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.’”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”