Not long ago, women were advised not to exercise while pregnant. Conventional wisdom in the early 1980s dictated that pregnancy was an occasion to relax, for women to be as sedentary as possible and to eat as much as they wanted, according to Dr. Raul Artal. And he would know.
Artal was tasked by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to write the first guidelines for exercise and pregnancy in 1982, and much has changed since then. Recent studies led by Artal, a professor and chair emeritus at Saint Louis University’s Department of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Women’s Health, have revealed that physical activity during pregnancy is not only allowed, but also beneficial to mothers.
It’s a development that still has its skeptics but one that has been given a boost by elite female athletes like professional runner Sarah Brown, who gave birth last Friday after training throughout her pregnancy and is now set to compete at the Olympic Trials in July.
“Initially, we approached the guidelines with much caution,” Artal said. “Over the years, it progressed to where we said, ‘It’s okay to exercise in pregnancy.’ It was not until this past year that we said, ‘It’s also okay to engage in vigorous, intensive exercise, provided there are no complications of pregnancy.’”
Brown, 29, was not planning on getting pregnant. Well, at least not yet. An Olympic hopeful, the Warrenton, Va. resident and former All-Met Athlete of the Year in outdoor track was on pace for the best season of her career by early summer last year.
She had set personal bests at 800-meters and 1500-meters, and felt her career was on the right path after several injury-filled seasons. The positive results and good feelings did not last long.
“All of sudden, it was literally like I had kind of went off a cliff,” Brown said of her subpar results later that summer in Europe. “I was running really well and it was just like, it was like I drove myself off a cliff and all of a sudden my races just were terrible, absolutely terrible.”
Perhaps it was just mental fatigue, thought Brown (nee: Bowman) and her husband, Darren.
A blood test later revealed that she was pregnant. Brown was in a state of disbelief upon receiving the news, and not just because she was on an intrauterine device for birth control. (An earlier pregnancy test had turned out negative.) Brown’s late March due date meant that she would only have about three months to train for the Olympic Trials after giving birth.
“I was relieved because I finally at least understood what was going on,” Brown said. “But I was also really scared. …I knew that having an IUD and being pregnant were not really good things to be having. I couldn’t even focus on the running aspect. It became like a health issue – the safety of the baby, the safety of me.”
Once doctors reassured her that it would be fine to exercise and that the baby appeared healthy, Brown, a nine-time all-American at Tennessee, wasted no time getting back on the track. There was no doubt in her mind that she would be training through her pregnancy. She is a runner, and she knew, one way or another, she was going to run.
Brown’s husband, who also doubles as her coach, came up with the training schedule. She would do some form of exercise seven days a week and usually twice a day. She ran up to five times a week.
On Mondays, Brown would go on a 10-12 mile run. Her heart rate would hover around 75-80 percent of her max, which equated to 175-180 beats per minute. The pace of her runs would be approximately six minutes per mile.
“There was a theme: ‘You’ll know if you’re doing too much’ and I never felt like I was putting myself in a position that I was doing that,” Brown said. “I monitor my body temperature before I start a workout, sometimes mid-work out, after the workout, just making sure I’m doing the right things and making sure I’m getting enough water.”
The second trimester proved to be the most difficult for Brown. Around the 21st week, Brown experienced muscle spasms, which forced her to work on her cross training. But by the third trimester, Brown was back on the track, running sprints with what she said felt like “a bowling ball on my stomach.”
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@thedarrenbrown kicked off my 37th week of #pregnancy with a REMIX (Random Endurance MIX) #workout today. Let me be clear though, there's nothing "random" about it. He's incredibly calculated. However, I never quite know what I'm going to get with one of these sessions. Sometimes I think he does it just to test my #mentalstrength … Wait a second!?!? 😜 Today's session called for: 2mi warm-up 2mi Track Tempo .5mi jog to "the hill" 6x250m hill loops .5mi jog back to the track 4×400 2mi cool down The first twist in the day came before the #workout even started. I usually do a longer warm-up, but as we were about to pass the #track to finish out the "usual loop", Darren motioned me up onto the track and said we are going to start the workout with a 2mi Tempo. Sometimes outside circumstances cause things to be less than "usual" or ideal on race-day. We do things like this occasionally to prepare for those UNusual moments. If you have a coach or workout partner, have them test you from time to time with little things. Unknown intervals, misplaced water bottle (if it's not too hot!), "lost" watch (causing you to run by feel), late start/early start etc. While it will be tough in the moment, it'll help you to stay composed and dismiss the little (or big) things that may happen on #race day. Despite the truncated workout, unknown interval structure and mixed track/road/hill session, I definitely considered today a #success … mentally AND physically! @nbrunning @newbalance #36weeks #road2trio #bteam #fitpregnancy #momtobe #preggo
Brown said she is encouraged by those before her who have had successful professional running careers after the birth of their child. Fellow pros Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, Sara Slattery, Alysia Montaño, Sara Ensrud Vaughn and Julia Webb all served as inspirations who helped drown out the negative comments Brown said she sometimes read or overheard about her decision to train.
“I think it’s great what she’s doing,” said Montaño, who famously competed July 2014 in an 800-meter race while 34 weeks pregnant. “I’m hopeful that she will be, and I hope that I was, an inspiration for pregnant women and families who are pursuing running and a family.”
To Artal, people like Brown can help encourage more women to exercise during pregnancy. It’s something his research has shown is associated with limited risk and plenty of benefits, partially due to the frequent access to medical supervision that women have during pregnancy.
“I think it’s a positive message,” he said. “Women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises.”
Welcome to the world Abigail Ann Brown! 5lb 15oz and 21″ of pure grit & fight. Mom & baby girl are doing great. pic.twitter.com/f5jLCnbHbc
— Darren Brown (@TheDarrenBrown) March 4, 2016
Friday morning, the Browns welcomed their daughter, Abigail Ann Brown, into the world nearly three weeks earlier than expected. Brown and her husband will take some time off to focus their attention on their newborn before figuring out the training schedule.
After one phase of the unexpected journey has ended, Brown is ready for the next challenge — one that she hopes will yield life lessons for her daughter.
“The message that I’d like her to get from all this is just to not be afraid to be yourself out there and go after a dream or a goal that you have,” Brown said, “no matter what other people might say about that.”