. An elite female runner can cover 6 miles in 42 minutes or faster and hardly break a sweat. Not to mention this is what they do for a living. They run 120 miles per week, so when they run 60 miles per week pregnant, they are cutting back 50%! Still, elite or not, every runner is vulnerable to injuries from overtraining--you could accidentally injure your pelvis and be forced to stop running until the baby arrives.

There's a limit to what we can do as women and mothers. Adjusting your running doesn't mean you're weaker than or less than, it means you're a wise running and soon-to-be active role model.

Related: Are Women Runners Less Competitive Than Men?

It's not the time to train for you. It's the time to train for two. Your body goes through many changes while pregnant. One of them is the release of the hormone relaxin, which relaxes pelvic ligaments to allow for the growth and delivery of the baby. If you've been running, continuing to run is generally safe as your body is used to the demands and impact forces. But there is a mileage point at which you are at more risk for injury as you progress through the pregnancy. This can't be easily defined for any woman, but it is safe to say that training and long-distance racing goes well beyond this point. It can be done, but as you increase the time, distance, and intensity, you also increase the impact forces as well as the risk of injury to your body and the baby. (Here's a safer way to stay fit while pregnant: 5 Fitness Tweaks for When You're Expecting.)

It's relative, as every woman's journey to motherhood varies based on her fitness, health, the variables of the pregnancy, her running form, and more. Plus, no two pregnancies are ever the same. A woman can run all the way through her first pregnancy, and walk-run through the second. The importance here is in understanding the purpose of running through pregnancy. That is--for your health, fitness, and strength, and ultimately for the health and safety of your baby.

We're not going back to the days where running and exercise weren't considered safe during pregnancy, but we do need to better define our limits--because we can't have it all at the same time.

There are a lot of demands on our bodies when we are growing a child. In essence it is similar to that of the demands of training for a marathon, in that it progresses throughout the nine months and gets more challenging as you go. As the baby grows, your heart rate increases to deliver the oxygen to you and the little one, your center of gravity and pelvis shift as does your running form, and your body grows stronger to support the little one as you move through your every day life.

When you shift your goal from race finish to delivery date, you also modify your training routine to include shorter, high-quality running workouts, low-impact cross-training (elliptical), total body strengthening, kegels, and flexibility. And over time, most runners adjust their normal runs to run-walks, then walk-runs, and finally walks. Just like marathoning, when you train to specificity and by your body, your performance improves.

More: Run Your First 10-K!

The bottom line is, you should alter your fitness routine when you're pregnant. Create a new race date--your delivery date. And everything that goes into your running and fitness plan is about balance, going by how you feel, adjusting as you progress through the trimesters, fueling for life, and keeping an open mind. As your training progresses, you'll gain or maintain fitness and strength as the baby grows.

It may seem like you're losing fitness because your normal pace becomes quite challenging, but think about it: You're carrying the weight of the baby plus all the physiological demands that help the little one grow. It is a little like running with a weighted pack. Your normal easy effort three mile run at 10 minute pace is going to eventually feel like a speed workout because of the demands on your body.

You're not losing fitness, you're gaining it, and no watch will tell you that. Your body will during your delivery, your recovery, and as you get back into running again post-pregnancy. It's more important to have a balanced fitness routine than to reach a finish line. There are plenty of those to cross post-baby and you'll have a new fan waiting for you on the sidelines.

--By Jenny Hadfield, certified personal trainer and coach with a Bachelor's Degree in Education and Health Promotion and a Masters Degree in Exercise Science.

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