As an active woman, I have visualised many times experiencing a truly Instagram-worthy active pregnancy… picturing my regular self, running races, just with a cute little bump on the front.
Documenting this fantasy active pregnancy was in fact my original reason for wanting to start a blog. Unfortunately, I suffered a miscarriage and instead I started This Vet Runs to share about my experiences of how a return to running and exercise helped me cope with that loss (read my first ever post here).
So, when I found out I was pregnant in June this year I was excited to rekindle a little of that dream – although pregnancy after loss is filled with a lot less naivety, and a lot more worry. When you have had insight into just how painful pregnancy loss or infertility is, pregnancy after loss also brings a huge amount of guilt. It has been hard to know how to write about the highs or the lows of this pregnancy knowing the sadness it could cause somebody else to read it.
But I shared my experiences of pregnancy loss honestly. So, I think it is ok to share the challenges pregnancy has brought with it, and it doesn’t mean I don’t feel lucky every moment to be facing them.
Spoiler alert: I haven’t had the active pregnancy I hoped for. In fact, I’ve been more debilitated than I have ever experienced. When you’re used to running marathons, it is pretty hard to cope with this mentally, which is why I wanted to write about it as I know I am not the only active woman to have found coping with an inactive pregnancy really, really tough.
Coping with fatigue and sickness
Pregnancy affects everyone completely differently, even right from the start. Although this is a blog about coping with not being able to be as active as I’d hoped – looking back now I can see how lucky I was to be able to do everything I did in the first trimester.
I started working with my incredible running coach Jen Scotney the day before I found out I was pregnant – which involved changing the goals fairly immediately! Having never had the chance to work with a coach before, there was a tinge of disappointment that this experience would look very different to what we’d planned (a 5K PB!). But in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened.
I had a training plan, which gave me accountability. We trained according to heart rate, which would always have involved a massive drop in pace whilst I built my base fitness and learnt to run at a low heart rate (which helped ease my anxiety around strenuous exercise and pregnancy). It also meant I had someone to talk to about running and pregnancy long before we had told anybody else – and most importantly, that person was supportive.
Staying active when you are exhausted and nauseous is really, really hard. For some people who experience these symptoms really badly, it is quite simply impossible – the priority may shift to simply getting through each day; and there is the first learning:
Your goals have changed. The only goal is to stay as strong and healthy as you can, to support your baby to stay as strong and healthy as they can.
This will end up meaning completely different things to different people. With Jen’s help I was able to run throughout my first trimester and found that as hard as it was getting out the door, it was the thing that helped my sickness and fatigue the most. I even completed a lovely, slow Blenheim triathlon at 15 weeks – which will always be a special memory knowing my baby was there too.
I am so grateful for the time I was able to do this, and I know that my body is stronger now for it – even if I couldn’t carry on as long as I’d hoped.
Coping with anxiety, external pressure, and knowing what is ‘best’
There is a whole heap of evidence that says staying active is beneficial for both you and your baby during pregnancy, although how ‘active’ is defined differs. However, culturally we still battle against exercise being seen as inappropriate, unnecessary or even dangerous during pregnant. I did a lot of research, took advice, and adjusted my goals accordingly. But it is still hard, and one of the reasons that I didn’t in the end feel comfortable writing about my exercise during pregnancy until a long way down the line – if something did go wrong, would people think it was my fault? And worse, would they write it publicly on social media?
However active you were before pregnancy, there is a mental shift – and you need to do what is right for you. Maybe you always imagined running races during pregnancy, but actually you don’t want to even if you’re physically ok: that is totally ok.
When you decide is right for you (and prepare for the plan to change!), make sure you surround yourself with people who support you in those goals.
I imagine it was hard for my parents to come and watch me at Blenheim triathlon one week after telling them about the pregnancy – particularly after a previous loss. But I am very grateful that if they were worried, they never said a word and neither did my partner.
Coping when your body says no before your brain does
Around the 17 week mark, having had approximately 4 blissful weeks when the fatigue and sickness had eased (I was lucky, this doesn’t happen for everyone!), I headed out for a slow run. I had been looking forward to the second trimester, as I’d read about this magical time where the first trimester symptoms fade, and your body begins to adapt for the strains of pregnancy (increasing your blood volume and heart rate) but before you actually experience those strains: some people feel amazing and can actually run PBs!
A few minutes into my very slow warm-up I began to feel pain somewhere I’d never even been aware of before (turns out it was my pelvic floor). A few more minutes later as it continued to worsen I realised I needed to stop. I walked all the way home sobbing unashamedly down the street, giving my poor fiancé a bit of a scare when I got through the door:
“I couldn’t do it! I don’t think I can run anymore”
“But Nat, you’re pregnant”
“So??” Lots more sobbing.
This was a hugely difficult moment for me. In fact (and it might be my hormones) it’s made me tear up just writing about it! This was indeed the last run of my pregnancy. What made it even more difficult to cope with was the fact that nobody else was really that bothered, be it my friends and family or the NHS physio who suggested that it seemed sensible to just stop running if it was painful.
I didn’t know at the time that by 20 weeks, despite being very careful and doing minimal exercise, I would go on to develop marked pelvic girdle pain making it hard to walk, put on my own shoes, or get out of a chair unaided.
Not being able to run turned out to be the least of it. But I’ll never forget how hard it was that first moment that my body said no, when my head still felt like me. Whatever stage of pregnancy this happens, it is a really big deal to cope with.
Coping with the loss in identity
I never wrote about the exercise I did in the first trimester, because it felt too early to tell anybody on social media about the pregnancy. Then in the end I couldn’t write about exercise in the rest of the pregnancy because in general it hasn’t been possible for me. So, for the second time I’ve let go of my Instagram-pregnancy. Which is probably a good thing, as I am sure I won’t be an Instagram Mum either!
As an active and independent woman, coping with pelvic girdle pain has been very difficult. I have gone from running marathons to having to ask for help to get my wellies on to walk the dog (which I’m grateful to still be able to do, as long as I take little steps and get straight in a warm bath afterwards!). Being in tier 3 means the only way I can meet up with a friend or family members is outdoors in a public setting, so the idea of not being able to walk at all is extremely daunting. Covid-19 hasn’t made life any easier.
Pregnancy has given me a small insight into the impact of chronic pain, and the isolation and frustration of being physically impaired. The chance to walk (or shuffle) in someone else’s shoes is always a privilege, however hard it may be.
I know that becoming a mother will be another huge shift in identity. For me, finding myself so physically impaired, and losing that part of my identity, is maybe the first step in preparing for motherhood.
Celebrating different successes
At each stage, I have had to reassess where I am. To be honest, being pregnant in a pandemic has meant a constant re-thinking of how I imagined pregnancy – and life generally – would look. Once you have the chance to grieve each loss (be it seeing your times slip or not being able to do any strenuous exercise at all), there are new things to celebrate.
I had imagined it would be sensible for me to pack my Garmin away so I didn’t wallow in misery seeing all my stats go down the drain. However, with the strain my body is under and my increased heart rate my Garmin counts any walking I do as intense exercise – which I find very pleasing. Nowadays I am always out of breath walking around, so I like to think that it is equivalent to running anyway and pat myself on the back.
I’ve been too low about my physical capabilities to want to write about exercise, but today I got home from the pool (the one place where I feel comfortable, which has opened again after the November lockdown) having swum an epic 50 lengths at 28 weeks pregnant. I feel like an absolute champion, and so I decided it was time to sit down to write this.
I’m very proud of all I have achieved during my pregnancy, and I know that what my body can cope with is likely to change again several times over the next 12 weeks.
If you are an active woman struggling with the loss of your ‘active self’, then I hope this offers some sympathy and some solidarity; if you have been comparing yourself to active pregnant women on social media I hope this offers a more realistic perspective; and if you’re an active women who is managing to stay active – I salute you! Enjoy it. Wherever you are in your journey, you’re doing simply amazing.
Written before National Lockdown when the pool was still open. Once again pools are shut and swimming is no longer an option for me. I hope very much I have the chance to get back during my pregnancy!