Meet Helen (@Fitness_ByHelen). As a mother, former international athlete and now pre & postnatal personal trainer, Helen has experienced what it is like to be an active person through pregnancy from every angle. In an exclusive for MAAREE, she gives us advice surrounding exercising during pregnancy, including sharing experiences from her rounded perspective.
A little bit about me
I was very active growing up and enjoyed gymnastics from a young age, which was unfortunately cut short due to a fractured tibia, and I never got back on the (pommel)horse!
As a result, I almost fell into athletics. I began competing in multi events from the age of 11. I worked my way through from county level all the way to the international stage as a heptathlete in my early twenties. It's here where I saw my career retire early due to, yep you guessed it, another injury! So, I have a lot of personal experience with injury.
My commitment to sport meant that the biggest part of my identity was ‘athlete Helen’. Retiring after almost 20 years, I found it difficult to adjust to not being an athlete anymore. Losing that huge part of my identity and finding ‘retired athlete Helen’ was a challenge.
Taboos in Pregnancy
Fast forward to January 2020 and having the joy of finding out we were expecting! I was fortunate to have a straightforward pregnancy during the pandemic. Made easier being on furlough and the glorious summer in the UK that year! Yet, as my pregnancy progressed, I did find a difficult shift in my identity.
I learnt that taboo surrounding exercise and pregnancy was very strong. So many people still had prehistoric opinions of what pregnant women can and cannot do. On a daily basis, I would be asked when I was going to stop exercising... and 'just do yoga'.
Athletic & Pregnant
Being an active person, exercising and being in-tune with my body was second-nature to me. I decided to do some research and educate myself. To find out for myself what I could, should and should NOT do. To no surprise, what I could do far outweighed what I shouldn’t. I mean, living in the middle of the UK never exactly gave me the opportunity to deep sea dive anyway.
The most important learning for me was to do what ‘athlete Helen’ would do, and listen to my body. From then on in I had confidence in my activity levels. On good days I was still deadlifting! You’d find me modifying the daily WOD (workout of the day) and utilising my burgeoning baby bump for my weighted step ups.
Adapting my exercises
Don't get me wrong, I got tired faster and slower quicker. On tired and achy days, a walk with the dog or a few stretches in the sun would suffice. This allowed me to recognise and respect my new body. It guided my activity levels yet didn't conform to outdated social expectations. Keeping fit and active allowed me to hold onto part of my identity; a familiar comfort in a changing body.
I was motivated to help share this new evidence surrounding exercise in pregnancy, and educate people that the taboo of exercise in pregnancy was now outdated. In any small way that I could.
It is advised to every pregnant person that they maintain a fit and healthy lifestyle. It helps reduce pregnancy-related complications. These include gestational diabetes, pelvic girdle pain and pre-eclampsia. Yet we are told in the same breath to stop exercising, wrap yourself in cotton wool and to ‘eat for two’! For the best part of 10 months. You can see the contradiction here.
With a little guidance and education, many more women in my position could be empowered. Empowered to feel safe to exercise through their pregnancy. They can lift, lunge and squat their way through each trimester, and far beyond!
Continuing to exercise allowed me to feel like ‘me' - mentally and physically. At a time when I was morphing into my new identity. It was also providing our baby with a healthy start to life.
How it affected my labour
It was October 2020 when we got to meet our little bundle of joy! Most births don’t follow plan A - mine included. Early labour started at home overnight. It was uncomfortable and drawn out, but not unbearable. A little like a lengthy EMOM ('Every Minute on the Minute' workout) or interval circuit!
My active labour took several hours longer than expected. I presented to hospital at 8.5cm dilated at 7am! Roll on 6pm, exhausted and exhilarated, and after two hours of pushing our baby finally arrived. My midwife remarked that if I hadn’t been as fit and strong then it would have been an emergency C-Section delivery. The irony!
My Postpartum Experience
Due to my birthing experience, I knew I had to be careful with my return to exercise. I decided to book in for a ‘Mummy MOT’ with the super knowledgable, lovely and disarming @BeckyAstonPhysiotherapy. I wanted to understand how pregnancy & labour has affected my body. Additionally, how this would dictate my postpartum fitness journey.
My assessment with Becky was invaluable. She diagnosed an anterior and posterior pelvic organ prolapse, which shocked me.
I naively assumed being fit & strong would have averted me from these issues. Becky reassured me that it is in fact very normal. So, she provided me with a plan for my return to exercise.
With sensible management strategies it's something you can work on to improve. I needed to treat them like the injuries that peppered my athletics career. I knew the importance of recovery and rehabilitation to avoid long term complications.
Helen, the Personal Trainer
My own pregnancy and fitness experience was my motivation to support and guide other women in a similar situation.
The general NHS guidance is basic at best. It is crucial that more is done to educate and empower women to continue to exercise within this life-changing period! Exercise is not only good for the body, but for the mind and the soul too. It's not something that we should be restricting during such a transitional season of a woman’s life.
Exercise can continue and be enjoyed with safe modifications for each phase of pregnancy or postpartum you are facing.
If you would like help with your pre- or postnatal fitness journey, please reach out anytime.