My Top Tips for Riding + Pregnancy

7F69FD3D-383E-436A-B012-C7B88CBF921E

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
  • Skydiving
  • 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).
However! 

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.

B60E487C-CE61-417F-BCAE-710F792A06BB3D57C327-A7F0-4C04-8FAA-FE7EE8028B76

IMG_9379

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.

  1. Keep both wheels on the ground at all times. Jumping and drops ARE NOT OK.
  2. Ride below your limits (not within)
  3. Consider converting back to flat pedals if you ride clipped in.
  4. Cross Country riders should modify the distance/duration traveled. Gravity style riders should modify their speeds and consider walking some technical terrains. 
  5. Keep cool. Overheating is a real thing, however keeping your heart rate low is an outdated method of tracking exertion.
  6. 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!
  7. 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.
  8. If you need to adjust your current bike set up, it’s probably time to adjust what, when and why you’re riding too
  9. 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.

Screen-Shot-2020-05-28-at-2.08.37-pm

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.

https://lermagazine.com/cover_story/how-mountain-biking-is-reshaping-the-landscape-of-cycling-injury

https://rascalrides.com/biking-while-pregnant/

https://www.mtba.org.au/news/how-mountain-biking-changed-my-life/

x Ali

Postpartum Mountain Biking Guidelines 101

image @readyaimmedia

Mountain biking is shifting from being male dominant sport to an activity also pursued by women and children and families. The number of women and kids entering this sport is growing steadily around the globe. The amount of women who want to continue to ride through pregnancy and into motherhood is also growing.

However, the majority of guidance is coming from the glorification on social media of women making fast returns to racing and pushing the limits of their physical health and capabilities during pregnancy and postpartum in an attempt to inspire others to do the same.

What we really need though, are voices for sustainable, whole body strategies to support pregnant and postpartum mountain biker’s actual needs, not just desires. 

This includes educating the sport, fitness and MTB community on what their actual needs really are -consideration of the mother, baby, core/pelvic health and an adjusted mindset because this chapter in their athletic life demands modifications that extend beyond exercise.

There are currently no official guidelines for women returning to this sport after having a baby, and guidance for this particular sport in this particular chapter is limited. Mountain biking is the best sport In the world, no rider doubts that. And no new MTB mama ever wants to hear the words “you shouldn’t ride your bike right now…” …. Instead we are surrounded by well meaning advice “Just Listen to a Your Body”.  

This advice is not actually bad in itself, but what is lacking is education in what to listen out for.  Pregnancy modifications are thoroughly covered & the risks of riding while pregnant are also obvious. But where do we get advice on the actual signs and signals to look out for modifications in the postpartum chapter? (they extend far beyond back pain or bleeding or breastfeeding problems).

Urinary and fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, back pain, pelvic dysfunction, abdominal separation, hernia and similar conditions are prevalent among female riders.

For a review of the official Fitness Australia postnatal exercise guidelines, click here. 

Experts estimate pelvic floor dysfunction affects more than 30 percent of women in the general population, and is likely higher—more than 40 percent!!—in female athletes – including mountain bikers. 

Athletes are used to pushing their bodies to the limit. We get up early, we ride as often as we can. We subject ourselves to gruelling climbs and hours and hours on the bike. Maybe we even train in the gym too.

Athletes do NOT have higher levels of pelvic floor muscle strength. Because athletes train more and push harder, there is more strain!

The message here is not that you should stop riding your bike! Absolutely not! Only a 1 on 1 assessment with a Women’s Health Physio can determine whether you are ready or not. I am advocating for awareness and understanding of the importance of optimal postpartum rehabilitation as prevention of injuries as well as big picture support for this transition from birth to bike and riding longevity for all. 

Pregnancy is temporary, but Postpartum is forever! Our bodies adapted to pregnancy, now we NEED to adapt to POSTPARTUM.

There is ZERO information out there about MTB and the female pelvic floor because no one else is advocating women’s health in this sport and because women have not been studied as much as men, not because we are not prone to these problems.  

The first question most new mums want answers to is  “When can I start riding again?” 

Returning to riding and training post-pregnancy however, is not timeline related. Instead, it is recovery and preparedness related. Whether it has been 6-weeks, 6-months, or 6 years, where you are in the recovery process and your level of preparation for a return to riding determines your readiness. 

If you google “safe pelvic floor exercises or safe postpartum exercises”, and so on, you’ll almost always encounter the recommendation that cycling is a safe form of exercise postpartum. 

This is largely due to the fact that cycling is a low impact sport. However, cycling and MTB are two very different demands on the pelvic floor. Mountain biking is a HIGH IMPACT SPORT. 

The issue I have with assigning cycling as a “safe postpartum exercise” is that:

  1. Cycling and Mountain Biking are two very different demands on the Pelvic floor. In MTB there is a lot more “sit to stand” (to go over roots and rocks)  and sustained standing/hinging movements, jumps and drops (similar to the demand plyometrics would place on the PF) and technical skills involving balance and core strength. Mountain bikes are typically a lot heavier and require a lot more energy and lower body strength to propel forwards as well.
  2. Do we really know if either are “safe” for an individual without knowing what their tendencies are when they exercise? For example – do they have the habit of holding their breath or bearing down? What is their lower body & core strength like? Do they overuse their obliques when asked to do a simple movement?
  3. Mountain biking can exacerbate the weakness that pregnancy and birth factors cause on the body.
  4. Women place so much pressure on themselves to get back their “pre-baby fitness” and win races that in many cases this goal is pursued at the expense of their own health, without any awareness of the damage they may be doing… and often under the guidance of a trainer or friend that has no training in pelvic health. Just because a trainer has had a baby, does not mean the trainer knows the full scope of intra abdominal pressure and role it has on influencing the core and pelvic floor. 
  5. Mountain Biking is a physiologically + psychologically high demand sport! (that’s partly what makes it so addictive!) Studies have shown that more than half (51%) of the time on the bike is spent between aerobic and anaerobic thresholds and 39% above the anaerobic threshold! Therefore highly developed aerobic AND anaerobic systems are needed to perform well and meet the demands of the trail, and this in itself is a huge stress on an already depleted mama body. Nutrition, hydration, rest, emotional support and inside out rehab boxes need to be ticked on a daily basis for athletes. 

So how can we make MTB safer for women during these chapters of life? 

  1. Even on a flat surface there can be a fair amount of downward pressure, so one key factor or this postpartum rehabilitation should include learning to balance internal pressures. This is taught via the breath. The breath is also used for retraining the automaticity of your core and pelvic floor so that when suddenly you need to stand to get over a log or boulder or to pedal through tough terrain like sand or mud you don’t need to think about your pelvic floor, you just breathe and it does it for you! It means you can also concentrate on staying on your bike and deal with whatever is coming at you on the terrain!
  2. ALL women regardless of what type of birth and how long ago it was, should have an individual postpartum assessment by a Women’s Health Physiotherapist.  This includes an internal exam and functional PF testing too . Why? Basically, A brief check-up with a midwife or obstetrician six weeks after giving birth isn’t sufficient for postpartum care, especially for returning to exercise. A WHP will evaluate your risk and readiness for returning to MTB, whether it is XC, Downhill, CX or enduro. 
  3. Build up your Glutes! Glutes (your butt muscles) attach to the outside of your pelvis, and your pelvic floor attaches to the inside. Both play a role in giving the pelvis stability. If one muscle group is weak or too tight the function of the other can suffer, but also they can support each other very well when functioning well. Both glutes AND pelvic floor function are necessary for MTB longevity. Weak glutes may increase back /hip/knee pain or injuries, leaking, and over compensation patterns. The glutes help to keep the PF muscles taut (pulled tight not sagging). 
  4. Assess your seat shape and set up with a pelvic floor physio and a professional bike fitter who understands the pelvic floor and the shape of your pelvis. You need to “spread the load” evenly through your sit bones. If the seat is too low or high, too far back or too far forward or if it is on an angle then your pelvis will not be in neutral, which decreases the function of the pelvic floor. If you have the tendency of pelvic floor overactivity, do not underestimate the importance of your saddle type! 
  5. In the early phases of returning to riding, try to avoid steep inclines, jumps and drops. You can still have fun on the trails while doing all the B-lines instead! Use this time to dial in your foundational MTB and bike handling skills again! 
  6. Be aware on longer rides that just like any muscles, pelvic floor muscles fatigue.
  7. Menopausal women are prone to pelvic organ prolapse. This occurs due to factors including failing to rehab the pelvic floor and core after childbirth and hormonal changes which affect the pelvic floor tissues. The body can remain in a postpartum state for around 30 years – it’s not uncommon for a menopausal woman to experience a prolapse even if they have never had a baby.
  8. Research/talk with your physiotherapist about wearing a pessary when riding if you have Pelvic organ prolapse.  If you have prolapse, a pessary will give your pelvic floor the support that it needs and hopefully prevent further straining.
  9. I cannot stress the importance of establishing good bladder and bowel habits!
  10. Finally, start slow, light and breezy , not for one week, but at least for the entire fourth trimester. For step by step guidance, stay tuned. 

In conclusion, there needs to be more deep guidance on the female MTB rider’s mindset in this chapter. As mountain bikers, we are pretty good at evaluating the risk vs reward regarding trail features. But during pregnancy and postpartum, It’s not just about whether you can ride a feature or not, it’s about big picture core and pelvic health function and the risk vs reward (not CAN YOU but SHOULD YOU) for that too. 

Copyright 2019  – Alison Frendin MTBmamas