Why it’s OK to run when you are pregnant

Alysia Montano competing eight months pregnant in 2014Image copyright

Many top sportswomen continue training – and even competing – after they get pregnant. A new report commissioned by the International Olympic Committee confirms there are fewer risks than you might think.

On 20 March 1983, the Norwegian long-distance runner Ingrid Kristiansen took her place at the starting line of the World Cross Country Championship in Gateshead, England.

For the past couple of weeks she had been feeling a little tired, which she put down to jet lag from two recent trips to the US. She was still one of the favourites to win though, having come first in the Houston marathon a couple of months earlier.

But to her surprise, that isn’t what happened.

“The first lap I was the last of the Norwegians, and my coach didn’t understand anything,” she recalls. She managed to overtake her compatriots but still finished a disappointing 35th.

“My coach’s wife was sitting, looking at the television. And she called her husband afterwards, and she asked him, ‘Is Ingrid pregnant?’

“I think it was the way I was running. Maybe I was a little bit heavier in the upper body, I’m not sure. But she saw it.”

Kristiansen soon confirmed that she was pregnant – by almost five months. That meant she’d won the Houston marathon pregnant, with a time of two hours 33 minutes.

Female athletes often have irregular menstrual cycles, so it’s not uncommon for them to become pregnant without knowing. Over the years, at least 17 women have competed at the Olympics pregnant.

Some of them certainly knew it at the time – a memorable image from the London Games in 2012 is of the Malaysian sports shooter Nur Suryani Taini holding her air rifle over an eight-month baby bump.

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Nur Suryani Taini gained a lot of attention at the London Olympics (though sadly no medals)

The cross-country skier Marit Bjorgen, a six-time Olympic champion, attracted attention in Scandinavia last year when she attended team training camps while pregnant.

In June 2014, US news outlets ran remarkable pictures of Alysia Montano competing in the 800m quarterfinals of the US track and field championships (see the picture at the top of this article). In the UK, the media also regularly feature stories about heavily pregnant women taking part in races.

So how safe is it to train and compete while pregnant? As part of its commitment to women’s sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently called a group of experts to a meeting in Lausanne and asked them to write a report.

Their huge review is being published in five parts in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Despite the complexity of the material, the lead author’s message is simple.

“There are only a few high-quality studies into pregnancy among elite athletes or those who exercise a great deal, but it seems that many do continue to exercise during pregnancy, and it does not affect them in a negative way,” says Prof Kari Bo from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences. “It doesn’t seem to harm either the foetus or the mother.”

These athletes are no more at risk of problematic pregnancies or birth defects, though Bo says that when such things do occur people often mistakenly make a link to physical activity during pregnancy. At the same time, there is no evidence that athletes have an easier time during pregnancy or childbirth.

Historically, advice given to pregnant women relating to exercise has been muddled and speculative. For a long time exercise was simply thought to conflict with a woman’s reproductive ability. The roots of this feeling were unscientific, and more to do with gender roles than with the health of mother or baby.

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Elite athletes often feel they have to figure out what exercise they should and shouldn’t do for themeselves

But in the 1980s some researchers began to reason that the demands exercise placed on a woman’s body – in terms of oxygen, blood flow, nutrients and temperature – were similar to those made by a foetus. So if pregnant women exercised, these doctors suggested, the foetus might lose out in a battle for resources.

“In a way it’s correct,” says Bo. “But women who are athletic also have very good blood distribution, so it doesn’t seem to do any harm to the foetus, and at the same time it’s obvious that the placenta is also better nourished when you are exercising, so there’s a sort of compensation going on.”

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