Today, we are pleased to introduce Alison Barkman, an accomplished marathoner and registered dietitian who shares her story about balancing her drive to run (far!), and her desire to have a baby.
The following post was written on my blog, RunBuggy, on July 17, 2009. I was in my second trimester of my first pregnancy. Here I reflected on my struggles to conceive, and then exploring the world of being a pregnant runner. Since this post I gave birth to a healthy baby boy on October 19, 2009. I trained for and completed the Long Island Half Marathon at seven months postpartum, then the New York City Marathon a bit over 12 months postpartum. Here’s the beginning of my story as a pregnant runner, and now, a running mother!
Feet hitting the pavement. Breath is even and labored. Sweat beads forming rapidly and salt droplets at my lips. Lungs feel open and alive. Eyes smiling from sunlight, blue skies, and subtle breezes. It all feels exactly the same as it did last summer. Except this time when I run, I am running while pregnant.
I have been running for 12 years. Half-marathons are my race of choice. In 2005, I completed my first NYC marathon. The experience of running the NYC marathon was like no other. I had tears in my eyes toward the end, and a sense of pride reading about it in the NY Times the next day, knowing I was part of such an incredible race. I was ready to do another, but put things on hold to start a family. Little did I know, becoming pregnant was going to take longer than the four months I devoted to train for the marathon.
Each year since 2005 that I contemplated training for another marathon. Then I thought, no, this could be the year we get pregnant. There is no solid scientific evidence that running decreases fertility. But I still heard that inner voice telling me the wear-and-tear of training may interfere with my chances of getting pregnant. Not to mention my mother saying I need to get my priorities in order! There will be plenty of time in my life for more marathons; maybe now is not the time!
I decided training for half marathons would still be okay. I could sign up for these fairly close to the race day so if during training I became pregnant, I wouldn’t lose money registering for a race months ahead of time. Plus, you put in less miles training for a half, so if there were some connection between my running and difficulty becoming pregnant, a half marathon was a better choice.
Still, doctors were telling me to cut it down. “I want you to run only three times per week, three miles maximum each time,” one doctor told me. I stared at her in bewilderment and thought I would lose my mind. “I know all about that woman who was pregnant and ran the New York City marathon, but everyone is different,” she added. This doctor was referring to Olympic runner Paula Radcliffe who ran up until the day before delivering her baby. After having her baby in January 2007, she went on to become the 2007 female NYC marathon champion. I don’t know if she struggled becoming pregnant, but here is a woman who was able to have a healthy pregnancy and baby, even after keeping up with peak training mileage at 145 miles/week.
After months of listening to doctors, some facts did sink in. Yes, everyone’s body is different. That is why I can never run as fast as Paula Radcliffe no matter what I do; your genes are your genes. The more miles you log and more strength training you do, combined with a healthy diet, the lower your body fat percentage. At the peak of my running, strength training, and overly-healthy (almost fanatical) perfect diet, my body fat percentage with calipers was ~10% and on a Tanita scale, 15%. I’m not a dummy. I’m a registered dietitian and know very well that low body fat percentage can lead to amenorrhea (when the menstrual cycle is MIA), decreased estrogen levels, and possibly throw off ovulation – three key things that must be in harmony to become pregnant.
In addition to low body fat, I had the other two issues as well. After nine years of taking birth control pills, I stopped them in 2006. Once I stopped the pills, I also stopped getting a period for an entire year. Blood results showed I had plummeting estrogen levels. And month after month, those damn home ovulation tests NEVER came up positive. I was ready to start listening.
In December 2008 I started seeing a new doctor. He wasn’t quite as strict with the running advice, which I liked. He told me to slow my pace (decrease the intensity) and try not to run more than 45 minutes at once. True, this would mean no more 2-hour runs on the beautiful North Shore of Long Island with my favorite running buddy Susan, but I was ready to make the sacrifice. He advised I could keep up my high-mileage running routine, but in order to get pregnant, it would mean lots of pills, injections and who knows what else. I knew in my heart it would be silly for me to do that to my body just so I could squeeze in some 10 milers.
I heard it all loud and clear. I cut back. But I won’t lie, every now and then when I would have a mental, tearful, childlike-tantrum meltdown, I would go for that long run with Susan. After three years, on February 13, 2009, my husband and I received the wonderful news that we are going to have a baby! It was surreal when I got the phone call from my doctor’s office. I was alone in my house. I hung up the phone and walked over to my black Lab, Toby. I sat on the couch, gave him a hug and said, “Toby. I’m going to have a baby.” He was the first to hear the news
Thus begins the chronicles of running while pregnant … and soon… as a mother.
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