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Case Study 6: Triathlon Training Through Pregnancy

The Endurance Coach help people from a range of abilities achieve their goals in a variety of disciplines. Training methods vary depending on the athlete concerned and programs differ considerably. This series of blogs focuses on a selection of athletes – all with differing circumstances and considerations - and describes how their training was designed and adapted throughout 2016.

Rachel is an experienced triathlete I’d been coaching for several years who told me earlier this year she was pregnant. She was adamant she wanted to continue training but we had to agree on what event would be appropriate and how the training should be adapted.

The first thing to realise is that exercise is an essential part of Rachel’s life and going into ‘pregnancy mode’ simply wasn’t an option. Before we even discussed how to proceed there were several factors I’d already decided upon for safety reasons:

  • There would be no open water swimming
  • Rachel wouldn’t ride a bike outdoors until after the pregnancy
  • She wouldn’t sit on a bike attached to a turbo trainer

It should be noted that Rachel is also qualified as a medical doctor so was fully aware of the health considerations.

For the above reasons we were limited to targeting running events. I was unwilling to train Rachel for anything longer than a half marathon so we agreed on the Manchester Half Marathon in September. By then Rachel would be 22 weeks pregnant so it was the latest date we realistically wanted to be training for.

The first adaptation for Rachel was psychological as she had to realise her speed would become slower and the necessary recovery between sessions would become longer: this sounds obvious but competitive people can often overlook the most basic considerations. The outcome we were aiming for therefore needed to be realistic and achievable.

The second adaptation was physical. The body would be under increasing stress as the pregnancy progressed and Rachel’s heart rate was ten beats higher than normal. It was essential all training was based on perceived effort with heart rate used as a back-up. This meant sessions needed to be completed according to feel (in terms of training intensity) regardless of how fast or slow Rachel was actually running.

Training was structured in a way which maximised Rachel’s available time to achieve the biggest gains with the least possible fatigue. Overall volume would be determined by how Rachel progressed and running was rarely scheduled on consecutive days to provide her with the necessary recovery. Some days included two run sessions and most alternate days included one or two swims.

Although Rachel had access to a Watt Bike regular swimming was chosen instead for the following reasons:

  • It provided non-impact aerobic training so the physical stress would be less
  • Because she would be using pull buoy, band and paddles Rachel wasn’t fatiguing her legs so they would be fresh for running the next day
  • Swimming provided a social element to training

All swimming was to be done at L1 which meant Rachel spent most of her time towards the back of the lane – the runs were the priority so there was to be no excessive fatigue from the swimming. During all her swims Rachel used a combination of bull buoy, band and paddles. By increasing upper body resistance heart rate was lower so the overall training stress was less and recovery was quicker.

Rachel had previously been attending weekly track sessions and this continued throughout the process. Again, it was essential Rachel accepted she would be getting slower and she needed to work within an agreed level of exertion.

There were also regular S&C sessions included as Rachel had trained with an S&C coach at CrossFit 3D for several years. I trusted the technique and intensity would be appropriate as the sessions focused on movement and function so I saw no reason why they should be stopped.

Key sessions included track sessions, hilly runs, treadmill sessions including multiple very short fast efforts, progression runs and long runs which increased in length as the training progressed. The longest runs became more road focused progressing from 100% off road to 100% on road a week before the half marathon. All L1 runs were to be as easy as necessary and she wasn’t allowed to measure her pace.

Overall training volume gradually increased throughout the training process but if Rachel had to miss a session or two it was fine, and she knew there shouldn’t be any guilt if she needed more rest.

As preparation Rachel entered two 10ks and one 10 mile road race. The events were to stimulate the necessary training benefits but would also provide an indication of what heart rate would be appropriate during the half marathon. Rachel therefore wore a heart rate monitor for the events so we would know what heart rate she should limit herself to, not what she should achieve.

Race instructions for all intermediate events were as follows:

  • Warm thoroughly beforehand
  • Complete the first 1-2 miles at a pace which feels too slow
  • Achieve but don’t exceed the pre-agreed heart rate
  • Don’t measure pace
  • Slow down if you need to
  • Finish the race feeling as if you could have gone slightly faster

Based on the shorter events we decided heart rate shouldn’t exceed 165 but this should was secondary to perceived effort feeling ‘comfortable’ throughout. During the half marathon Rachel’s heart rate actually averaged 169 but her pacing was consistent throughout resulting in a 1hr 58 min half marathon. Her goal had been to break two hours and considering she was 22 weeks pregnant it was a very rewarding result.

As soon as Rachel completed the half marathon the training focus completely changed. Because the body was under increasing stress running volume and intensity immediately dropped and swimming intensity increased. Overall volume was reduced and there were more rest days with no key sessions specified.

The aim after the half marathon was to maintain fitness and enjoy the pregnancy without any pressure to complete any of the sessions. By maintaining some structure and normality Rachel is healthy and happy which is what training is ultimately all about.

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