I’ve always been a cardio lover. There’s nothing like the sweat dripping from your pores, the panting for air, the lactic acid flushing your muscles, all combining to give you that feeling of being alive. Favorites over the years have been running (depending on the phase of the planets), spinning, kickboxing, Zumba, and swimming. There’s always been swimming.

Now that I’m pregnant, I’ve rediscovered my love for swimming. Shortly after we moved to Frankfurt, I found a pool close enough to ride my bike to. Initially I didn’t understand just how nice swimming can be for the pregnant body. Now that I’ve gained considerable girth (so much that I purchased my first-ever sport bikini because that’s just so much easier), I love the buoyancy the water provides. And being in the water helps relieve swelling in your feet and legs. Double bonus!

I haven’t had to modify much. I’m a big freestyler, and that works really well with a baby belly. Backstroke was never a favorite of mine, aside from the fact that you can’t keep as careful an eye on what co-swimmers are doing to make sure they keep the their flailing arms and legs away from your precious cargo hold as it slices through the water. Breaststroke, the non-granny kind where you dip your head under with each stroke to avoid too much pressure on your lower back, works well too. I just get bored with my lack of speed after a while. Butterfly seems like too much effort for my cardiovascular system, so, while I will dolphin kick a few laps, I never do the full-on stroke.

A big question I asked myself recently was whether or not flip turns are still a good idea. There are a lot of great discussions in the U.S. Masters Swimming forums. From what I can tell, the standard advice goes here too – if it feels good, do it; once the belly is too big, you won’t want to anymore anyway. I’d been flip-turning away until just this week, week 34, when all of a sudden it became obvious. There’s just no more space to roll into a ball and flip over.

I keep it relatively low-key, but my typical swim workouts combine any of the following:

alternating 200 freestyle + 200 flutter kick + 200 freestyle stroke with pull buoy

alternating 100 flutter kick + 100 freestyle stroke with pull buoy

alternating 100 breaststroke + 100 dolphin kick with single-sided stroke

5 x 200 freestyle (on 5 minutes if I’m feeling strong)

5 x 100 freestyle (on 3 minutes if I’m feeling strong)

I usually aim for 2,000 meters total. Since my heart rate monitor doesn’t work under water, I go with how I’m feeling to monitor my intensity using the Rate of Perceived Exertion. Some days are faster. Some days just aren’t. I always give myself extra time between sets to get my heart rate down again and to catch my breath. And the water bottle is never far from reach.

The most fun part about swimming? When people smile and say that Roo is already getting his first swim lessons. And I like when Toby calls me a Kugelfish (puffer fish, literally ball fish).

Push it mama

When I started working out again, one of my first questions was related to intensity. How hard could I work out while still taking care of my unborn child? A number I often ran across in online articles and discussion groups was 140 bpm for maximum heart rate. Not having anything else to base my workouts on, I started there. The problem was that I needed a way higher heart rate to feel like I was getting a workout, even pregnant.

This became obvious to me when I subbed for a Zumba class around my 18th week, dutifully wearing my heart rate monitor. My goal was to stay under, or at least around 140. I did fine for the first few songs, and then I was up in the 160s and low 170s. A quick self-check of all my vital systems told me I was doing just fine, so I carried on, making sure to drink plenty of water. After that I decided I needed to find out more about this bpm limit.

Turns out 140 is a number quite literally pulled out of thin air with no real scientific basis. It’s obviously hard to recommend a single number for a population of people who share the fact that they are pregnant but very little else. Each pregnant woman’s pre-pregnancy training status and pregnancy story are different, and both need to be respected.

A much better way to monitor your effort during pregnancy, and one supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), is with Borg’s Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. The key word is “perceived,” meaning the scale accounts for not only differences between people but also for differences between one person’s fitness level from day to day. The scale gives you a way to self-assess the intensity of your activity, independent of heart rate, ranging from the amount of effort it takes to sit around (6) all the way up to your maximum effort (20). When pregnant, and depending on your pre-pregnancy level of fitness, you should mostly be working out at a ‘moderate’ to ‘hard’ level ( 12-14 on the scale of 6-20) that allows for some conversation with some effort. For me, if I can still sing all the words to my favorite song on my playlist, I need to step it up.

What’s really interesting is that due to some crazy changes a pregnant body goes through, you most likely won’t have to work out as hard to reach the same intensity levels as pre-pregnancy. The following result in the heart having to work harder to pump blood around the body, hence influencing your perceived exertion:

  • blood volume increases by 40-50%
  • heart rate increases by about 15 bpm
  • stroke volume and cardiac output (basically how much blood your heart pumps with each beat) increase

Workout intensity is an important consideration since you shouldn’t be working out so hard that the baby starts suffering. This is why it’s beyond important to listen to your body. Really listen. If something feels good, it probably is good. If something feels bad, drop it. And if you’re not sure, call it quits and ask your doctor.

Some days I like to push it. Other days it just feels better to take it easy, and so I do. I never forget that pregnancy is the time to be kind to myself – I am, after all, baking another human being in that lovely belly of mine!

Fit mama

There is a lot of uncertainty and misinformation surrounding fitness training during pregnancy. While everyone agrees that a minimum level of activity is good for both the mother and the growing fetus (even if mom was inactive before getting pregnant), there is more debate about moving beyond low-impact things like walking, swimming, and gentle yoga.

I was physically active long before I got pregnant. Working out and pushing myself physically has always been a part of my life, whether it’s been desert hiking, open-water swimming, functional training, Zumba, or yoga. I’m not crazy athletic; I just like being physically fit and able to rely on my body. And I like my ice cream and skinny jeans.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, I toned it way down when it came to working out. Partially because when I finally got pregnant, there was a mental block about not wanting to shake the baby out, as silly as that seems in hindsight, and partially because I wasn’t really sure what my body was doing anymore between the tiredness, instant aversion to many of my favorite foods, and the constant queasiness.

Then I got sick of not moving and was determined to have a fit and healthy pregnancy, and to set myself up as optimally as possible for a quick recovery and return to my skinny jeans. So I started working out again. At first I continued with my functional resistance training and cardio on the elliptical, and then added Pilates, swimming, and pelvic floor exercises.

As my belly and Roo (as we’ve taken to calling him) have grown, I’ve had to adjust my technique and resistance, remember that my balance and core stability are temporarily on hiatus, and listen to my body even more than before. When there have been questions about what is good for me or not, I’ve diligently done my research.

I am by no means an expert, so take anything I say as a starting point for your own research. I just know that I feel good about and enjoy what I am doing. And, even more importantly, I feel comfortable in my new athlete-mama body, despite a few more pounds and a big belly.

Pumping grannies and more

I think it’s finally time to report on the job. The Christina is doing well. I’ve gotten comfortable enough with the procedures that I’m finally able to veer a little off the ‘script’ and bring my own personality to the, er, workout bench. I’m not always sure if the gym members I speak with get or appreciate my jokes – your sense of humor is the hardest thing to regain when you’re speaking a different language (the cultural references and word plays I know just don’t work as well in German) – but everyone, myself included, seems to be having a good time. As good a time as you can have while pushing out another set of 20…

But that’s what I love about the job. There’s a generally positive vibe around the gym. While each of the ladies (it’s a women’s gym) has different goals and reasons for being there, they’re all motivated by the same desire to do something good for themselves, to improve themselves. And you can somehow see that. They go through their routines with determination and skill (each new member gets an introduction to our machines and a personalized training plan to get started off with). I’ve never seen so many women using weight machines and free weights. On a busy night, you actually have to wait for the leg press.

Who are these women, you might ask? It’s a refreshing mix of young and old – some with jobs or college schedules, some with babies, some with a solid foundation of muscle, some with a little extra padding. And, because our regulars are fairly regular, there’s a sense of community among many of the members. My favorite group is the Monday morning coffee clique – these older ladies start out with a back strengthening class, go to their balance class, and then sit at our bar sipping cappuccinos before tackling the rest of their days. Seeing them makes me smile.

And, I’m slowly becoming a member of their community. I’m getting to know the names and stories of many of the regulars, just like they’re getting to know me. And, even though I already have the reputation for knowing how to make your muscles quiver, there are a few who really like working out with the ‘Arizona lady.’

It makes working evenings and Sundays not so bad.

Ich bin

So, for the last two weeks, I’ve been in training for my new job as fitness coach – learning the procedures, the computer system, the equipment, the course structures, and the personalities of the regular members. The last point is the one that challenges this rather shy girl. You want me to walk around, make small talk, make myself approachable…in German…? Gulp.

Lucky for me, I’ve discovered an idiosyncrasy in the German language that allows me to define and assume an alternate personality as fitness coach. Hallo, ich bin die Christina. The literal translation – Hello, I am the Christina. Yes – The Christina. I’m giving it a capital T for effect.

I’m the outgoing, totally approachable girl with the funny accent who will help you get to those killer abs and lean, sexy muscles. I’ll create an inspiring training plan you can’t wait to do. I’ll lead the most fun abs/butt/legs/back group workouts you’ve ever experienced. I’ve got great nutrition tips. Anything else you need to reach your fitness goals? I can whip that up too!

Just in the nick of time – next week I start my regular schedule. Here comes The Christina, fitness coach extraordinaire!