Clara Peterson of Corte Madera, California, is a mom of three kids — ages 5, 3 and 11 months — and an elite runner who trained through all three of her pregnancies. Now 30, she is due in May with her fourth child and continues to run daily. She explains why pregnancy and motherhood does not stop the runner within.
I have been running since I was a fourth grader in Berkeley, California, and started training seriously in high school. I won my first of four state championships my sophomore year. And then went on to compete at the national level at Duke University and always planned to pursue a career in elite racing.
When I got pregnant with my son Ramsey, I never thought twice about continuing to train. It was by far the most challenging of the three pregnancies. You are experiencing hormones and your body feels so off. As an elite athlete, you are so in touch with your body, you know what’s OK, and what’s not. When you are so in tune and in control of your body, pregnancy is for sure a very foreign feeling.
My normal training regimen usually consists of 70 to 90 miles per week, with intense intervals as fast as 5 minute pace per mile. I have run two marathons , the first at the Olympic trials in 2012, eight months after my second child was born. And I ran the California International marathon last year. But I prefer local road races that are shorter. I don’t get on a starting line unless I’m going to run fast.
I was very tired in my first pregnancy. I had anemia and I could sleep till 1 p.m. every day. Of course you can’t do that when you have more than one child. But I had to really push myself to get out there and run.
There is no elite women runner out there who trains the same way when pregnant. During pregnancy, mileage comes down, and the intensity comes down. I average 40 to 60 miles a week. If I do 400 meter intervals, I’ll do them at a slower than normal pace. I don’t like getting my heart rate up for more than 3 minutes at a time.
And like any run— whether you are an elite athlete or a recreational runner, pregnant or not — the first five minutes of warm up are always uncomfortable. But after that passes, you get in the rhythm. You feel great.
It’s definitely more uncomfortable to run while pregnant. The strangest part — especially as you get further along— is the sensation of having the uterus, which is filled with that 6- to 7-pound child, on top of your bladder, and trying to run with it. It’s not really pain — just discomfort, from the pounding.
But I’ve found that with each pregnancy, running becomes more of a routine because I know what’s happening. I know that I am feeling this way because I’m four months or seven months. My body is becoming better at running with each child. It’s almost like a marathoner gets better at every marathon. I get more efficient at running with every pregnancy.
I consider pregnancy a break from elite training and my goal is to decondition as slowly as possible. So by the end of this pregnancy, at nine months, I’ll try to pull off a 6 mile run at a 7 to 8 minute-per-mile pace. At the end of my first pregnancy I was running much slower, at a 8:30 pace.
I run every day with the occasional day off. My OB-GYN doctor ran through her pregnancy and gave me advice that you if you take anything more than a week off, there is no going back. You are slowly easing into a changing body. If you aren’t running to acclimate, you lose your window.
But, you know, running is my thing. It’s my vice. Without it, I’m not the same. It’s healthy for my body, because that’s what it’s used to.
To pregnant women runners who ask me for advice, I always say, “If you are a runner, keep running. Do what you are doing and cut back slowly. If your body doesn’t agree with running, then don’t do it.”
Of course, I always tell everyone, the baby is first.
It’s hard for us elite runners because we have these control issues about making our body perform optimally. With pregnancy, you have to let the reins go.
If you are feeling good, you can run all the way to the end. It’s natural for me to keep going. And it can be the same for recreational runners. But ultimately you need to listen to your body and do what you’re doctor advises.
I’ve been very fortunate. But if I were to find out tomorrow that I had to go on bed rest, I’d suck it up and do it.
I’d be bummed, but the health of my baby is the priority.
The essay was written with the help of TODAY.com editor Kavita Varma-White.