Cycling when pregnant: Knowing how hard to push before you… push

This was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, with pregnant women advised to stay home and shield. As such it might not be possible to get out and ride, but there is plenty that can be done at home on a turbo to maintain fitness or get into cycling for maternal health if you’re thinking of starting a family.

The day you see the symbol in that little plastic window change is a big one. It sort of switches something in your brain and life derails and jumps sideways a bit. Fundamentally nothing immediately changes (apart from perhaps a delightful dose of morning sickness: wrongly named as it’s not just limited to the morning!), but you start thinking about things differently. Cycling is a perfect example of this – alongside things like what you eat and whether that holiday you booked in seven months might be a little more sedate than you first thought.

I would have described myself as a regular rider who favoured the hills and mixed up a variety of training, commuting, dabbling in track, blocks of road racing, cyclo-cross and triathlon, plus simply bumbling around the lanes. Thing is, three months after having a baby most of that description is actually still true. And that’s awesome (and if I’m honest, not what I was expecting). So here’s what I found useful, inspiring and incredible over the last 12 months, in case it helps you.

Cycling while pregnant means carrying mental baggage (plus baby weight)

Should I still be cycling?

The first thing to tackle is whether you should stop cycling altogether as, let’s face it, there is another life inside of you to look after. It’s sort of like attaching a child seat to your bike in terms of carrying mental baggage.

Now this paragraph is going to be rather short, as it’s a wholly personal decision. For me the choice was straightforward enough at first as I wanted to stay fit and healthy – plus riding was one of the only ways to shift the feelings of nausea I had for the first four months while of course being a great mental release whether you’re pregnant or not. 

When it comes to seeking expert advice your midwife or doctor can help with this question to some degree – particularly if you have additional health considerations. Having said that, I found the NHS principles of exercising when pregnant all a bit fluffy and based on someone in the middle of the bell curve who perhaps doesn’t regularly explore zone four and five of their heart rate. While pregnancy and exercise is a growing research field, it’s really a case of forging your own path and listening to your body.

How hard should I be pushing?

Ahead of the big push (at the end of the nine months), knowing how hard to ride was my main concern. While your belly is still flat it’s easy to exert the same effort you would have done pre-pregnancy, but is that ok? After some reading around, I broke my riding into four main ‘phases’. 

  1. Business as usual (months 1-3)

Your cycling kit still fits and you can hold the same position on your bike, so what do you do? At this point, I was really inspired by the likes of Dame Sarah Storey, Lizzie Deignan, Nikki Brammeier and Laura Kenny who were still racing and training while in early pregnancy. I pretty much carried on as before – especially with this period coinciding with the peak summer months. There was also an element of trying to make the most of being so aero (as in, not having a big bump), knowing that it wouldn’t be as simple as just heading out for a spin after a few more months had passed.

During this time I certainly felt the effect of fatigue way more than pre-pregnancy and made sure to always carry enough food and drink, but when it came to routes, distance and intensity nothing really changed.

No shortcuts needed at this point
  1. Keeping a lid on it (months 3-6)

Every pregnancy is different, but at three months in my body was changing shape and I had a bit of a bump. On a practical level this meant that some of my slimmer jerseys and shorts didn’t fit, but I also became way more conscious of there being another heart beating away inside of me and sort of intrigued about how something like a blast uphill might affect that. 

Here are a couple of existing resources I had a read of, in order to decide my approach:

– A Cycling Weekly article focusing upon the experiences of Lizzie Deignan and Dame Sarah Storey, with medical context provided by a consultant obstetrician.

For me this article helped to reinforce my decision to keep riding, while also illustrating that pregnancy can do very different things to you; it’s very individual. Most important however was the detail on setting a heart rate ceiling (of around 148bpm in this case); that’s something I pretty much stuck to and it was actually a helpful tool to structure workouts, rather then just getting frustrated about losing the sharp end of riding. Bear in mind however that 148bpm might not be everybody’s ceiling: it’s all about adjustment.

– The very honest account of pregnancy, birth and bringing up a baby by Lindsay Goldman: a rider and general manager for an American team.

While this is one person’s experience, it’s an incredibly upfront story that includes lots of the ‘nobody ever told me this’ elements of pregnancy and birth – plus she answers loads of the questions you may have (again, based on her own situation).

– Eat, Sweat, Play – This is a brilliant book by Anna Kessel, which everyone with an interest in sport should read. While it’s a general account of women’s involvement, treatment and experiences across all sports, there are some great chapters about female physiology, pregnancy and birth that were a real eye-opener for me.

Beyond your approach to riding when it comes to intensity, now is the time to think about setup. I found that once the bump arrived, it wasn’t long before I upped the height of my handlebars and lowered my saddle slightly. These changes were incremental right up until the last few months, as it’s best not to make drastic changes to protect your knees. 

Luckily, Lycra stretches
  1. Going with the flow (6+ months) 

At this point I was definitely looking pregnant and got some funny looks when sat on an exercise bike. Thankfully my howies bib shorts stretched with me, plus it was helpful to have access to a static bike (a WattBike in this case) as the position was a lot more upright. The only problem was… my exercise window was limited to about 30 bpm. 

Being pregnant lifts your heart rate anyway as you have an increased blood volume and need to pump it to places you didn’t preciously make much use of (or have!). As such, even a gentle spin on the bike would see me at about 120 bpm and with an upper limit of 150ish, that’s not a lot of flexibility. Now this is the time to be kind to yourself and manage your expectations. If everyone else around you is hitting the intervals hard or perhaps taking part in a Zwift race, remember that you will get back to that place in the not too distant future – but now is definitely not the time to try and improve your power to weight ratio (especially with weight gain meaning healthy baby growth!).

The handlebars on their way up
  1. Taking to the turbo (month 7 and beyond)

At about seven months I stopped riding on the road. This was mainly due to a change in the seasons and a particularly rubbish fortnight weather-wise, but I decided to call it a day and focus on indoor riding and other sports like yoga and swimming. Partly it was a comfort and heart rate-related decision as I live in a hilly area, but with baby kicking away madly it also started to feel like the right decision with the nights drawing in.

Beyond this point turbo sessions were fairly limited (and I didn’t go near rollers as my balance was off: another pregnancy-related change), but it felt good to still be turning the pedals. Looking back my last spin was exactly a month before the big day as after this point I just felt knackered and favoured stretching and swimming instead. I’m pretty sure Lizzie Deignan and Nikki Brammeier were pedalling just days ahead of their due dates, but again it’s important to flag that it’s not a competition: just a case of what feels ok and what sort of facilities you have access to. 

Turbo tummy time

And that’s that! Hopefully by popping up in Google search results and collating a few different experiences (mine a good few levels below that of a professional athlete), this account will give you a little more confidence to plan your own approach. However you choose to ride, cycling while pregnant is so empowering and I love having photos of myself out riding with a big belly. While pregnancy is a great time to binge on box sets and put your feet up, it’s a long time to stop moving completely and keeping active is a wonderful part of the journey.

Now I’m three months out the other side, I’ll pop something together about post partum riding soon. That part has its own quirks, but to summarise it’s been really rather positive.

The last photo I took in cycling kit before baby arrived

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *