Pregnancy started noticeably affecting my climbing and exercise in the 2nd trimester. As much as I researched, there's very little information about exercise during pregnancy for women who were at a high level of fitness before their pregnancy started. The reaction to my activity level from other climbers was generally "hell yeah!" but I took many a stare, comment, or question from those who didn't know me or understand climbing. I also felt more than capable of exercising beyond media and general pregnancy guidelines.
In this article, I address the research I did about exercise during pregnancy, physiological changes during pregnancy, and give a rundown of how I tailored my exercise.
where do your organs go?
Around week 10, I noticed the 3" below my belly button begin to harden. It wasn't like a layer of vacation fat that moved around, but it made a difference scrunching up and high stepping. By week 22, I was doing the "old person" shoe technique: cross my ankle up on my other knee to put a shoe on, since I couldn't scrunch down without feeling like my stomach was being pushed out my esophagus.
So what happens to your internal organs when you're pregnant?
Pretty crazy, but explains many gastrointestinal issues like acid reflux, gas, constipation, and the upper chest pressure when climbing!
where you gain weight
The standard US recommendation for weight gain is 25-35lb, and if you're on the smaller BMI side they recommend you gain on the 35lb end. I've got 2 big disagreements with this generalized, though large, weight range:
- BMI is a terrible indicator for fit individuals. It's calculated by: (weight in kg) / (height in m)^2. If you're a dense person with muscle, your BMI will be greater than someone of your same height who's skinny-not fit.
- 35lb on a 5'4" frame is a ton! I got really sick of hearing that I needed to gain more weight (I was up 12lb at the end of the 2nd trimester). I was eating till I was full, eating if I was hungry, never lost weight, and felt balanced--and I truly believe healthy pregnancy is about relatives to your norm. If your body is used to a certain balance, listen to it.
So where does all that weight go? It's not just baby and body fat! Blood volume increases by 50% starting in the 1st trimester! Boobs also increase in size almost immediately. Knowing when and where you gain weight will help explain why you feel so off-balance on the wall so early.
the judgement factor while climbing pregnant
I was weightlifting, hiking, bouldering, and multi-pitch climbing much of my 2nd trimester. Climbers thought it was badass I was still climbing. But since most people don't understand climbing or pregnancy, and most tend to judge first, learn second, I received a lot of questioning about climbing while pregnant.
Climbing is one of the best pregnancy exercises, assuming you already climb and take reasonable precautions like transitioning to toproping when needed. It's a bodyweight exercise, it's low-impact, it's social. You can just about check all the positive generic guidelines you get for pregnancy exercise. Here's highlights of recreational and competitive-level exercise while pregnant, as compared to pregnant non-exercisers (I have a dedicated article coming):
- Placenta grows 1/3 faster and larger, and contains 15% more capillaries.
- Roughly <1/3 the rate of gestational diabetes, <2/3 the rate of preeclampsia, and 2/3 the rate of c-sections.
- Greater fetal heartrate variability (a positive--fetus better able to handle physical vigor like labor).
Your body and baby adapt to stress. When in doubt, put your pregnancy in perspective to other cultures where women labor all day, and to human evolution.
the 2nd trimester: symptoms
For the most part, many of my annoying symptoms cleared up from the 1st trimester, leaving:
- Difficulty eating large meals & constipation. Your stomach and intestines are being squished. I tried full bowls of fiber cereal and full heads of kale. Docusate, an OTC stool softener, worked best at the max recommended level.
- Burping. Also due to compressed organs. Also common are heartburn and gas. Altoids.
- Harder to sleep. 'Cause the belly bigger.
- Belly skin itching. Palmer's Belly Butter helped a ton, but note that stretch marks are completely genetic. Creams will just help the discomfort.
- Acne. Throwback to teenage years, as if you don't feel sexy enough.
the 2nd trimester: working out
My husband and I did a 2 month, 7100mi road trip during my 2nd trimester. I flew home for one ultrasound and checkup. I was up and active 4-5 days a week, 5-6 hours a day.
- Did easy multipitch, 5.8 - 5.9, following on toprope.
- Bouldered when I felt comfortable, up to V5 level (~3-4 grades below my limit), and only 5ft off the ground.
- Lugged 25lb+ crash pads/climbing gear around all day.
- Hiked a lot. Up to 10mi day hikes with up to 2300ft elevation gain, and up to 7000ft elevation. I made sure my pulse stayed within reason, going slower uphill and taking frequent breaks.
- Toprope-followed sport climbs almost at my limit.
- Would've stretched daily if it had been easier in a camper van, or started prenatal yoga had we been home.
- Would've weightlifted had we not been on the road.
on climbing safety
- Overhanging boulders where you backslap seem safer, but are quite dangerous: falling flat on your back results in a larger sheer force through your body (can disrupt the placenta) than absorbing a fall on your feet.
- Diminishing core strength is fast-onset since your abs are being distended from the inside out. Watch the overhangs.
- I never bouldered with my feet >5ft up, and had an excellent butt spot cushion (see video below on how to spot a pregnant woman).
- I didn't lead climb from the start of the 2nd trimester, but I lead belayed through my 3rd trimester.
- I pulled as hard as I could on toprope.
- I didn't need a maternity harness until month 6.
it's not "just like training weight"
You've got something distending your abs from the inside out, hormones are different, your lungs run out of room to expand, you're growing a human being...so no, it's not like climbing with a weight vest. And yes, there will be [male] climbers who make jokes about it and who will never know what it's like to be a pregnant athlete.
If exercise feels good, you feel safe, and you're trying hard, you're making gains toward a healthy pregnancy.