I went for a little backcountry ski with my partner in mid-January of 2022. It was awful. The conditions were sun-affected and variable, and I felt like trash. It was the slowest and sluggish-est I’d felt in a very long time. Maybe I was finally getting COVID? Later that day, my breasts started to hurt. A LOT. It was enough to make me use one of the home pregnancy tests that had been sitting in a bathroom drawer for ages. I expected to see just the one line, like I had the handful of times I’d peed on the stick over the preceding years. I was bewildered at the instant twin pink lines indicating pregnancy. I reacted to the shock with my usual therapy- I went for a bike ride. Unlike during the ski tour earlier that day, I felt like my normal self with my normal energy on the singletrack, though the cold air did make my boobs hurt even more.
I’m a retired enduro racer turned bikepacker. I’m also a healthcare professional. I’ve been a registered nurse for almost 20 years and a nurse practitioner for the last 10 years. That said, prior to my own first pregnancy, I knew very little about the reality of childbearing and birth, let alone how that would affect my ability to continue to shred. All I knew was that I wanted to continue to ride as much as possible during my pregnancy in order to maintain my own identity (and to inspire my future little shredpacker-to-be).
*This article is in no way meant to serve as medical advice: that should only ever come from your own medical provider. I want to share my personal experience of mountain biking throughout my pregnancy. There just isn’t much in the way of evidence-based guidelines regarding pregnancy and mountain biking. Historically, women have been discouraged from exerting themselves during pregnancy and to especially avoid any sport that could result in a fall or abdominal trauma. In an era plagued by obesity and related diseases, these rules are bending and women are now being encouraged to be more active while growing a little human.
Just a few months prior to pregnancy, I had competed in the Colorado Trail Race- roughly 500 miles of technical mountain biking at high altitude while carrying everything for bikepacking over the course of a week. I took second place for women. Despite being 40 years old, I was in the best physical shape of my life. I rode my bike nearly every day, even in the snow. It was only natural for me to want to continue riding throughout my pregnancy and I made it a personal goal to do just that. I turned to the internet for guidelines regarding mountain biking during pregnancy and found next to nothing. There is a great Sonya Looney podcast episode with an exercise physiologist that was helpful, but aside from that, it’s mostly just personal anecdotes like mine. There is obviously a need for formalized data, but unfortunately, pregnant women are a population that researchers typically avoid because of the ethical implications of experimenting on developing humans. For me, it’s a no-brainer that continuing to ride would only benefit my own physical and mental health, and by proxy, the health of my unborn child.
When I went to my first prenatal visit with my midwife, I was still riding at close to my pre-pregnancy level: almost daily rides on technical trails. Luckily, my midwife was very supportive of my biking passion and encouraged me to be physically active throughout my pregnancy. I think she gave me a lot of credit for being a nurse practitioner and knowing what was good for me. I’m not sure that she would have given the green-light for bikepacking if she had fully understood what it entailed. During my first trimester, I went on an overnight bikepacking trip in the Verde Valley that racked up 95 miles and 11,500 feet of climbing. It was also my first time bikepacking on my singlespeed! It was slow going, but I didn’t feel that at any point it was too much. I felt good in the saddle. I was riding well within my ability level and not ever pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. I continued to ride almost daily; either recreationally or coaching the girl’s high school enduro group. I had very mild symptoms from the hormonal changes and was fortunate enough to have energy to do what I usually would. One change I made in my first trimester was swapping my hip pack for a hydration running vest. Even though my fundus (bump) was still low in my pelvis, the hip pack hit right in an uncomfortable place. The hydration vest was perfect and helped me increase my water intake, which is hugely important during pregnancy.
As I entered my second trimester, things started to change. The hormones that make it possible to carry and birth a small human can have unintended consequences on various body systems. In addition to the well-known increased frequency of urination, I also experienced some mild joint laxity early on when I had my only “crash” during my entire pregnancy. Calling it a crash is really an exaggeration. It was more of a low-speed sideways tip-over when a technical climb got the best of me. What would have normally been nothing more than an embarrassing, unintentional dismount resulted in a sprained ankle that had me rethinking the trails I was choosing to ride at that point. I switched to gravel for my next ride but quickly found that I was more comfortable on singletrack where I didn’t have to encounter motorized trail users and the rides were typically shorter and closer to home. The sprained ankle didn’t completely heal until very late in my pregnancy, and transitioning to flat pedals felt better on my weaker ankle.
I had hoped to compete in Pinyons and Pines, a 300-mile bikepacking race in the spring, right around my 20th week of gestation, but I was starting to feel pretty lousy after any rides that were longer than 3 to 4 hours. I decided that it was silly to try to ride for several long, back-to-back days, even if I took it easy. Instead, I did a local XC race and was proud of the fact that I was still feeling zesty enough to “race.” I sent my partner on Pinyons and Pines in my stead and was proud to see him come in 3rd place in his first foray into solo bikepack racing. Parenthood is all about making sacrifices and being adaptable, right?
Around the time of Pinyons and Pines, my middle was beginning to swell and I had a hard time on aerobic climbs. As the uterus grows to accommodate the baby, there is less room for the lungs to expand. I started to consider upgrading my trail bike to a pregnancy/new-mom bike that would play nicely with my decreased aerobic capacity and my desire for less technically challenging trails. As my bump continued to grow, my center of gravity changed and I was less confident on technical terrain. I treated myself to a short-travel, cross-country race bike. It was absolutely the right machine for me at the time. It didn’t arrive until the last two months of my pregnancy, but it kept me in the saddle longer and farther than I would have been able to pedal on my trail bike. I also changed the stack on my cockpit to put me in a more upright riding position, not so bent forward.
During the 3rd trimester, I had to learn to give myself an extra lot of grace. I was still riding one to four times a week, but the rides were remarkably slow and short compared to my pre-pregnancy numbers. I was no longer comfortable riding with others as I was too self-conscious about my slower pace. On one of several trips to Colorado, my generous and supportive partner shuttled me up a mountain pass in lieu of having to pedal in order to get a ride in. Although I had anticipated having to alter my riding, I had hoped to be able to continue to ride right up until baby-time. I just didn’t know exactly what that might look like for me. I figured at some point I would transition to just riding on gravel or pavement and have to give up singletrack. That didn’t actually ever happen. A few days before my due date, I was able to get out for a 12-mile ride with the local ladies group. Albeit, it was a beginner’s, no-drop ride. The day before I went into labor (half a week past my due date) I went out for a 2.5-mile singletrack slog. It was slow and hard, but it still felt good to be on my bike and out in the woods.
My one rule was to keep riding so long as it felt good and the pregnancy remained healthy. My midwife was always checking in with me and making sure that I was feeling good while riding. I stopped running at 22 weeks gestation because the bouncy feeling from running just made me have to stop to pee every 10 minutes and it just didn’t feel pleasant. Biking was definitely difficult towards the end of my pregnancy, but I always felt better for having ridden my bike and it helped me hold onto my sanity while my body went through the biggest transition I’ve experienced so far.
If you or someone you know is a mountain biking junkie and trying to grapple with how to ride while having a safe and healthy pregnancy, I encourage you or her to stay in the saddle and keep on the trails. Whatever level rider an expectant mother was pre-pregnancy, she ought to tone it down a few notches in regards to the length, physical demands and technical difficulty of what she is riding. But aside from that, mountain biking can absolutely be a part of a healthy pregnancy. For me, it helped me to remain mentally positive and to maintain my own identity while I transitioned into motherhood.
By the way, I gave birth to a baby girl at home, eight weeks ago. Labor and birth were textbook, uncomplicated and medication free. I was able to return to riding 11 days after EJ was born and I can’t wait to ride with her again … eventually. I intend to write a Part Two about how to juggle mountain biking and bikepacking as a new mom, soon-ish.
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