Mother runners know that our running benefits our children by teaching them healthy habits for their bodies and minds. But did you know that the benefits of running start in the womb? That’s right, our running while pregnant benefits our babies even before they are born.
It’s surprising—especially given the attitude society seems to have about pregnant mother runners. When I rounded up the most infuriating things people have said to mother runners, one of the most common was that their running would hurt the babies in their tummies.
I remember how nervous I was about running while pregnant with my first child. Thankfully, I had a doctor who assured me of the many benefits and few risks. Indeed, there are way more benefits if you run (or exercise) while pregnant than if you don’t.
An unofficial poll of fellow mother runners who ran during pregnancy cite having:
- More energy
- Easier and quicker delivery
- Increased feelings of ownership of their bodies
- Increased sense of normalcy throughout pregnancy
- Knowledge that we can do hard things
- Decrease in morning sickness
- Heightened mental and physical endurance
- Learned importance of breath
- Healthier pregnancy
- Quicker postpartum recovery
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge that sometimes our bodies do not cooperate, and pregnant mother runners are unable to run while pregnant due to health concerns. Not everyone is so lucky to continue running throughout pregnancy and it’s vital that women listen to their bodies (and doctors) while exercising.
Personally, I kept my mileage and intensity low and ran less (and did more barre and elliptical) as my pregnancies progressed. However, for those who are able to continue to run, they can do so with little worry. For those who can’t, but can perform another type of exercise, these benefits also apply to them.
Acadia Gantz, an ultra runner, run coach, and midwife based in Maine who has conducted research into pregnant high-level athletes, shares key insights into the benefits running has for babies and their mothers.
I learned about Acadia after hearing her interviewed on the Trail Running Women podcast and I was fascinated by what she has found: babies born to pregnant mother runners tend to be healthier and more advanced neurologically. Women who continued to run throughout pregnancy had healthier pregnancies and easier deliveries.
I had to learn more—and share her key insights with you.
Outdated running while pregnant guidelines
First off, a little history on the origins of the misconception that running while pregnant is dangerous.
Until the invention and integration of modern (and white, male-dominated) medicine, pregnant women were active throughout their pregnancies and quickly postpartum. As the science of medicine progressed, recommendations for pregnant women swung to the opposite side.
In 1985, guidelines by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommended pregnant women avoid high impact exercise, activities raising the maternal heart rate to exceed 140 beats per minute, physical activity longer than 15 minutes, and physical activity allowing the maternal core body temperature to exceed 100.4° F.
However, in 1994 the ACOG removed all restrictions on maternal exercise. Then, in 2002, it recommended that expectant women exercise for 30 minutes on most or all days of the week. Finally, in 2020, the ACOG outlined the various benefits of exercise for pregnant women.
“I am unsure why, but folks seem to feel entitled to give pregnant people unsolicited advice,” shared Acadia. “I imagine it comes from our innate nature to want to protect future generations. Unfortunately, we have been inundated with wrong, and unsafe, information over the past few years, and the ideas that the general public carries about pregnancy are slow to catch up.”
Some outdated beliefs about running while pregnant include:
Pregnant women should keep their heart rates below 140: This was removed as a stipulation to safe exercise in pregnancy in 1994 but continues to be cited in guidelines put out today.
High-level exercise could cause miscarriage: Research has shown that miscarriage cannot be prevented, and thus cannot be caused.
Pregnant women should not try new physical activities. The current recommendation for pregnant women to continue the physical activity they practiced before they were pregnant is appropriate for many women. However, for some women, Acadia says it is okay for women to increase their fitness during pregnancy. “Doing this would be very individual and depend on base fitness at the beginning of pregnancy, fatigue/nausea, etc. during pregnancy and being realistic with goals throughout pregnancy and postpartum,” she explained.
Pregnant women have an increased risk of injury: There is a theoretical concern of a heightened possibility of joint-related injuries in pregnancy due to the hormone relaxin. However, research has not shown an increase in exercise-related injuries, and in fact, exercise has been shown to decrease the rates of musculoskeletal complaints during pregnancy.
Long durations of exercise should be limited. Limitations on the duration of exercise were thrown out by ACOG. Instead, a minimum of 30 minutes per day is recommended.
Related: How the Pros Return to Running
Health benefits of running while pregnant for mothers
Despite popular opinion being slow to catch up, there are numerous studies that reveal the health benefits of running while pregnant for expectant women.
For example, running while pregnant has been shown to improve or maintain physical fitness, help with weight management, reduce the risk of gestational diabetes, and enhance physical well-being.
Exercise has also been found to decrease the incidence of urinary incontinence, pre-eclampsia, lower back pain and the occurrence of Caesarean section. Also, pregnant women who exercise regularly during pregnancy benefit from increased energy and improved sleep.
Acadia notes, there is also a huge component of self-esteem for women who run throughout their pregnancies. “We know that exercise is good for the mood in general and it can help with a changing body and moodiness from hormonal fluctuations,” she said.
(By the way, one of my athletes qualified for Boston while pregnant. You can read her reflections on the process on my Instagram here.)
Health benefits of running while pregnant for babies
Running while pregnant has lots of benefits for babies, too.
A 2011 study showed an improvement in fetal development including more lean muscle mass, increased attentiveness, heightened discipline, and more neurodevelopmentally advanced.
Another study reported an increase in lean body mass in infants of mothers who exercised as well as seeing improved stress tolerance in these babies. The improved stress tolerance is of particular importance as “it relates to labor and delivery and the infants’ ability to handle both while maintaining reassuring heart ton
es,” note the researchers. Another study, performed with rats and not people, found that the babies of exercising mothers had improved memory.
Acadia adds that, anecdotally, parents report that babies born to people who exercise have less colic, are able to hold up their heads, and rollover faster.
The benefits also carry over into the postpartum period: One study found that elite distance runners breastfed longer, despite barriers, than the general public. (I suspect the endurance mindset may have something to do with this). A new 2020 study found that even moderate exercise during pregnancy increases a compound in breast milk that reduces a baby’s lifelong risks of serious health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
In my very biased opinion, I like to think that my children are especially awesome because I ran throughout my pregnancies. Whatever the case, if running is healthy for you, it is most likely healthy for your babies (no matter their age).
Keep going, mother runners.
PS-I’d love to help you reach your running goals whether it be to run your first 5k or run competitively! Email me at email@example.com with questions or check out my Coaching Services page!