MotherRunners (w/ UPDATE)

by Stacey

Thanks to MotherTalkers for the tip and title of this post.

Most women who exercise vigorously cut back somewhat during pregnancy, both to be cautious and because energy reserves go toward the growing fetus. But what if it’s your job to exercise? This was the case for Paula Radcliffe, a British distance runner who holds the world record in the women’s marathon. According to this article in the NY Times, Radcliffe ran all throughout her pregnancy last year, including the day before she gave birth to a healthy baby girl in January. Less than two weeks later, she was back out running.

Her experience is a rare one, says James Pivarnik, director of the Human Energy Research Laboratory at Michigan State University and one of the few scientists who have studied athletes during and after pregnancy. “As far as I know, no one has ever done what she’s done,” Pivarnik said.

Here is an internationally competitive athlete, at the pinnacle of her career, who continued training during pregnancy at a level most runners who are not pregnant would find daunting. For the first five months, she ran twice a day, 75 minutes in the morning and 30 to 45 minutes in the evening. Then she cut back, running an hour in the morning and riding a stationary bike at night.

Her doctor closely monitored her throughout her pregnancy, the article says. Radcliffe was instructed not to let her heart rate go above 160 beats per minute and starting at the fifth month, she had monthly ultrasounds to ensure the fetus was growing.

But doctors don’t really know how to track whether a lot of exercise might be too much for a pregnant woman. According to the article, heart-rate precautions do not have scientific backing, said Dr. Mona Shangold, director of the Center for Women’s Health and Sports Gynecology in Philadelphia, and an expert recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Gynecologists no longer recommend even monitoring a pregnant woman’s heart rate if she exercises because heart rates vary so much from pre-pregnancy levels, as do the heart rate’s responses to exercise. Instead, Dr. Shangold recommends using perceived effort as a guide and making sure that the effort remains moderate. But, she said, there are no rigorous studies to back that up, leaving doctors to go more on hunches than science, the article says.

Other experts say ultrasound scans, in contrast, could be useful. The scans reveal whether a fetus is growing normally and whether the amniotic fluid levels are appropriate. Radcliffe plans to compete on Sunday in the New York City marathon.

Like the other elite women marathoners who will be competing tomorrow, Radcliffe, 33, has talent, drive and ambition. She set the world record at the 2003 London Marathon with a time of 2 hours 15 minutes 25 seconds, a pace of 5:10 a mile over the 26.2-mile course. Her full-time job is running — she says she was running 140 miles a week at her peak in preparation for the New York race.

One question remains: Will Radcliffe be the same, better or worse in competition after pregnancy and childbirth? The answer, medical researchers say, is impossible to know, the article says. No rigorous studies have explored whether pregnancy improves or hinders the performances of elite athletes. Nor have studies asked whether exercising during pregnancy affects athletic performance later, and, if so, how much exercise.

Some may say that Radcliffe took a chance exercising so intensely during her pregnancy and they may be right. But I think it’s inspiring that she found a way to continue doing what she loves and what she’s good at. I’ll be rooting for her to win the marathon on Sunday.

UPDATE: Radcliffe won the marathon! Note the headline of this ABC news article: “Moms Rule the NYC Marathon.” Radcliffe, who is mother to baby Isla, came in first. Second place went to Gete Wami of Ethiopia who has a four-year old daughter as well. Woohoo!

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