Pretoria – Elite female athletes have long shared stories about the mythical improvement in performance after pregnancy. A growing body of evidence suggests that this may not be a myth. However, much of the evidence is anecdotal and very few concrete studies have been done on performance changes in high level athletes after pregnancy.
The number of famous runners coming back faster after giving birth has been on the rise. Kara Goucher ran a personal best time of 2:24:52 at the 2011 Boston Marathon seven months after giving birth. Paula Radcliffe won the 2007 New York City Marathon less than 10 months after having a kid. Deena Kastor came back after a difficult pregnancy to place sixth at the US marathon Olympic trials in January.
Dr Karen Nordahl, an obgyn (obstetrics-gynaecology) expert at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver and the author of Fit to Deliver says women who continue to exercise throughout their pregnancy often experience some strength gains as a result of working out with additional weight.
But it can take a few months to get back in aerobic shape after pregnancy because exercise intensity generally has to be drastically decreased while pregnant and even the toughest athletes take some time out after giving birth. Pregnancy results in increased blood flow and oxygen-carrying capacity, as well as increased levels of growth hormone. Many of the hormonal changes diminish six to 12 months after pregnancy.
Performance increases after pregnancy may also be related to greater mental strength. Carrying and nurturing an unborn child for nine months requires great resilience – just like long-distance running.
There are lots of drawbacks to serious training after pregnancy though – physical challenges such as recovery if the pregnancy was difficult and an increased risk of certain injuries. Bone density can often be lower; something Radcliffe learnt the hard way after injuring herself from returning to training too quickly. Ligaments and tendons are often stretched out and may be overly-flexible. But the biggest problem can be time and stress related to looking after the baby.
Multiple studies have shown that moderate exercise (relative to previous training history) throughout the pregnancy can result in a “happier and healthier” pregnancy.
* The Agape athletic club will host the Jacaranda City marathon on Saturday starting at 6am from Lategan Road in Groenkloof. The race also has a 21.1km, 10km and a 5km event; late entries are accepted at the start from 4.30am. Walkers are welcome to participate in the half marathon and time limits have been generously adjusted for them. Wheelchair athletes may enter the 10 and 5km events.