7 Tips for Training Through Pregnancy with Sarah Piampiano
Ed. Note—in one of the more inspired uses of the past year, Sarah Piampiano and her husband Mike decided to start a family. A high-performer, on and off the race course, Sarah checks in with an account of her experience and adds some suggestions for navigating training while pregnant.
My husband and I have wanted to start a family for a long time, but we had put our plans on hold so I could see out my career as a professional triathlete. I LOVE what I do, and I have wanted the opportunity to do everything I could to maximize my opportunity within the sport before I retired. Having a baby as an elite female athlete means taking nearly a year away from proper training and competition, and that fact made it hard for me to justify trying to have a baby and come back to race given my age and the stage of my career as a professional athlete.
But then COVID hit, and we re-evaluated our plans. We both felt that the pandemic would be long, and that there wouldn’t be many opportunities to race in 2020. So, we called an audible and decided to try to start a family with the intention of coming back to race in 2021. This decision was definitely helped by the fact that I had already qualified for the Ironman World Championships in 2020, which would roll over to a qualification in 2021. Being already qualified for Kona would allow me the time to get back to peak fitness without rushing back, chasing qualification, and potentially risking injury.
And so the pregnancy journey began! We found out in June 2020 that I was pregnant while driving across the country to spend the month of July in Maine with my family. It was exciting and we could not have been more thrilled to be embarking on parenthood. I didn’t really know what to expect from pregnancy. To be honest, not many elite women (across any sport) have shared consistent accounts of their entire pregnancy journey in detail (believe me, I instagram stalked everyone I knew who had been pregnant before), but I tried to gather as much information as I could and to be as prepared as possible for what was to come. One of the best resources I found was a book called “Exercising Through Pregnancy” by James Clapp, M.D., and Catherine Cram, M.S. The book explains many of the physiological changes I could expect in my body (such as higher respiratory rate, resting pulse rate, and changes in blood volume, for example). I also enjoyed reading the blogs written by Laura King and Sonya Looney, who gave excellent and helpful accounts of their own experiences with pregnancy. Laura had a vastly different pregnancy experience from me (for example, she was able to maintain her watts on the bike at a level closer to her normal power, whereas mine have declined significantly. She also had to stop running early on in her pregnancy, whereas I have been able to run all the way through mine), but I felt like I gained a lot from reading her blog and also felt inspired by her approach. My takeaway? Find as many resources that speak to you and read them all!
I know some women love being pregnant, but if I am honest, I can’t say that it has been my favorite thing. Yes, Mike and I are incredibly excited (if not a little terrified) of becoming parents, but the process of being pregnant just hasn’t been that fun. Every trimester has brought its own challenges to navigate. During the first trimester I felt terrible ALL. THE. TIME. I was exhausted, nauseous, had crazy food aversions, and the physiological changes I was experiencing were weird and hard to get used to, particularly as they related to training. During the second trimester the nausea and food aversions went away, and my energy returned, but I still only felt average-at-best on a good day, and it was hard for me to get accustomed to the ups and downs of a given day of training. I struggled with my legs going numb on the bike and massive heart rate spikes that would stop me in my tracks, whether in the pool, on the bike, or out running. Some days I would feel normal and other days I could hardly ride 70 watts, which made me self-conscious and anxious to make training dates with friends. And in the third trimester I just felt….well….big. You’ve got this big belly, 20+ lbs of extra weight, regularly disrupted sleep and all kinds of aches and pains.
Despite my personal discomfort, I think sharing our journeys through pregnancy is important because it’s comforting and reassuring to know someone else has experienced some of the same things. Pregnancy is a whole unknown world and, as an athlete, navigating it while also trying to stay active brings ups and downs that non-athletes may not experience. I think sharing the pregnancy experience also helps others prepare mentally for what is to come, and to have a better grasp on what happens to a woman’s body during pregnancy. True, not everyone will experience the same thing, but the more we all share, the more often other women will be able to find the answers they are searching for.
I also think seeing other women doing exceptional things can be empowering and inspiring. There is such a stigma around women and pregnancy and a belief that pregnant women’s bodies are not capable during pregnancy. But in fact, it is amazing what the female body CAN do while pregnant. No, we may not be able to exert ourselves to the same level as we are used to, but we are also so much MORE ABLE than what one might expect or think. As I thought about my own approach to pregnancy, my primary singular goal was to have a healthy baby. But in the process I also wanted to try to keep myself healthy and keep moving as much as possible. I am someone that LOVES to move. Running is my form of meditation. I also love to ride my bike, find adventure, and explore new places. I love to hike and kayak, SUP and ski. As I wandered into this unknown territory of pregnancy, however, I really tried to keep an open mind about what that all might look like. I’ve seen some women absolutely CRUSH training during pregnancy, while other women haven’t felt great took a less active approach.
I definitely went into pregnancy with no intention of trying to “crush” training. In fact, for me personally, I wanted to take the opportunity to enjoy the time away from the rigidity of my typical training schedule. Yes, I wanted to stay active, but in a way that allowed for other interests to prevail. My overall feeling was that as a professional athlete I put a huge physical and mental demand on my body, and pregnancy presented a wonderful opportunity to rest, recharge, and spend time with people I don’t normally get to see when I am in full training mode. That didn’t mean being a couch potato, but it did mean that I wanted to have a lot of flexibility in my schedule and approach.
Despite my desire to take this relaxed approach, however, one thing that I realized is how much I enjoy having a structured plan. Although I wasn’t preparing to compete, I liked having a specific intention each day and something on my calendar to motivate me on the days when I wasn’t feeling it. So I did actually follow a plan for much of my pregnancy. I had not expected this, but it turned out to be what felt right. We allowed for flexibility, though. I’d move days around and add things in that I wanted to do, like hikes or trail runs or bike rides. I didn’t feel like I needed to do exactly what the plan said, yet I still loved having something to refer to.
When I hit the 8-month mark it really didn’t make sense for my coach to spend the time writing out sessions for me anymore. From about 32 weeks on I would wake up in the morning, decide what felt right and take it from there. Often the duration of my rides and runs were determined on the fly as I did self-checks on how I was feeling. Some days I’d plan on riding an hour and it would be three, and on other days I’d want to run for an hour and run for 20-30 minutes. I’ve consistently tried to swim three to four times per week, attending a local Masters Swimming program.
On the whole, from the start of the second trimester up through the end of my pregnancy (I am writing this blog with just a few days from my due date), 15 hours of exercise has been the right amount for me each week. I feel really proud of how I maintained a regime, have taken the ups and downs in stride, and kept some forward momentum, all while allowing for other aspects of my life to take priority. My goal was never to follow a full training plan, or to exercise to the point of exhaustion. But I loved continuing to push my body when it felt right. And while 15 hours per week may seem like a lot to many people, I think it is important to keep it in context. In a normal training week, I typically train anywhere from 28-32 hours, with a lot of intensity sprinkled in across swim, bike and run. Training 15 hours is roughly 50% my typical volume in hours, and my intensity is a fraction of what it normally is. So both volume and intensity have been dramatically reduced.
One of the things that I found most interesting in this process is how my body guided me to what was right. A few times, particularly later in my pregnancy, I rode a bit too long or ran a bit too far, and my body let me know it. For example, even now, at 39+ weeks pregnant, I can still ride for two-to-two-and-a-half hours on the bike and feel great, but if I ride for three hours - just 30 minutes more - I feel worn out and exhausted for days. Similarly, I can still run for up to one hour, but when I have tried to extend my run to 70 or 75 minutes, those ten extra minutes makes my pelvis sore and my whole body exhausted, and it takes me three days to recover. If I do a “long” ride (aka two plus hours AND try to add in intensity), it is too much. Any intensity has to be combined with shorter ride/run durations.
I also found that setting goals throughout pregnancy was really important for me. Having something to strive towards shook up my training and made it more rewarding. My approach, however, was that if I achieved my goal - GREAT. But if I didn’t, that was ok too. For me, it was more about just trying. Pushing myself a bit. Trying to see what my body was capable of. One of the goals I set, for example, was to run a marathon during pregnancy. I had no goal time; I just wanted to complete the distance. And I’m proud to announce that at 17 weeks pregnant I ran a marathon! I also had a goal of riding 100 miles at some point, but 80 miles turned out to be about my limit, and I never reached that 100-mile ride goal. That was ok! See the above point about listening to your body. As I got later in pregnancy, my goals became more about trying to maintain consistency in my training. For example, I set a goal one week of simply going to all the swim slots I had signed up for versus skipping some. This aim turned out to be a great goal that actually helped me break a habit I’d fallen into of missing swim sessions.
From a dietary perspective I can say that I had one plan: eat what I craved. I figured my body would crave what it needed, and so I needed to honor that. And I have. I did put a real emphasis on protein intake, because it is important to get enough during pregnancy, but outside of actively working to get enough protein each day, I just ate what I wanted. I found both my cravings and how much I ate went in waves. Some days I’d feel less hungry, and others I was a bottomless pit. Some weeks I’d be craving pasta, others cake, others I just wanted dairy (whole milk in particular). I found during the first trimester I had a lot of food aversions (meat, vegetables, nut butters, nuts and seeds all sounded SO GROSS). During the 2nd trimester I actually ate pretty normally, but towards the end of that trimester I started craving carbs and dairy. In fact, I’ve craved milk so much that my husband started buying me my own half gallon of milk each week so that I could just drink it right out of the carton!
From an emotional aspect, I will say that becoming a parent terrifies me a bit. Mike (my husband) is as excited and as calm as can be, but I’m an extremely independent person. I value time to myself each day. I love traveling for races all over the world, and being able to pick up and go to a training camp at any time. And I have loved being able to commit myself 100% to my sport. While I absolutely want to become a parent and am beyond excited, I admit that I also have a lot of anxiety about it. Insecurities around how well I will be a parent, and a great partner to my husband, AND maintain my independence and individual space, AND achieve my goals athletically are very real and present for me. It is intimidating. I know it can be done: there are some really amazing professional female athletes that have shown what is possible (and, quite frankly, have been the reason I felt empowered to follow this path), but the prospect still intimidates me. I like to think of myself as dynamic and flexible, able to adjust to most circumstances, but I know parenthood will test me in new ways. I also believe that it will ultimately help me grow as a person, but the unknown and the feeling of lack-of-preparedness is tough for me at the moment. As my due date has approached, I’ve realized that staying committed to fulfilling my own needs (like time to myself each day) will be important to maintaining a healthy balance for myself and my family.
As I look back over the last ten months, my biggest advice for anyone who is active and pregnant is:
- Be kind to yourself during pregnancy and don’t compare your journey to anyone else; always take confidence in doing what is right for YOU.
- Free yourself of expectations on what you think you should be doing, and allow yourself to go with the flow. I found that setting no expectations allowed me to enjoy and celebrate what I was able to do.
- Set goals that can inspire you, but be ok if you don’t accomplish them. Let them be a guide and source of motivation versus a benchmark to gauge success or failure.
- Feel out what feels right for your body. You’ll be surprised just how much feedback your body will give you and let you know what is ok versus what is not.
- LISTEN to your body. Realize that your priority is creating a healthy baby, and trying to push beyond what feels right may not be the right thing to do.
- Ask questions of people around you. I relied a lot on the experiences of my pregnant athlete friends to help navigate my pregnancy.
- Understand your risk level. As you get later in pregnancy your center of gravity shifts and balance is off. Be smart about how you approach things like riding outdoors or running on trails.
So here comes a grand new adventure. Excitement. Fear. Love. Anticipation. I am feeling all the things. Once the baby arrives, I’ll be writing another blog about the post-partum experience and my comeback, so stay tuned! And to all the pregnant athletes out there, please feel free to reach out if you have ANY questions. I’m more than happy to share my experience!
Sarah can be reached on her Instagram account, @spiampiano