Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So, you’re not in to running

There are many folks who find going for a run about as exciting as watching a week’s worth of Power Point presentations.

I understand.

The thought of forcing yourself to move at a moderate slog from point A to point B “just … because” elicits chills of nausea and drums up the same fear associated with being trapped in tight spaces.

It’s OK. There is hope.

While some of us relish in the thought of running into the woods for virtually no reason at all, there are plent of sports perfect for those who don’t. More good news: The vast majority of these can be optimally catered for the pregnant mom-to-be.

(I know, the pregnant part came a bit out of nowhere. But in case you haven’t been following that’s what this column is about.)

Sure, there’s a good case to be made for running: it’s cheap, it’s simple and it can be done anywhere at nearly any time.

But, as professionals have told me during this pregnancy and my first, running is not always the best exercise for cultivating the muscles needed for childbirth. Running breeds a type of muscle fiber that is made up of both fast and slow twitch characteristics. A distance runner, for instance, will have more slow twitch fibers than a sprinter, who will have the fast twitch variety. Ultimately, both types are muscle, and if not stretched properly before and after exercise, these can get tight and bulky. And as you may have guessed, having tight and bulky body muscle may not serve a mother well during labor — a process reliant on relaxing, opening and expanding the core of the body. In short, it’s just more work.

Instead, doctors and midwives recommend engaging in activities that naturally stretch and strengthen the body. Then, when “it’s time,” the body is toned and ready to comply with what Mother Nature has in store. In fact, the entire process of sports training centers on the idea of muscle memory. Over time, an athlete or exercise enthusiast is essentially guiding their body, through repetition, to complete a task with increasing efficiency. This same technique can and should be used during pregnancy to begin training for childbirth. A marathoner would never dream of stepping up to the starting line without training. Similarly, a woman readying for labor (even if it is 40 weeks away) should prepare herself for the athletic feat she will absolutely have to face. And here’s why: The average time it takes for a U.S. woman to run a marathon (26.2 miles) is roughly 5 hours, 6 minutes, 8 seconds, according to Marathonguide.com. For a 130-pound person, this adds up to around 2,500 burned over the course of the race. Labor and childbirth, especially for first-time moms, can vary greatly but will often last between eight to 14 hours. We can only speculate about the number of calories burned during labor because not all women will labor the same way. Some prefer to walk while others prefer to relax in warm water. However, energy exertion is no doubt outrageous and will ultimately depend on how long a woman stays in the pushing phase of the labor, which is arguably one of the most taxing stages. However, for the purposes of this humble column, let’s say the same 130-pound woman (I know, she probably wouldn’t weigh 130 pounds anymore) who ran the marathon went through a 12-hour labor. Over the course of those hours she would burn upwards of 4,500 calories.

I think I’d want to be ready for that type of physical exertion, wouldn’t you?

OK, so what types of exercises will put pregnant moms in tip-top shape?

Perhaps the best and most effective exercise is prenatal yoga. This type of yoga centers around the discipline’s basic principles of stretching while strengthening through breath and movement but focuses on movements that are catered to a woman’s growing belly and baby. Moms who have enrolled in local prenatal classes report they have better control over their breath during labor and have an easier time focusing their energy during painful contractions.

Many moms, including my own, report that swimming is also high on the list as a desirable exercise for expecting women. The water bolsters the body and creates a feeling of weightlessness — a welcome feeling during pregnancy. The workout, like prenatal yoga, not only incorporates the entire body, but it also trains the breath. Plus, it’s a good way to shed excess water weight. Many moms report a reduction in swelling after a few laps in the pool.

Other great exercises include walking, hiking, light weight training, aerobics and dance.

Perhaps the keystone for any woman dedicated to training for childbirth — life’s ultimate marathon — is stretching. I will admit, I’m a horrible offender. In my rush the squeeze in precious running minutes, I often find myself hurrying from the trailhead to the store for groceries, to the post office or to pick up my son before the 4:30 p.m. downtown rush hour hits. But the best time to stretch is while muscles are warm and pliable — directly after a warm-up or warm-down. Each stretch should be pushed only to the point of a comfortable pose and held for at least a minute. Make sure to balance stretches on each side of the body and focus on all parts — the legs, core and upper body. (Yes, even runners need to stretch the upper body!)

This week, my trail of choice is the Treadwell Ditch trail on Douglas Island. Last year, the section from Blueberry Hill south toward Douglas got some much-needed attention. A new bridge was installed, portions of the trail were retooled and this year Trail Mix Inc. plans to continue the improvements. The terrain on the trail is relatively flat and for 16 miles follows the contours of an old water ditch constructed to shuttle water from the Fish Creek drainage to the Treadwell Mines south of Douglas. The mine was shut down in 1917 after a cave-in left the tunnels flooded with seawater. But relics of this time remain on the single track trail — timbers still line the now-decrepit ditch, rusted pipes poke out of the hillside periodically, and eerie tunnels can be found in unlikely places. There are roots to look out for, a few small creeks to cross, but all in all it’s one of the few flat trails around Juneau. It’s also one that can be accessed from a variety of points, so a user doesn’t have to commit to the full length of the trail. Trailheads begin at Eaglecrest, Blueberry Hill, Crow Hill and at Sandy Beach. Another trail worth exploring on Douglas is the Treadwell Historic Trail that winds south from the ball fields at Sandy Beach. This is a great place to go with family as there’s a playground nearby for youngsters and benches to rest on for snack.

•••

  • Week-by-week
  • This week’s mileage: 22.2 miles.
  • Runs: 5.
  • Pregnancy stage: 22 weeks.
  • Trail of choice: Treadwell and Treadwell Historic trails (Length: varies).


• Remember, everyone is different. Make sure to check with your doctor or midwife before beginning an exercise program.

No, it does not bounce all over the place ...

… the baby, that is.

Despite the imagery a jogging mom and her belly may conjure, the baby inside is, in fact, not jostled around like clothes in a dryer.

Friends and relatives, those more forward than most, have inquired about what the baby must be experiencing as I’m running up and down mountain trails around town.

“It must feel so weird! Doesn’t it just bounce all over the place?”

Nah. It’s a myth. And like many myths this one deserves to be de-bunked.

I talked to Kristin Hock, a certified direct entry midwife at the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center, who said the baby experiences more of a rocking motion than the jostling-up-and-down some might envision.

“The baby is insulated by quite a bit of amniotic fluid,” Hock said.

And like the body’s vital organs, the baby is cradled by multiple layers of abdominal muscle, which provide support during increased physical activity.

Perhaps this is why babies are soothed by that same rocking motion once born.

Another myth: Pregnant women should keep their heart rate under 140 beats per minute when exercising.

“It really depends on the base fitness level of the mother,” she said.

One thing that is true about heart rate, Hock said, is that as the pregnancy progresses — i.e. as the mother and baby put on more weight — heart rates during exercise will naturally increase. This is purely because the mom has to work harder to jog down that trail or hike up that hill.

“What I’ve found,” Hock said, “is women naturally decrease their level of exercise as the pregnancy progresses. This is especially true once they reach the third trimester.”

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has also abandoned the under-140 recommendation. Today the organization recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day during pregnancy for most women, without any specific heart rate limits.

Hock said it really comes down to intuition.

“I believe women can learn a lot by just listening to their bodies,” she said. “It takes putting pride aside along with the idea that ‘I used to be able to do this.’”

This means adopting a level of peace with your abilities — and your limitations. After all, moms do know best.

Fact: Baby gets first dibs on nutrition. But is this also true for oxygen during exercise?

“Great question,” Hock said.

Yes, baby gets first-pick of everything that mom puts in her body. This includes vital nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fluids.

But Hock said this may not hold true for oxygen during exercise.

“When a mom is exercising, her muscles are readily using oxygen on an as-needed basis,” she said. “It’s likely that if a mom becomes oxygen deprived as a result of too much exertion, the baby will also be deprived.”

The moral? Take it easy. If you can hold a conversation while staying active, you’re likely in the clear. But if you feel out-of-breath, light-headed or have blurred vision — stop, rest and find a shady place to relax.

Another fact: Pregnant women should avoid overheating.

Yes, those hot tubs, steam rooms and saunas could be just the ticket for the aching back and tired legs of a mom-to-be, but they are absolutely not a good idea. Overheating can also happen when exercising in hot or humid weather.

According to ACOG, an elevated internal temperature of 101 degrees F or higher can cause birth defects in babies during the first trimester.

So don’t exercise for long periods of time when the weather is hot, humid or both. Choose areas that are shaded or breezy and make sure to carry water. A good rule to follow: Drink one glass of water every 20 minutes during a workout.

• This week, my trail of choice is the Perseverance Trail, which begins downtown on Basin Road. This time of year the tourist crowds are thin and the trail freshly cleared. This trail is not only noted as one of the three most historically significant trails in Alaska, but it is also known as “Alaska’s First Road.” Once used by Native Alaskans as a trail to access goat hunting, fishing and berry picking, the trail became a road in the 1880s for miners. Each day workers would head up the road to multiple mining operations including the famous Perseverance Mine and the Alaska-Juneau Mine, which was famed for being one of the largest gold-producing mines in the world during that time. Artifacts of the mining times still remain. A keen eye will spot rusted pipes trailside and moss-covered rail ties partially buried underfoot. Most eye-catching is the large “glory hole” which remains in Silverbow Basin, near the end of the trail. In spring, before vegetation obscures the view, this massive hole is easily seen. Flanked by Mount Roberts to the south and Mount Juneau to the north, this trail is one of the most picturesque in Juneau. Overall, the trail, which extends 3.5 miles into the valley, is firm and wide. Workers with the City and Borough of Juneau and Trail Mix Inc. have recently cleared debris from winter rock slides and the snow pack has receded deep into the valley. Anyone looking to head to the end of the trail should be prepared to traipse through snow for about a half mile or more. Despite this, the trail makes for a nice spring outing that can be catered to activity levels of all types.


• Remember, everyone is different. Make sure to check with your doctor or midwife before beginning an exercise program.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The big 'U' and the power of two

Ultrasounds. Scientifically speaking, they’re a procedure in which sound waves are passed into the human body to produce a reflection signature, which can reveal details about the inner structure. In pregnancy, they’re handy for revealing major physical abnormalities in the fetus or potential complications for the mother. On a personal level, it’s really just a chance for the doting parents to catch a glimpse of their new baby.

So while the big ultrasound, which typically happens around 20 weeks gestation, is mostly about the baby, it’s also about you — the woman. Or, the other you — the dad. Seeing that little baby squirming around makes the pregnancy more “real,” especially for the other half who’s not smuggling a honeydew melon everywhere they go. It’s also about reassurance. Regardless of how much running or physical activity my body yearns for, the first priority is absolutely always my baby. For me the ultrasound reaffirmed what I already knew: My active lifestyle is helping, not hindering, the progress of my pregnancy and that of my child. My level of amniotic fluid was perfectly normal, my cervix closed tightly and the baby “extremely active,” according to the sonographer conducting the procedure.

So, like any proud parent, I sent those grainy, black and white images out to friends and family. Then, I went for a run.

I’m easy to spot when out for a jog. No, it’s not always the belly. It’s the circus-like production — a.k.a. the family outing. This includes, but is not limited to the following: Dog, leash, bright red toddler-toting jogger, snacks, beverages, rain shield, random toy or book, cell phone and, of course, me. I often hear from friends or neighbors the next day.

“I saw you running the other day,” they’ll say. “Wow, what a production.”

Yes, yes it is.

It has to be in order to keep everyone (mainly the toddler) happy and satisfied on any run lasting longer than 30 minutes.

But just yesterday I was struck with a horrifying revelation. My circus is doubling. The chaos now caused by one will soon be created by two. That light jogger, which glides silently down the pavement like a Prius, will more closely resemble a Hummer. Seriously. Switching to a two-seat jogger, the only solution to sanely running with two children, seems like upgrading from a compact to an extended-cab semi truck. But, I’ve convinced my husband that we need one. He travels for work, and I refuse to be stuck in the house all day without a means of escape. Sure, I could tote the baby and walk with the toddler, but like I’ve said before: I’m a runner and it keeps me sane.

It gets more complicated with two, my mother told me when I first spoke of having another child. But after talking to friends, who are also currently pregnant with their second child, I’ve come to realize, it gets complicated as soon as you find out you’re pregnant again.

Susan Jabal, a friend and neighbor who works at the Juneau Family Health and Birth Center, shared her own challenges with finding the time to stay active in pregnancy, while also chasing after and caring for a toddler.

“I feel like the thing affecting me most this time around is the added challenge of already having a toddler,” she said. “(I have) less time to rest, exercise and eat well. In general, less chance to take really good care of myself.”

It’s true. Those things often get put on the back burner when a youngster is pulling at your pant leg.

But Jabal has managed to carve out slices of “me” time, regardless. She walks the dogs regularly or heads out for hikes on the trails near her home.

In fact, it’s the little things that can end up making a big difference. For instance, a walk around my neighborhood is roughly a mile. At a very leisurely pace, it takes between 15 to 20 minutes. If one mile was walked five times a week for the duration of a pregnancy (assuming it lasts the average 40 weeks), that woman will have covered 200 miles. Not too shabby, I’d say!

So, like Jabal, I’m going to keep tallying the miles.

This week’s trail of choice is the Salmon Creek Trail, which is a wide trail that begins behind the hospital and follows Salmon Creek up the valley. It’s a trail that begins with a bang; a steep incline that lasts about 10 minutes. It’s a good way to get the heart pumping as a warm-up, before the trail flattens into a gently rolling swath of rarely used road with views of the creek below, old growth forests and a flooded creek bed filled with artistic snags. This time of year, I usually turn around once I reach the upper, decommissioned powerhouse. Here, the trail veers left into the trees to climb toward the dam and Salmon Creek Reservoir. But in the summer, I head up the single track trail which is a steady climb studded with roots, rocks and a bit of boardwalk. During a dry spell the slime isn’t typically a problem and the views from the top are quite spectacular. The dam itself was an engineering marvel of its time. When it was built in 1914, it became the world’s first constant-angle arch variable radius dam and was constructed by the Alaska-Gastineau Mining Company to generate power for the Sheep Creek Mines. Certainly, the mines are gone, but the dam continues to be fully functional, supplying Juneau with drinking water and roughly 10 percent of its electrical needs. But this portion of the trail is one that I’d avoid after a few hard rains. A steep set of stairs perched precariously on the last climb to the reservoir are not for the faint of heart — nor for those in trimester two or three of pregnancy. The trail head can be accessed by travelling northbound on Egan and taking the first right after the end of the concrete wall and before the hospital turnoff. The parking area and trail head is located behind a set of Alaska Electric Light and Power buildings.

•••

  • Week-by-week
  • This week’s mileage: 25.45 miles.
  • Runs: 6.
  • Pregnancy stage: 20 weeks.
  • Trail of choice: Salmon Creek Trail (Length: 3.5 miles round trip to the end of the road).


Remember, everyone is different. Make sure to check with your doctor or midwife before beginning an exercise program.

5 miles, 40 minutes, 20 weeks

I ran five miles yesterday, bringing my week’s tally to around 17 miles. It’s a far cry from the 35 to 45 miles I was tallying this fall. But my body deserves a break. I am, after all, nearly 20 weeks
pregnant.

This all may shock some. In fact, I think the sight of me and my burgeoning belly bopping down the road has turned more than a few heads. Some friends call me crazy. My mom urges me to take it easy. At my friends I just smile, to my mom I send assurances.

Besides the physical benefits, running has always been a time for me to feed the mind and soul. There’s something meditative about the tap, tap, tap of my running shoes hitting the trail. My mind clears as the sounds of office phones ringing and keyboards clicking are replaced with wind, rivers and birds singing fitfully in the woods; in running, I find sanity.
Jill Homer / Juneau Empire File
Trails that are clear of ice, snow and slippery objects, such as roots or rocks, are a good choice for women looking to stay fit while pregnant. Abby Lowell, who is currently maintaining her running regime while pregnant with her second child, runs along the Treadwell Ditch Trail last summer.
The reasons for staying fit for life are many, and during pregnancy the benefits take on a deeper meaning. Studies have shown increased placental blood flow as a result of heightened activity. That blood is not only highly oxygenated, but it is also rich in fresh nutrients and endorphins — the feel-good hormone. Most know exercise keeps the extra pounds at bay, and for pregnant women, this can mean good things in a society with obesity levels climbing. Staying fit can mean an escape from some of the common ailments that plague pregnant women: leg cramps, fatigue, constipation, swelling, insomnia, high blood pressure and overall mood. It’s hard to argue, despite what some doctors have been saying for years, that exercise is not good for a developing fetus and the mother.

As soon as that blue plus sign — Clear Blue Easy’s equivalent of “yes, you’re pregnant” — appeared on a pregnancy test back in December, I resolved to keep running, hiking and walking as long as was comfortable and personally rewarding until the baby’s due date in September. This isn’t my first trip around the block, however.

Nearly three years ago, I had my first child — a boy. During that pregnancy, I worked as an assistant ski coach for the Juneau Ski Club. This meant spending every weekend on the slopes of Eaglecrest, hauling gear, gates and equipment — lots of drilling holes for gates, screwing in those gates and then undoing it all after a day full of being on my feet. It wasn’t until nearly my eighth month that I began to feel like downhill skiing was a bit much. It was then I switched to running. In my 39th week of pregnancy I was hiking Perseverance Trail and loving every minute. Elias was born, on time, a week later weighing in at 7 pounds, 1 ounce.

Now, many might balk at the thought of an extremely pregnant woman engaging in a typically high-risk sport like downhill skiing. But my doctor was supportive. In fact, he encouraged all types of physical activity, as long as I was skilled enough to do them safely.

This time around things have been a bit different. During my first trimester, which lasted through the winter, I was no longer spending weekends on the ski hill. And instead of jogging around Juneau for those first three months (like I had envisioned), I found myself sleeping 12 hours each night and still seeking naps at every opportunity. Then there were the headaches — the constant, pounding anguish that stretched from temple to temple and lasted for days. It took all I had just to look at my computer screen. So, those 12 weeks consisted of yoga and, well, eating. (I was really hungry!) But that’s about it. I gained 12 pounds, found a new blemish daily and suffered from painful cold sores every three weeks. Yes, pregnancy — what a joy. I must admit, I was faithfully counting down to the arrival of trimester two and hoping my body would adjust to the tiny human inside me.

It’s times like these that test new moms-to-be. Doctors and midwives might be saying a little activity will boost energy levels, though simultaneously, the body is screaming the opposite. But the pros are right, and it’s important to give the body what it craves and then some — within reason. Even a 15-minute walk will turn a dismal day around. It doesn’t take much — just do what feels best.

Because after month three, for nearly all expecting ladies, life gets great. I mean really, really great. I found myself giddy as I shopped for new running shoes. Outings felt amazing again. My energy was back and my legs, strong from the yoga and refreshed from a few months off, were ready to run again. I listened to what my body needed and since the beginning of March I’ve been hitting the pavement and trails faithfully.

Keep in mind that I’ve always been a runner. It’s not something I would recommend picking up mid-pregnancy. I think the benefits of exercise during pregnancy are far from fully discovered, but the effort has to be catered to the individual. It’s not a time to start something new. Instead, pick up an activity you know you’ll be comfortable doing safely and take it slow to begin. When I first started running again, my body (and belly) weren’t used to the bouncing. I’d walk until the round ligaments (those that support and stretch as the uterus grows) relaxed and my body warmed up. Now I feel great on all types of terrain. Yesterday, I even passed a guy on a long downhill. He couldn’t see, but I had a grin from ear to ear.

It’s also important to make sure, especially during pregnancy, that all activity is coupled with ample fluids and food. I don’t eat during activity (it gives me side aches), but I make sure to have a snack of water and complex carbohydrates or fruit available within 15 minutes of finishing a run. The sooner you replenish depleted stores, the faster your body will recover.

With the sun making more regular appearances these days, it’s time to get out and enjoy the Alaskan scenery. Trails at lower elevations, such as the Salmon Creek, Dupont and Rainforest trails, are currently snow and ice free and aren’t too long or arduous for most.

In an effort to inspire and educate other women, I’m going to continue this column until my due date in September. I’ll interview local midwives and doctors to help gain insight on how exercise can affect an expecting mom and baby. I’ll touch on topics such as gear, foods that pack a punch, preventing complications, dads, and what it’s like to be Alaskan and pregnant. I’ll offer reports on local trails and which ones clumsy ladies (especially those that can no longer see their feet) should avoid. And I’ll keep it real, offering up my own experiences — the celebrations and the challenges.

Remember, everyone is different. Make sure to check with your doctor or midwife before beginning an exercise program.