Marathon training and pregnancy aren’t all that different

Just like the marathon virgins, I have no idea what lies ahead after my pregnancy

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between. She is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between. She is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times


At this time of year my inbox is filled with emails from first-time marathon runners. As I respond to the messages with an ever-growing baby bump between myself and the laptop, I notice how similar the two adventures are. Endurance events of a very different nature they may be but just like the marathon virgins, I have no idea what lies ahead and everything is new, exciting, scary and sometimes a little overwhelming.

Without realising it, I have been managing the pregnancy as if it is just another endurance event to prepare for and get excited about. Only time will tell if this is the best way to spend my pregnancy months.

I don’t claim to be a pregnancy expert with only eight months’ experience so far in the bank. Those eight months have been a huge learning curve filled with wonder, awe, moments of anxiety and quite a lot of heartburn.

Everyone is different and I know many people prefer not to know what lies ahead and trust that all will work out in the end. Whether it’s a marathon, a pregnancy or even a holiday, I’m too much of a control freak to leave it all to chance.

Setting milestones

Working towards a date nine months in the future is too hard for me to contemplate so I treat each week as a mini-milestone.

Every Friday so far has been a celebration of getting another week completed successfully.

I only think of the week that I am in and not try to look too far ahead.

When first-time marathoners wonder how they will be able to run 26.2 miles in the future, I remind them to look at what is required for this week only and trust that the body will adapt as the weeks go on.

Tracking time

The calendar is ingrained in the mind whether it is a marathon or a pregnancy. It is impossible for time to fly by as every day someone asks how long is left before the big day.

Accustomed to working off a marathon plan, it is no surprise to any of my marathon students that I have a pregnancy plan and diary.

This has helped keep me focused on the week that I’m in and stay organised with appointments, work and the ever-growing shopping list that a very small person seems to require. This is key to me staying on track in my planning and staying calm.

Be realistic

By the time marathon day arrives my students are cautiously excited and confident. They know they have done all they can to prepare but are also mindful that there is only so much they can control. Indeed, very few marathon and labour plans go exactly to plan, so being able to be adaptable to what the day brings is key. Whether it’s an upset stomach on a marathon route, or an emergency in a labour ward, knowing what might happen and what options are available builds confidence that whatever path the day might follow, we are informed, calm and flexible to adapt.

Surround yourself with positivity

People love to share the horror stories about marathons. We have all heard about the friend of a friend who had an awful marathon and never ran again. Somehow the positive stories of the marathon are less vocal. People feel guilty talking about their enjoyable marathons. I have noticed the same with pregnancy.

Many people are keen to share the horror stories rather than the positive pregnancy experiences. As I tell my runners to listen to the positive marathon stories, I am choosing to listen out for the positive pregnancy stories.


Surrounding yourself with encouraging people who understand what you are going through and are willing to help you on your journey is incredibly valuable in both endurance events.

It’s comforting to have family, friends and health professionals who share your excitement and understand your fears and concerns.

Getting the right supporters on board make us realise that both marathons and pregnancies are a lot easier when you have the best people cheering from the sidelines each day along the journey.

Ignore the competition

Your first marathon will be your fastest to date and potentially your only marathon, so it is important to enjoy it and be grateful you are in a position to be on the start line. Everyone has different paths to the starting line.

The same applies with pregnancy. It’s easy to compare with other women wondering if I should be bigger, smaller, fitter, more relaxed, more organised, more prepared or more apprehensive. I can only imagine the comparisons will get worse once a baby arrives.

Like marathons, I will aim to enjoy the pregnancy and parenthood rather than see it as a competition.

Listen to your body

There have been days when I have felt amazing and days when I feel like going back to bed as soon as I get up. I have had to adapt what I do to suit how my body is feeling. I have indeed looked after my body from a food, fitness and recovery perspective but sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and decide that rest might be the best decision. This is no different for marathon runners who need to take a few days off running when a niggle appears to avoid an injury down the line. Sometimes doing nothing can be the hardest thing as we feel we are not progressing.

Appreciate your situation

I am aware that there are lots of people who would love to be in the position I am in now and for various reasons are not. It’s easy to focus on the restrictions that pregnancy imposes , particularly when you are not feeling yourself.

When marathon training, I remind my students of how lucky they are to be in a position to take on a marathon and they should take advantage, appreciate their luck and reframe their mindset from “having” to run to “getting” to run. Being grateful for being pregnant is no different. It’s not meant to be an easy journey and the hiccups along the way are part of the process.

Choose advice wisely

First-time marathoners get advice from every corner, particularly from people who have never ran a marathon. As a first-time mum, I’m noticing as the bump increases the conflicting yet well meaning advice is now coming my direction from every angle. It’s hard to know who to believe and what tips to take on board. As I tell my marathoners, now is the time to trust the training, believe in what you have done, accept all advice and take on board only that which makes sense to you.

Keep your head in check

The tapering phase of marathon training is the few weeks before marathon day where the reality kicks in and practicalities for race day come to the fore. It’s all about getting prepared, packing bags, making lists and looking back over the last few months while trying not to get overwhelmed about what lies ahead. As I move into this stage of pregnancy, I aim to follow my marathon-tapering guidelines, calling on the trusted sports psychology tips of visualisation, positive self-talk and generally getting the head in the right place.

Your first time doing anything

It’s a long time since my first marathon, yet in the recent months I have revisited those same butterflies which I associate with it. The fear of the unknown that goes with a marathon is the biggest concern of my runners and my job is to build their confidence, knowledge and mindset as well as their fitness.

Whether your upcoming event is your first marathon or your first baby, it helps to know that there is a lot you can do to learn, motivate and prepare yourself for the challenge ahead. Whatever path the “race day” takes you have done all you can. There is a lot of comfort in that.

Fitness in pregnancy: A physio's view 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologist recommends that women with uncomplicated pregnancies should be encouraged to engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises before, during and after pregnancy.

Regular physical activity helps with weight management, reduces the risk of gestational diabetes in obese women, and enhances psychologic al wellbeing. An exercise programme that leads to an eventual goal of moderate-intensity exercise for at least 20-30 minutes per day on most or all days of the week should be developed and adjusted as medically indicated.

Swimming, walking, modified yoga, stationary bike and low-impact aerobics are all safe exercises in pregnancy. Some yoga positions should be avoided later in pregnancy. Avoid hot yoga.

If you were lifting weights before you got pregnant, you can keep going but take it easy and ask your instructor for advice. Avoid heavy weights or routines where you have to lie flat on your back.

In consultation with your doctor running, jogging, racquet sports and strength training may be safe for pregnant women who participated in these activities regularly before pregnancy. As you get closer to your due date, run on flat, groomed surfaces to reduce impact and avoid falls.

Risky sports Risky sports are contact sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer and activities that increase your risk of falling, such as off-road running, mountain biking, downhill skiing and horse riding.

Engage your core – your abdominals pelvic floor with impact or you might leak, get pelvic girdle pain or low back pain. If you are not sure how to do this find a chartered physiotherapist in your area.

When to slow down As long as you can talk comfortably and aren’t short of breath while exercising, you’re moving at a good pace. Don’t exert yourself to the point of heavy sweating. Drink plenty of fluids. If you have any of the following symptoms, stop exercising and call your doctor right away: contractions; chest pain; dizziness; calf pain or swelling; less movement by the baby; headache; muscle weakness; fluid leaking from vagina; or vaginal bleeding.

Maeve Whelan is a chartered physiotherpist

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