Running & Keeping Active In The First Trimester

As you may have noticed from my Instagram account, I am currently pregnant with my first child! As a woman of ‘advanced maternal age’ (pah!), I feel incredibly lucky to be in this position and both my husband and I are super excited to meet our baby in September. At 16 and a bit weeks, I am now feeling pretty good apart from having to sleep by about 8 each night (which isn’t too far off my usual bedtime of 9 pm). I’m starting to show (a lot of it is still bloat rather than baby) and I’ve put on a couple of kilos of course, but overall things so far are going well and as I write this post I’m sat on a plane to Boston to run the Boston Marathon! More on that some other time…

I’ve had a lot of comments and messages about how I have found running since I became pregnant, and how I ‘trained’ (I use the term very loosely!) for Boston during those sickly early weeks when you feel a little scared and apprehensive about doing anything that could jeopardise the pregnancy. The short answer is: “IT’S HARD!” and the longer answer can be found below. If you are reading this and want to continue being active or running whilst pregnant, PLEASE remember that this is my own unique and personal experience. Every woman is different, and every pregnancy is different. We should always seek a doctor’s advice (rule number one) and we also shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. Instagram is full of #pregnantrunners and they’re all different, so don’t feel bad if you slow down dramatically (like I have done) or if you have to stop altogether. Let’s focus on the amazing life you are creating and do what we can do to keep both ourselves and our babies healthy.

The early weeks

I found out I was pregnant very early. Three weeks and six days to be precise. It was the 16th January (I remember as it’s the day after our wedding anniversary) and I was due to run the Dubai Marathon as a training run the following weekend.

All of that changed the moment that the second blue line appeared.Just five days earlier, I’d taken part in my first 10 miles race in about four years. I’d had a strong run, averaging a pace of 4:30/km and finishing in 1:11. Things were looking good for the RAK Half Marathon, which was a couple of weeks away. I was aiming to get as close as possible to a sub 1:35. My main focus was Boston Marathon, and training was starting to ramp up with a view to achieving a sub 3:20. Little did I realise, but in that 10 miles race, things were already changing…

The following week, I was full of confidence and expected to be training hard. But every run I went on felt awful. I assumed I was tired from the race, or that I’d been eating the wrong food. I had to keep stopping, stretching, and slow right down. My Strava from that week was very telling.

Then came the positive test, and everything suddenly made sense! After the initial excitement, my thoughts naturally turned to all of the plans that I had made for the coming months. Not just running-related, but life and business. As I had found out so early, I had to appreciate that there was a high risk (Dr. Google told me up to 30%) that my pregnancy would sadly end before the first trimester was through. As much as I wanted to be positive and celebrate, this weighed on my mind heavily. A trip to the GP offered very little in the way of guidance. She took my word that I had a positive home test and said there was no need for a blood test, told me to choose a hospital and to avoid cat litter, before sending me on my way! My next appointment, with an OB, was not for another four weeks, which felt like a lifetime. I felt unsure as to what to do for the best, lonely and anxious. Training wise, I was now in a semi-taper week for Dubai Marathon, which meant I cautiously followed my plan since it was all easy running.

Ultimately, I decided not to run the Dubai Marathon. I had several long runs behind me from December, but as I would only have been 5 weeks pregnant, I chose not to take the risk. It wasn’t that I thought running the marathon would cause something terrible to happen, but more the fact that if something was wrong and I very sadly miscarried, I knew I would blame myself, even if it was going to happen anyway. My compromise to myself was to pace friends instead. That way, I could have a slightly slower run and didn’t have to do the whole thing. Rather, I could drop out whenever I wanted. As it turned out, I ran 28km that day, at a very easy pace with plenty of stops and walk breaks. I had no issues afterward, and as a result, felt confident that I could continue running for the foreseeable future at least. I also began to think that maybe running Boston was possible after all…

Weeks 6 to 9

I found it amazing how, despite my baby being tiny at this point, the effect on my body was anything but. Although I was not yet experiencing much nausea during these weeks, I was ridiculously tired and running was already becoming harder. I continued with my ‘training’ as much as I could, but hitting certain paces became more difficult.

During long runs, I ran with my usual group and struggled both physically and mentally. I couldn’t tell anyone, but I was feeling increasingly out of breath at my usual long run pace. Growing a tiny human was already having an impact, so I backed off the speed workouts slightly. When I turned 7 weeks, I ran the RAK Half Marathon; the race I had originally intended to break 1:35 in. Of course, there was no way I was going to attempt a sub 1:35 now, but I thought I could get around and just enjoy the experience instead. I’d struggled with training that week, and presumed a 1:50 would be a realistic result. Lining up in the ‘competitive start’ pen for those who had previously run under 1:40, I felt like a fraud. Friends asked what time I was aiming for, and I mumbled excuses about not feeling my best. In the end, I ran comfortably, starting slowly and gradually speeding up with a bit of a slow down during kms 8-10. I kept the pace conversational and was surprised to see that in the last 5km I was running sub 4:30 kilometers. I was still managing to chat and felt good, so I just went with it.

At one point a fellow runner tried to get me to speed up further, but I declined, saying I was happy with what I was doing, but good luck to him. Non-pregnant Rachael would certainly have taken on the challenge!I was happy and very surprised to finish in a time of 1:39:13 – just 18 seconds slower than my PB. This had not been the plan at all, but rather was a sign of my fitness at that point and a culmination of all the hard work I’d put in before I was pregnant. There was no pressure on me performance wise, which usually means I run well. It will certainly be a long time before I see that kind of pace again, even over a short distance, but it’s nice to know that I was in a good place and that I can hopefully get back there again one day.

As the weeks slowly ticked by, I noticed that I needed more rest after training, and I was already sleeping much more than normal. In week 8 I had a very busy work week which left me feeling so exhausted that I missed most of my training. I’m not usually one to make excuses and cut sessions short or avoid them altogether, so it was a hard concept to get used to. The pregnancy also still didn’t feel real to me at this point, so it was a very strange time. I even began to wonder if it was a rare false positive test, and that it was all in my head! I told my coach that I was pregnant fairly early on, as I did not want her to put all of her hard work into a training plan that I could not fulfill. Instead, the emphasis was now on doing what I could and being flexible. The plan was a guide, and I was free to skip sessions or run slower, depending on how I felt.During week 8, we had our first scan, and I was relieved to see our baby for the first time! Everything looked great; the baby had a strong heartbeat and was hanging out quite happily.

Now that everything felt more real and I knew that the baby was ok, I decided that I would aim to be at the Boston Marathon start line, having qualified in Tokyo Marathon last year. Rather than going for broke and targeting a 3:15-3:20 finish, my new goal was simple:

  • Train safely and get to the start line

  • Run safely and cross the finish line

  • Not to worry about a finish time

  • To soak up the atmosphere and really enjoy this iconic race

I had often spoken about how sometimes it would be nice to just run an amazing event and not worry about time or pace, but just to take everything in and savour the moment (hard to do when you’re chasing down an ambitious goal and turning yourself inside out in the process!). Now, I had my chance to do just that!

Weeks 9 to 13

I’m not going to attempt to sugarcoat it: these weeks were rough. Although I never once vomited in the first trimester, I had all day nausea and was more exhausted than I’ve ever felt in my life. I skipped many a training session, which is something that I would never normally do. However, I knew that I was not simply being lazy and making excuses; there was a genuine reason behind the fatigue and I had to listen to my body.

We went on holiday to South Africa, and instead of getting lots of runs in, I managed two in 12 days. The rest of the time was mainly spent sleeping, with a couple of walks thrown in as well. During these weeks, I focused as much as possible on my long runs. Since I was no longer targeting a time-related goal, I didn’t have to worry about incorporating marathon pace into my long runs, which was quite a relief! Instead, I did some speed work during shorter runs, but by now my paces had altered drastically. I remember running one-minute efforts (with two minutes recovery) and realising that this almost all-out effort was my old 10km pace. Moreover, as the weather began to heat up a little, my paces dropped even further, to slower than 6 minutes a kilometer. Running with others helped me to speed up a little, but once I realised that I was no longer able to hold a conversation, I made the decision (for after Boston) to run with slower groups in future.

Other activities

As well as running, I tried to keep up with yoga at least once or twice a week. However, this really did not happen during weeks 9-13 and I definitely felt the impact of losing my regular routine! Pre-pregnancy, I had tried to take more responsibility for strength training and mobility, but this was another thing that suffered in the first trimester. I only had the energy for one thing, so running had to take priority. I’m sure this lack of yoga and strength training has not helped my back and hip pain, so I really wish I had done better at keeping up with it. It’s something I’ll definitely focus on in the future as I reduce my running after the marathon.

Beyond week 13 

The good news is that as soon as I hit week 13, I almost immediately started to feel better as if some kind of switch had flipped. There was no way I could hit my old paces, and nor did I want to try, but I was at least able to stick to my plan most days and incorporate yoga again. As the temperatures in Dubai continued to rise, so my paces kept on falling, and I can see run/walks being part of my future very soon, as well as more activities such as swimming and strength work.Stay tuned for my Boston Marathon report later this week!

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