It’s fairly easy and straightforward to find information on the web related to running during pregnancy. Something that has surprised me a bit is that not many women have written about their experiences trail running while pregnant. In a way, I guess it kinda makes sense, because:
a) trail running generally necessitates access to trails, or a trail system of some sort, and these might be geographically hard to come by, based on where you live;
b) I would surmise that there are probably fewer self-described female trail runners out there than there are non-trail (roads) runners; and
c) trail running while pregnant kinda sounds a touch counterintuitive… at least to me, anyway. My first hyperbolic mental image immediately goes to a super-pregnant, late third trimester (35+ weeks) woman schlepping up the side of a mountain, with her uterus leading the way, or better yet, said woman with said uterus flying on a downhill, nimbly jumping over rocks and ditches with amazing grace and an impressively high cadence so as to avoid going ass-over-teakettle for a thousand feet of descent. The images seem… unlikely, at best.
buuuuuuuuuuut I’m here to tell you that, at least based on my experiences–and certainly, clearly, I am not an expert, and I am only an experiment of one–trail running while pregnant can be done, and I think it can be damn good for you during pregnancy.
If you’ve read me for a bit, you know that my life, until late 2013, was in the midwest, between Ohio and Chicago, until we moved to Silicon Valley. I didn’t begin running–or marathon training, specifically–until 2007, in Chicago, and while we lived there, I ran through about 36 weeks of my almost 41-week pregnancy with my daughter. If you live in Chicago proper or have even a crude geographical knowledge of the Chicago area, you’ll know that trail running–in the sense of not just off-pavement running, but also running on terrain that throws some healthy amounts of ascents and descents at you, as well as some technical (read: root-strewn, rocky, uneven) grounding, is a bit hard to come by: not absolutely impossible to find, just not plentiful and readily accessible. Needless to say, though I was fortunately able to run through most of my first pregnancy, I posted absolutely zero pregnant miles on trails.
Once my family and I moved to the Bay Area, thanks to the gracious folks in my running community here, I was quickly introduced to some incredibly beautiful and humbling-as-all-hell trail systems; in fact, within my first 14 or so days of living here, I ran on three different trail systems and probably encountered more elevation and technical footing differences in those three runs than I had in all of my runs in Chicago and Ohio, over the previous 7 years, combined.
In 2014, I ran just shy of 2,600 miles, and while I don’t know the figures off the top of my head, a lot of those miles– I’d wager about 60% of my LR miles between September and December, when I was in the throes of 50k training for Woodside–came from running trails. The learning curve to run on trails can be steep (god, that pun was horrible), but it is incredibly rewarding and (I think) is making me into a much stronger and (eventually, when I’m no longer pregnant) faster runner.
Why trail running can (potentially) be a good match for pregnant running
I think you get my picture by now, that trail running and I only go back as far as last year, and only really in earnest beginning sometime around September. I’m not an expert on how to run trails, by any stretch of the imagination, nor am I a medical professional or espouse my views online as if I were one, but my personal, non-professional runner, non-medical professional experiences have been showing me that trail running has been intersecting with my pregnancy running quite nicely.
By the time I ran my trail 50k in mid-December 2014, I was already (but unknowingly) pregnant; if my math is right, KD was already about 4-5 weeks gestational age. That means that I posted my final peak of my 50k training–the final long long (24+ miles) runs and the final trail runs–as well as the actual 50k event, that had over 5,000 feet of gain, pregnant. Post-50k, and post-first-trimester annoyances that mostly left me horizontal, on the couch, willing for all the dizziness and nausea to disappear, most weekend long runs that I’ve done have been on trails here in SJ and on trails that usually throw 2,000+ feet of gain at me and varying amounts of technicality. None of this is a veiled attempt at humble-bragging; in fact, it’s far from it. If anything, I’m simply a pretty average female distance runner whose experiences show that trail running and hell, even ultra running while pregnant, are doable.
So– if you’ve been running trails before you were pregnant and thus, already have some familiarity and prowess with them, why is it worth continuing (based, of course, on the blessing of your medical team and the health of your pregnancy)? Here’s what I’m thinking:
1) trails will naturally slow you down; it’s a given. It’s harder to run when you’re running up a super steep grade, and sometimes, it actually makes more sense to power-walk (or hike) up ascents than it does to unduly tax yourself. Ask any pregnant runner about how her running immediately changed once she became pregnant, and I’d wager that she’d say that her speed dropped pretty substantially, pretty quickly. Trails can help keep you accountable (to yourself) so that you don’t try to be a hero and hit paces that you can hit when you’re in the best running shape of your life. You’re not going to break any records during your pregnant running; seriously, just enjoy the roses for a change. Hell, take pictures of ’em, while you’re at it.
2) trails inherently work lots of ancillary muscle groups that, in turn, can make you incredibly stronger and more efficient–both on trails (over time) and on roads (I think somewhat sooner). More directly related to pregnancy, I think that strengthening our ancillary muscle groups, a la trail running, can help make us more comfortable during the latter stages of pregnancy and help get us strong for the rigor of labor and delivery. Additionally, strengthening ancillary muscle groups, especially in our core, becomes incredibly important during pregnancy simply because your growing uterus, lovely as though it may be, can really eff up your body and make you hella uncomfortable (there’s a reason that super-pregnant women tend to walk the way they do). Trail running can work your big muscle groups and the little ancillary guys in ways that roads can’t–or can’t as easily–and I think it could potentially pay dividends come L&D day. Fun fact: I distinctly remember from my first pregnancy that I felt like every.single.part of me was pregnant, not just my midsection, and surprisingly, the sorest part on me after a ten-hour, non-medicated water birth was my forearms. They burned for daaaaaaays (weird, right?). I wonder how trail running affect’s a pregnant woman’s forearm strength… kidding… sorta…
3) pregnancy can be really effin’ stressful and anxiety-inducing, and trail running can be the antithesis of that–cathartic, a mental respite, and literally forcing you to take a breath of fresh air and think “big picture.” Bringing life into this world is really awesome–don’t get me wrong–but it can also be really, really scary because there are roughly a gazillion unknowns. There’s only so much you can control in pregnancy (just like in life, in general), and sometimes it can feel especially overwhelming, in no small part due to the raging hormones that are coursing through your body for a solid 37-40 weeks. Trail running can be an excellent outlet, away from the stress of life and traffic (especially important if you’re urban), noise–everything, really–at least temporarily, and sometimes, escaping to nature, or escaping to somewhere within ourselves (as hippy-dippy as that sounds) can do WONDERS. Taking a step back can allow us to enjoy the process (and the view!) that is pregnancy/life before returning to the grind.
4) trail running, which usually means that you’re running on softer surfaces compared to roads, often means that the surface can be more forgiving to your joints and in turn, can lead to faster recoveries. Running on softer surfaces–and thus, feeling less impact from each footfall–can become really important with pregnancy, especially as you continue to gain weight and really begin to “feel” pregnant. By the time I gained about 5 pounds in this pregnancy, I immediately noticed that my body felt more achy post-run–something that it rarely does–and that switching shoes and switching my training volume to be more trails-based made a significant difference.
5) I think trail running can be more mentally and physically challenging than roads–particularly if you’re significantly faster on roads than you are on trails–yet having experiences being out there (running) for long periods of time can do wonders for mental toughness. I don’t think mental toughness is the most singularly important aspect to laboring and subsequently birthing a child, but I do think it can matter. Running a marathon (or ultra, or HM, or whatever) isn’t like childbirth–they’re completely different processes, with only passing and visceral, at best, similarities; I’m simply maintaining that the time you spend running trails can give you ample opportunities to practice getting comfortable with reflection and introspection–those little “moments with myself” that I often talk about–that, in turn, you can also use when you’re in the throes of having your baby. I promise you that I never once thought about some obscure run I posted when I was pregnant, when I was in the throes of bearing down or getting through a contraction, but I **can** tell you that I was already quite familiar with the potentially weird and awkward process of talking to myself–of getting inside my own head–when I was laboring. That probably makes me sound a little left of center, but I think you get what I mean.
YMMV; please don’t sue me if my ruminations don’t match your experiences or expectations
Like I said, I’m not an expert on any of this and am only basing it on my own experiences being pregnant twice now and on my experiences running on trails in the past year. Of course, I welcome (and would love!) your input and insight. I would dig it if I could continue to run trails for the rest of my pregnancy, so long as I’m feeling well/everything is healthy/my midwives give me their blessings, so I’ll probably circle back on this topic somewhere down the line. Being pregnant is akin to being in an experiment of one, so I can’t promise you that your experiences will mirror mine… but I will say that so far, I’ve really enjoyed my pregnant trail miles significantly more than what I’ve posted on roads. It will make for some fun story-telling to Kiddo Dos once s/he arrives. this one time, I was running up this hill, and there were thirty wild turkeys in the field next to me! THIRTY! and this other time, going up this other hill, the wind was blowing about 40 mph, and my face got so windburned that it hurt for days, and my eyes wouldn’t stop watering…! and this other time…
For some more general resources about trails v. roads running: