The Outdoor Foundation recently reported mountain biking as one of the most popular outdoor activities in the United States, with approximately 8.32 million mountain bikers in 2015. (It could be double that since Covid19 lockdown)! The demographic includes more and more women who want to continue to ride while pregnant. However, there is still a lot of controversy on this subject.
For mountain bikers, riding bikes is important for mental health and obviously physical fitness. Riding bikes is what makes us tick. So, should you ride during your pregnancy?
According to the Australia and New Zealand College of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, (RANZCOG) general exercise during pregnancy is recommended for both you and babe. It can help alleviate pregnancy ailments such as constipation, swelling, leg cramps, as well as limiting pregnancy weight gain and controlling blood sugars. It may also decrease your risk of preeclampsia, and an emergency cesarean delivery. Exercise can also result in a higher newborn APGAR score.
However they also state this:
Because your growing belly can affect your balance and make you more prone to falls, riding a standard bicycle during pregnancy can be risky. Cycling on a stationary bike is a better choice.
Any woman with common sense can comprehend what the risks are for MTB during pregnancy! However, as a professional Pregnancy Exercise trainer, Pelvic floor nerd and an MTB Coach, I hope to educate mamas on all the guidelines for general pregnancy exercise and MTB riding. This encompasses the safety guidelines for you and your babe, your physical & mental wellbeing, affects on the pelvic floor and of course biking demands.
I wrote an article in 2014 on riding during pregnancy and postpartum for Bicycling Australia magazine. You can read it here. I also have tried to established “Official Guidelines for postpartum MTB” here.
Are there Certain Conditions that make Exercise During Pregnancy Unsafe?
The answer is YES! Women with the following conditions or pregnancy complications should not do any type of exercise during pregnancy:
- Certain types of heart and lung diseases (but not all)
- Cervical insufficiency or cerclage (cervix that begins dilation preterm)
- Being pregnant with twins or triplets (or more) with risk factors for preterm labor
- Placenta previa after 26 weeks of pregnancy
- Preterm labor or ruptured membranes (your water has broken) during this pregnancy
- Preeclampsia or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure
- Severe anemia
What exercises should I avoid during pregnancy?
Ok, so you’re cleared to exercise while pregnant from your Doctor, and your’e not suffering any of the above conditions. RANZCOG’s advice is to avoid activities that put you at increased risk of injury, such as the following:
- Contact sports and sports that put you at risk of getting hit in the abdomen, including ice hockey, boxing, soccer, and basketball
- Activities that may result in a fall, such as downhill snow skiing, water skiing, surfing, off-road cycling, gymnastics, and horseback riding
- Hot yoga” or “hot Pilates,” which may cause you to become overheated
- Scuba diving
- Activities performed above 6,000 feet (if you do not already live at a high altitude).
Many women I have spoken with (including pro mountain biker Katrina Strand) who have healthy normal pregnancies and who are experienced mountain bikers continued to ride. I totally agree that this is ok! If you are 100% riding within your limits and are not experiencing any red flags, I believe it is safe. I rode my regular trails until 28weeks.
I believe women riding mountain bikes at an intermediate or advanced level are be able to continue MTB during pregnancy, whereas beginners should probably stick to paved bike paths or spin classes and wait till baby is born to improve off road skills.
The women that rode cross country trails prior to pregnancy were able to continue riding well into the third trimester, one lady even riding up until the day before her due date. They usually felt ok on their current bike set up.
The small minority who rode downhill and enduro trails stopped gravity style riding around 6 months pregnant. This is mostly due to the steep and technical terrain, changing centre of gravity, weather, and being uncomfortable on their current bike set up.
So what else should you Look for in Riding While Pregnant?
As the technology of mountain bikes improves, it’s become easier for riders to attempt more technical terrain and ride at higher speeds. This likely leads to greater confidence—leading, somewhat paradoxically, to higher speeds and more risk-taking behaviour. Advice on this subject often comes through social media and well meaning friends, but where should we get solid advice we can trust (not that just makes us feel good)? And how do we still “shred the gnar” but keep baby safe?
The trails that you feel comfortable on is yours to own, but remember pregnancy is not the time to aim for PB’s or for hitting new trail features.
- Keep both wheels on the ground at all times. Jumping and drops ARE NOT OK.
- Ride below your limits (not within)
- Consider converting back to flat pedals if you ride clipped in.
- Cross Country riders should modify the distance/duration traveled. Gravity style riders should modify their speeds and consider walking some technical terrains.
- Keep cool. Overheating is a real thing, however keeping your heart rate low is an outdated method of tracking exertion.
- Use the RPE table below (rate of perceived exertion) scale instead. Intensity should be between 6-7 (you can still talk while riding, not breathless). It’s OK to walk some uphill sections!
- DO visit a pelvic floor physiotherapist to establish a baseline and discuss the impact that pregnancy and exercise exerts on the pelvic floor as well and to address any concerns you have about birth and beyond – especially if you want to get back on your bike ASAP after popping that baby out. For a list of pelvic floor physiotherapists in Australia, click here.
- If you need to adjust your current bike set up, it’s probably time to adjust what, when and why you’re riding too
- If you experience pelvic girdle pain, back pain or urinary leakage you need to NOT ignore these signs. Again a pelvic physiotherapy will be the best treatment for these conditions and may be able to help you manage pain and continue to ride throughout your pregnancy.
This scale could also be used for scaling our riding ability. If you felt you were riding double black (8-10) trail features before pregnancy, then you could scale it back to a blue (5-6), with adjusted speed so that it would still be fun, but also comfortable for you and not unnecessarily risky for your unborn baby.
If you were a beginner just prior to pregnancy then obviously you would be riding bike paths or smooth fire roads (2-4). Green trails may be ok, depending on your skill level.
Risk of Injury Is Expected.
Given the nature of the sport, there will always be associated risk.
What if you Crash your Bike While Pregnant?
As long as you are not severely hurt during a fall, it is unlikely for your baby to experience an injury. It is because your baby is well protected by:
- The amniotic sac and its fluid, which gives a cushioning effect inside
- Thick and muscular uterus
- Abdominal muscles and fats
- Pelvic bone
All the above structures, together, are likely to minimise the movement of your baby within the womb and could reduce the risks of injury due to minor accidents. If the fall is major and causes you a severe injury, then it is likely that your baby is also affected.
Be on the Lookout for Athlete Brain.
This is a term I’ve learned from the Pregnancy Postpartum Athleticism course I did. It refers to the mental conditioning that anyone can display when they feel like they NEED to keep going even if it may not be in their overall best interest. Athletes are used to pushing through pain and fatigue, and they are experts at not letting excuses get in the way. (Hence we are more prone to injuries, including pelvic floor dysfunction).
A pregnant mountain biker can display this attitude (regardless of athlete/skill status) in ways such as:
- She is tired yet drags herself to ride/train every other day for for “mental health”
- She is afraid of losing her bike skills or fitness instead of relaxing and enjoying pregnancy
- She is comparing herself to others on social media and this motivates her to take risks on trail features
- She is ignoring her changing centre of gravity and continues to ride at high speeds
- She is experiencing little bouts of urine leakage or pelvic girdle pain and ignoring it because she thinks it is a normal side effect of pregnancy.
It is important to note that she doesn’t have to display all these behaviours to have “athlete brain”. This behaviour is what puts her MORE at risk of pelvic health conditions and injuries in this chapter. It can also put her unborn baby’s life at risk. Athlete brain can be a good thing, but in this chapter it may NOT be.
Effect of High Intensity Exercise on The Pelvic Floor during Pregnancy and Beyond.
Let’s face it. Mountain biking is a high intensity activity. The demands on our physical and mental systems are huge! Studies have shown that more than half (51%) of time on the bike is spent between aerobic and anaerobic thresholds and 39% is above the anaerobic threshold. Therefore highly developed aerobic and anaerobic systems are needed to perform well and meet the demands of the trail!
What else is needed in this chapter?
A highly developed and properly functioning core!
Pregnancy can exacerbate and reveal weaknesses in our core system that were pre-existing (although not obvious), or it can create weaknesses if we ignore the warning signs and push the limits of our physical capabilities.
The demand on the pelvic floor during pregnancy is great, regardless of our sporting activities. As the baby grows, the muscles that support the pelvic organs stretch. The hormone relaxin also softens the joints in the pelvis, (there are 4) preparing the body for birth. Breathing is affected due to the baby squishing the abdominal contents up on the diaphragm. We may have muscle wastage as well in the quadriceps and glutes, leading to a more unstable pelvis and less shock absorption.
How can you reduce/manage these adaptations? Well, these adaptations are necessary, as is the stretching of the abdominal wall that often leads to Diastasis Recti . A well balanced fitness program specific can help you manage these concerns as well as be a complement to your riding. A good pregnancy exercise program should encompass wholistic support that considers the mother, the baby, core and pelvic health and an adjusted mindset, prepare you better or birth and recovery – because this chapter in life demands modifications that extend beyond exercise.
If you are still reading, and want to read more….. I really enjoyed these three blogs that I found when writing this article. Pop your comments below and share your pregnancy story or if you believe I have missed anything I’d love to hear your thoughts.