Good Content from: Saucony Athlete, Sarah Piampiano
As an elite female athlete trying to determine when to have a baby can be very challenging. Unlike other jobs where women can continue to work right up until the birth of their child, becoming pregnant as an elite athlete means being out of competition for anywhere from 9-13 months, and then a return to top form takes more time. Women do it and it is INCREDIBLE, but it is also why a decision to have a baby while still competing can be hard for some women to make for a variety of reasons.
When COVID-19 hit and races were postponed, my husband and I quickly realized a unique opportunity was in front of us. With no racing on the calendar, we decided to try to take advantage and have a baby. I am now 7 months pregnant and due at the end of February. I will have missed very few competitions during my pregnancy and likely will be coming back into form on a similar timeline to races opening back up. It leaves me plenty of time, too, to be primed to compete at the 2021 Ironman World Championships in October, which is the pinnacle race in the sport of long-distance triathlon.
The pregnancy journey for female athletes – whether elite or not – is not talked about enough, and I’ve been motivated to share mine. While every woman’s experience is different, I think hearing about shared feelings, symptoms, and training goals can help us feel more comfortable with a time that is filled with so many unknowns and questions.
With Saucony, I’ll be doing a pregnancy blog series talking about each trimester of my pregnancy, including how I felt, what my training looked like, my diet and more. I hope you find it useful!
1st Trimester – Week 1 through Week 12
Goal – Stay active and healthy
Hours Per Week:
Planned: 15-20 hours (I typically train 28-35 hours per week)
Actual: 4-8 hours
I knew going into my pregnancy that it was important for me to stay active, fit and healthy, but I also wanted to do what felt right and natural. I didn’t want to get stuck on the number of training hours or targeting a certain number of days of intensity. However, I also recognize that I am someone that really loves a structured training plan, so it was important to me to try to maintain some loose structure in my daily activity.
As soon a I found out I was pregnant I called my coach, Matt Dixon of Purple Patch Fitness, to come up with a game plan. We were very aligned in our goal: keep moving, and stay healthy, but this was not a time to be progressing fitness or setting performance goals. We agreed that Matt would continue to set a weekly plan, but with a caveat of total flexibility. We also decided to be extremely cautious during the first trimester, and agreed that my rides would be limited to no more than 2 hours, and runs wouldn’t be over 75 minutes. Effort would be strictly aerobic base training.
Despite our best intention, as it turns out, I hardly trained at all between weeks 4 and 11. Although I never threw up, I was very nauseous and overwhelmingly tired. Do you ever have that feeling of exhaustion when you wake up from a deep sleep and you body feels so heavy you don’t even feel like you could lift your head off the pillow? That was how I felt ALL. THE. TIME. Between the exhaustion and the nausea my training plan went out the door. For those 7 weeks, I simply did what I felt I could handle each day. My energy was always best first thing in the morning, and running felt pretty good, so I was able to consistently run 4-5 times per week between 30 minutes and 1 hour. I found that I got winded much more easily and that my body felt more sluggish to start, but I always felt good enough to get out the door and get something done. I also found my endurance paces were 10-15 seconds per mile slower than normal, but for the most part my stride still felt good and the turnover was there.
Cycling, on the other hand, felt TERRIBLE. I felt like all of the air had been pulled out of my lungs and the energy had been zapped from my legs. A simple soft pedal stroke made me feel lactic and my heart rate would go through the roof. I never felt good riding, so it was harder for me to motivate to get out the door. Swimming, like cycling, felt awful during the first trimester, and I struggled to find the energy or motivation to get out. In short, I was on the struggle bus, and despite my best intentions to stay fit, I ended up resting more than anything.
As someone who eats a highly varied and nutrient-rich diet, being pregnant during the first trimester was one of the most bizarre experiences. NOTHING sounded good to me. The idea of eating meat or fish made me gag. Almond or other nut butters – NO WAY. Rice cakes – nope. Vegetables – gross. Grains (oatmeal, rice, etc) – I could force it down, but it didn’t sound good.
So, with meat, fish, vegetables, nut butters and pretty much anything healthy that you can think of out the door, you might wonder what I ate? Not a whole lot.
There were a few foods that I CRAVED and so for 7 weeks, that is what I ate:
- All fruit, and citrus in particular (oranges, pineapple, berries, grapes, etc). I literally couldn’t get enough fruit. I’d eat 3-4 oranges per day
- Cottage cheese. I never knew I loved cottage cheese so much!!
- Gluten Free toast with cream cheese and tomato. For breakfast. For lunch. For snacks.
- Salted potatoes
It wasn’t the best diet, but I also was grateful that I wasn’t craving burgers and fries at all times.
I found the first trimester to be the period when I felt the worst about my body. I experienced a lot of bloating and water retention. I learned that as soon as you become pregnant your body releases a hormone that causes your blood vessels to relax to prepare for the increase in blood volume (your blood volume doubles during pregnancy). To make up for this extra “space” in your vessels, you body holds onto a lot more water, making you feel and look more puffy and bloated.
The bloating coupled with the lack of movement from not working out much didn’t make me feel good. My body felt stagnant and I generally just felt gross.
Weight is a touchy subject, but one of the commitments I made to myself during my pregnancy but to not gain an unnecessary amount of weight. Weight gain is inevitable and my primary concern is having a healthy baby, yet I didn’t want to pack on pounds just cause. I wanted to eat well and nourish both my baby and my body.
After researching and reading a lot, I learned a few things. First – about 22-25 pounds of pregnancy weight gain is associated with all things baby: larger breasts (2 lbs), larger uterus (2 lbs), the growth of the placenta (2 lbs), the size of the baby (7-8 lbs), Amniotic fluid (2 lbs), fluid retention (4 lbs), and a doubling of blood volume (4 lbs), among other things. For a healthy female, they encourage 25-30 lbs of weight gain, meaning when you take all the baby stuff out of the equation, you are looking at 5-8 pounds of added maternal fat stores, which is essential for the baby as well. Gaining too much weight can put you at risk for gestational diabetes and can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes in children later in life. On the flip side, I also read that gaining too little weight can cause complications with birth as well as negative long-term effects on the baby’s health and development. In short, I figured that gaining 25-35 lbs seemed about right. And based on what I read, that means eating approximately 300 calories per day more than normal – an added snack, but not much more.
In the initial 10 weeks I gained about 11 lbs. Then, when I began feeling better and my training picked up, I pretty quickly lost 6 pounds, which I presume was mostly water retention from the lack of movement. As I came to the end of the first trimester, I had gained 4-6 lbs over my normal race weight and about 2-4 lbs heavier than I was just pre-pregnancy.
During the majority of the first trimester my energy felt like it was at all time lows. I was exhausted, unmotivated and felt like I had just completed 5 Ironmans in a row. I slept a lot, napped a lot and lounged around doing a whole lot of nothing because even reading a book or doing a puzzle felt like an effort some days. But around week 11 that started to shift. I didn’t feel completely zonked at all hours, I was able to get out and exercise, and my nausea was improving. By the 12th week I felt like my energy was back and I slowly started bringing exercise and training back into the equation. I even started following a training plan again!
Main Pregnancy Symptoms:
Bloating/ water retention
LOTS of pee stops
VERY sore/tender breasts
In my normal training and racing I use a device called Ember, which is made by Cercacor and provides me with valuable daily metrics on resting pulse rate, oxygen saturation, hemoglobin, pulse rate variabilty and more. It has been a valuable tool for me over the past several years, and during my pregnancy, this has been no different. In fact, using the Ember throughout my pregnancy has been extremely enlightening.
For example, one of the first things that I noticed in the early weeks of my pregnancy was the jump up in my resting pulse rate. When I am very fit, my resting pulse rate is typically between 38-44 bpm. During COVID it was regularly in the 45-50 bpm range, but almost as soon as I became pregnant, my HR very quickly jumped up to 54-58 bpm.
The other thing I immediately noticed was an increase in my respiratory rate and a steep fall in pulse rate variability (PRV) (also recognized as HRV).
I’ve learned that these changes are very common. First, your body is working harder and diverting a lot of resources to creating a human, and most women see a 10-20 bpm jump in their resting HR that lasts through pregnancy. For me, this was a 6-10 bpm jump, but it was alarming to me at first, as 54+ is typical when I am extremely under-recovered.
Similarly, during pregnancy, respiratory rate increases by 50%, which means you are taking in WAY more oxygen. This is caused by the rise in the hormone progesterone, which plays an essential role in the development of a fetus, but is also a respiratory stimulant. It is why you get more winded when you work out too.
Lastly, once pregnant, your body immediately releases a hormone, which causes your blood vessels to relax in order to make room for your blood volume to eventually double. In the early stages, your blood volume hasn’t changed, so that extra “space” is filled with fluid, which is why most women feel particularly bloated in the early stages of pregnancy – water retention is high! In addition, with the extra room in your vessels, your heart has to work harder to pump adequate blood throughout the body. This causes an increase in resting heart rate, and also contributes to quickly becoming winded when working out.
The first trimester was certainly not my favorite, but as I soon found out the 2nd trimester provided its own set of challenges! Stay tuned as I will be sharing my blog on Trimester 2 soon!