Cycling in Pregnancy

I had my first baby, Ellen, in March 2003. I continued to cycle until I was 37 weeks pregnant. The only reason I stopped was because my hands hurt too much as a result of pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. My second (and last, I hope!) baby, Luke, was born in August, 2006. My experiences while pregnant with him were quite different. I didn't have any carpal tunnel syndrome, so I kept riding up until the day I gave birth to him. My experiences, in much more detail, are below.

Pregnancy 1

Me at 39 weeks pregnant. This photo is a bit of a cheat, as I actually stopped cycling at 37 weeks.

In early July 2002 my period, which had been pretty reliable, was late. My husband, Simon, was very excited, but I wanted to wait a couple of weeks before doing a test. In mid-July we spent 10 days cycle touring in Scotland. We did 440 miles over the trip, and there were some big hills. I didn't work too hard at the hills, but then I usually don't work too hard when cycling! I prefer to work at a moderate pace and enjoy myself. When we got back from the trip I got one of those DIY pregnancy kits and got the good news: I was pregnant.

A couple of weeks after we got back from Scotland, I did a big ride, going from Cambridge (where we live) to Kenilworth (where Simon's parents live), which is 98 miles away by the route I take. I'd done this a couple of times before, but not recently. I felt pretty strong after touring, so I felt I was up to it. I arrived at the in-laws' place very tired and achy, but I was fine the next day. Simon's mom was a bit worried about a pregnant woman doing the ride; I guess she was worried that there was a chance that it might trigger a miscarriage or something. I wasn't very worried about this, as I got the impression from reading articles on the Internet that miscarriages are due mainly to genetic abnormalities in the foetus, and I knew that the effort would be very low-impact, my usual moderate exertion.

I did my usual complement of day rides over the rest of the summer, with a fair few between 40 and 50 miles. I didn't notice myself being much slower than usual, but then I'm not usually terribly fast to begin with.

It is interesting to note the reaction of my midwife (midwives are the main carers for pregnant women over here) to my riding through pregnancy. She was all for it, thinking that keeping fit could only help when giving birth. It is interesting to note that this is not the opinion of all midwives: I corresponded with another cycling mom-to-be, Becka. Even from three or so months pregnant, Becka's midwife was suggesting that it was unwise for her to contunue cycling, even if she felt fine doing it. It's probably entirely due to the places we live. Becka is in Bradford, where utility cycling (just cycling to get to work, the shops, etc) is rare, where it's very common in Cambridge.

I had heard that if you are cycling while pregnant, you should use a heart rate monitor to make sure you don't get your heart beating too fast (over 140 beats/minute). Well, considering that I'm not a performance or speed cyclist, but a moderate paced tourist and utility cyclist, I didn't feel this was necessary. I just went by how I felt. Perhaps women who feel compelled to go all out on their rides should use them to restrain themselves from working too hard.

In October I spent a weekend riding in the Cotswalds. By this time I think I had slowed down a fair bit. I was almost the slowest one in the group, but then the people I was riding with were dedicated cycle tourists, so it was to be expected that I wouldn't be among the faster people on the ride! Still, I didn't get too far behind the leaders of the group: they were still willing to wait for me at junctions. One thing I did notice was that my left hand was really acting up. I have had problems with my left hand since 1996, when I developed a bad case of RSI-related tendonitis in my left hand, forearm, and elbow due to years of bad typing practice. Gradually it has improved by fixing my typing habits, raising my handlebars, and using flat handlebars instead of drop bars. But before I pregnant, my left hand would start to tingle after I'd been riding for a bit, and I'd have to take it off the bar and shake it to bring the life back. By October it had got far worse; the tingling started far sooner than it use to, and it took more vigorous shaking to make it go away.

The last ride I did while pregnant that was longer than about 10 miles was in November. Simon had been asked to lead the local CTC afternoon ride. This is a fairly slow bunch of people, and I'm usually much faster than most of the riders. This was no longer true; I lagged up the hills (well, what passes for hills here in flat Cambridge!). I had definitely slowed down by this time. It was very embarassing.

Me and my big belly, 37 weeks pregnant

I continued to ride to work, which was about 3.5 miles away. What with commuting to work and doing various other utilitarian trips by bike, I would put 40-50 miles on the bike per week. I continued to ride my usual commuting bike, a fixed gear bike. Gradually my hands got worse and worse, and the right hand joined in the aching and tingling. I eventually figured out that I was having pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome. The dead giveaway was that the affected fingers were the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and half my ring finger. I got some splints to wear at night. My hands still got worse, but perhaps this slowed down the rate of degradation.

In January I thought that eventually I would need some gears so I got a rigid MTB kitted out for road use, with smooth tires, mudguards, and a rack. I used this only for about a week, and then my hands got too bad even to use this. I swapped to using the Brompton shown at the top of this article because it has a very upright riding position and puts very little weight on my hands.

Around December or January I noticed feeling some kind of cramps as I rode. They were somewhat painful, but mostly very uncomfortable, and occurred in my lower abdomen and upper thighs. I found that I could still ride while these were happening, and eventually they would go away. One day I'd get them every time I rode or even did much walking, and they'd be gone the next day. If they had continued I would have stopped riding, but as they were intermittent I just kept it up. I realize now that they were probably Braxton-Hix contractions.

In February, three weeks before I was due, my hands got too painful for me to ride even the Brompton. Both my hands had reached the state where the fingers were tingling full time, whether or not I rode the bike. They were also very weak, and I found it difficult to make a fist. I also got shooting pains in my hands when I tried to grip things, making braking impossible. I stopped riding to work, instead having my husband drive (we worked at the same place). Oddly enough (as carpal tunnel syndrome is often brought on by too much typing) I could still type, as my fingers are mostly straight when typing and it requires very little strength. Thus I could continue my job as a computer programmer. I worked full time until the day before I had baby Ellen.

Up until the end, I was still able to walk and climb stairs easily. My balance wasn't affected at all. Certainly my strength and endurance were (hence my slowing down on the bike by November) but I was still reasonably fit. I never felt particularly tired, except for one occasion. We went on holiday to Greece in early December, just before I was 6 months pregnant. I was recovering from a bad cold, but was still eager to see the sights. So we'd set off in the morning and see some interesting archaeological site. By the afternoon I was very tired, so we headed back to our hotel where I took a nap of 1 to 1.5 hours while Simon played with his new gadget (a PDA). Then when I woke up we sat and read a bit, and then went out to explore a bit more and have dinner. Simon said he actually liked this, as usually when we're on holiday I'm all go, wanting to see as much as I can, and he thought it was nice to have a holiday that was a bit more relaxed.

I think my posture was a bit better than many of the other pregnant women I'd see at the antenatal classes, as I sat quite upright while they slouched in their chairs, bellies protruding. I also think that my belly didn't stick out quite as much as some of theirs did because my stomach muscles were stronger. But perhaps this was just wishful thinking! You can see for yourself from the photo.
Ellen, 6 days old

I gave birth to Ellen on 11 March 2003. She was born by Cesarean, as she was in breech position (head up) and all the medical people I talked to recommended a C-section. I am used to thinking of myself as very strong and tough so it was difficult to accept that I had undergone major abdominal surgery and had to take it easy. I went for a short (maybe 1/2 mile?) walk the day after I got out of the hospital, 5 days after surgery, and it completely whiped me out. However, gradually I recovered.

The info I was given in the hospital said that I should wait 8 weeks before cycling again, however I went for a quick 1/2 hour ride 5 weeks after giving birth and it was absolutely fine. However I did very little riding, as I needed to stay home to watch Ellen.

By about a month after Ellen was born the strength had returned to my hands, and I no longer got those shooting pains when I tried to grip things. However, some of my fingers were still quite tingly.

I didn't do much riding until nearly two months after Ellen was born. At that time we got Ellen's cycle trailer set up for her to ride in, by figuring out how to secure a car safety seat in the trailer. So when Ellen and I went for a ride, she was strapped into a car safety seat which was strapped into the trailer, so she was safe, well, as safe as anyone can be on a bike nowadays.
me pulling Ellen

By 5 months after Ellen was born, my hands had almost completely recovered. I had only the tiniest bit of full-time tingling in one of my fingers, and it was clear that that would go away too, given time. By 6 months, the full-time tingling had completely gone away, but the fingers of my left hand still get tingly as I ride. However, they did this before I got prenant, so I don't think there has been any long-term effect from my pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel syndrome.

Pregnancy 2

Me one week before I gave birth, heading out for a shopping trip in town.

Well, there isn't much to say about my second pregnancy. I didn't have any carpal tunnel syndrome, and I didn't have any Braxton-Hix contractions that I can remember. While I continued to ride to work every day, I wasn't doing very much leisure cycling, and I pretty much stopped that by April, when I was 5 months pregnant. I did however, do quite a bit of shopping by bicycle, including doing the weekly food shop by bike most weeks. I would use the child trailer (since it was already attached to the bike anyway) and head into town and do all my shopping at the market and the small Sainsbury's. I continued doing this until the day I gave birth to Luke: I had been in town shopping on Saturday monrning; on Saturday night I went into labor, and on Sunday morning I had my new baby!

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