Cycling during pregnancy: Q&A with Dame Sarah Storey

Cycling during pregnancy: Q&A with Dame Sarah Storey

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Britain's most decorated female Paralympic athlete Dame Sarah Storey gave birth to her daughter Louisa in June 2013. British Cycling’s Coaching and Education team caught up with Sarah to find out what her advice would be for cycling during pregnancy.

How does it feel to be a mum?

It is amazing being a Mum, so much fun and a brilliant challenge; I can't imagine life without Louisa now and she is doing brilliantly. I am breast feeding and so our days revolve around when she is hungry. I have to be ready to go out training as soon as she looks like she might have a longer nap! I leave expressed milk in the fridge though, so she won't go hungry and Barney gives her the bottle.

Being the most successful British Paralympic athlete, what motivates you to keep going?

I love racing and training and I know I can still improve. I am lucky to do what I do and be able to take Louisa with me and the family. So many jobs you have to take maternity leave to spend this much time with your kids. I think it will be great fun for Louisa growing up, we have been to a few places already and she loves to be nosey and look around, as well as loving to meet people - she is a real socialite!

During pregnancy, where did you find guidance on exercising?

I read the basic guidelines given to all expectant mums and then discussed the specifics with my coach, Gary Brickley, and our team doctor. Like most things in pregnancy, everyone is different, so after following the basic advice about the importance of staying hydrated, not overheating and not getting overtired, the workload I did was very specific to me. Gary and Doctor Richard were brilliant at advising me and also reminding me not to push myself too hard.

How did pregnancy change the way you rode your bike?

I had to adjust my effort and heart rate expectations. In essence, I adopted a ‘pregnancy pace’ to protect my baby and also ensure I didn't become overtired. I was unable to do structured efforts above an aerobic level, so all the training I did was general base training.

If you became pregnant again, would you do things differently?

No, from a cycling perspective everything was great. I didn't take any unnecessary risks. For example, I didn't ride in the rain in case I slipped off and I gradually reduced the hours in the final month. Cycling definitely prepared me well for the birth, as when the early contractions started, I had the stamina for that not to affect me.

How did you start training again after giving birth?

I started training again six weeks after the birth and have gradually built up in terms of time and intensity. My hours were slightly down as my body needed to cope with the energy demands of breast feeding, but I am actually quite fit now and doing more intense sessions.

The challenge was managing intensity and milk production, as higher intensities for prolonged periods have been linked to lower milk production. I also have to be careful when I train abroad through the winter, as hotter weather and not drinking enough will also affect milk supply. Ultimately though, Louisa will be eating food and I will gradually feed her less, so this fine balancing act will only be for a year or so and I think it is an effort worth making to give her the best start nutritionally and health wise.

We also caught up with Sarah’s coach, Gary Brickley, who played a key role in ensuring the elite rider trained appropriately during pregnancy.

Gary is a hugely successful coach, having worked on the Great Britain Paralympic Cycling Team programme and contributed to the medal successes of many riders. Gary works as a senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise at the University of Brighton and specialises within exercise physiology.

Was coaching Sarah through pregnancy a new experience for you?

Yes, coaching a multiple Paralympic champion through pregnancy is pretty rare and there is no textbook to help you with that. I know a reasonable amount of information about the changes in pregnancy.

I am aware of the many myths that might suggest don’t train too hard and be over cautious with eating and training. Sarah’s pregnancy enabled her to continue to train right up to the birth. We scaled things accordingly - we changed the target power outputs and took into account some of the weight changes. We knew that hydration and exercising in the heat might be a problem.

We also didn’t take any risks on crashing and accounted for some of the positioning changes at different stages of the pregnancy.

What advice would you give athletes who wish to keep active during pregnancy?

Everyone responds differently, but everyone is capable of keeping active during pregnancy. I would recommend tracking heart rate or at least perceived effort during training. Keep a training diary and report when you feel good or not so good.

There is no reason why you can’t slightly scale down the training that you were doing before pregnancy. The top end of high intensity efforts may be reduced, but there is no major reason why the duration should be reduced.

Keep on top of hydration, and don’t overhydrate as this may reduce your sodium concentration, but try at least to match your sweat losses during training.

You will normally be carrying more weight and more blood, so it is important that you keep circulation going through continued activity. If cycling is not possible, then other activities such as yoga and walking might work.

It is very easy to detrain during pregnancy, but this shouldn’t be nine months off training. Keeping the training going normally will help in the birth process and the return to normal pre-pregnancy training.

British Cycling’s Coaching and Education team recently worked with the NHS to review its guidance for expectant mums, which now advises that cycling should be done with caution due to the risk of falling.

Expectant mothers will experience a number of physical changes, including a loosening of the joints and a change in centre of gravity.

These changes alter a rider’s ability to balance, so a coach should not ask riders to participate in technically challenging activities that require good balance.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) also provides excellent guidance on recreational exercise and pregnancy, suggesting that if people have cycled regularly beforehand, then they should simply take extra care. More information can be found here.