Family Matters

Is It a Bad Idea to Run a Marathon While Pregnant?

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Mark Black / Daily Herald / AP

Amber Miller of Westchester, Ill., who completed the Chicago marathon on Sunday before giving birth, holds her new daughter, June, during a news conference at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Ill., on Oct. 10, 2011.

Few moms would deny that pregnancy, with its 40 long weeks of growing a baby, feels like a marathon. But Amber Miller of Westchester, Ill., gave that simile a literal twist: on Sunday, with a little more than a week to go before her due date, she ran — and walked — the Chicago Marathon, beating her husband’s time and welcoming her new daughter seven hours after crossing the finish line.

“Baby’s first marathon!” cried one supporter. “Go, pregnant lady!” cheered another.

It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. Miller, 27, had registered for the race before she knew was pregnant. Two days later, she found out she was expecting her second child. By Sunday morning, with baby still on board, she decided not to forfeit the registration fee. Her doctor gave her permission to run half the race and walk the rest, so she did, with a time of 6:25:50.

“I went into it not expecting to finish,” said Miller, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I started running, I ran two [miles], walked two, and I was feeling really good … so I just kind of kept on going.”

Miller’s story ended happily, with contractions at the conclusion of the race producing a 7-lb., 13-oz. daughter named June and a mom who, speaking from her hospital room, looked mighty perky the day after.

But even Miller admitted that she’d generated more than a few double-takes, with at least one woman saying, “Girl, you should quit!” I got my share of those sorts of comments when I did the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure the day after I was due with my youngest — but a 5K hardly approaches the intensity of a marathon.

Plenty of Tribune readers took issue with Miller’s decision to engage in such strenuous exercise so late in her pregnancy. One commenter, “drdsgolf,” a pediatrician who said he was in practice for 36 years, wrote:

Are you people familar with the concept of a stillborn? Babies not infrequently die in utero right at the end of pregnancy, presumably at times from lack of adequate blood flow to the placenta. I think it is highly irresponsible for any physician to recommend such a long and strenuous course of action at 39 weeks, where blood clearly must be diverted from the placenta to her muscles. No one, I repeat, no one could assure her that this was a safe choice.

Another commenter and presumed runner, “hollyberry9,” fended off the criticisms: “I cannot believe how many people [feel] free to judge the actions of this woman … Please, get over yourselves, and go out for a run.”

In his book Exercising Through Your Pregnancy, the late James Clapp advised women to stay fit before, during and after pregnancy. Clapp, who was a professor in the department of reproductive biology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, disagreed with recommendations to limit physical activity during pregnancy and strongly advised pregnant women to get active. “Exercise does help prevent a variety of health problems at other times in life, so why not during pregnancy and lactation?” he wrote. “It may turn out that the two most important things a woman can do to ensure a healthy pregnancy with a good outcome are to stop smoking and start exercising before getting pregnant.”

To offer some more context about Miller’s physiological feat, Healthland spoke with Jim Pivarnik, a professor of epidemiology and kinesiology at Michigan State University who has studied exercise in pregnancy for 25 years:

Q: It’s pretty amazing what Amber Miller did. Is she a freak or an inspiration?

A: Most women can’t tolerate that. They feel too heavy or they get too tired. They would have to slow down to a point that they wouldn’t even mention or physically be able to think about [running a marathon] at that time.

Q: Is what she did irresponsible?

A: This was O.K. for her. She was training that kind of mileage all the way to 38 weeks. She only ran half of it, and her doctor gave her permission. She had no dizziness, bleeding or cramping. It was standard operating procedure for her.

Q: How can a pregnant woman know how much exercise is appropriate?

A: You have to talk to your physician, and she did. You can’t give blanket recommendations for highly trained athletes. The only thing you can say is you want to keep doing what you’re doing, be in touch with your physician and make sure you have absolutely no symptoms [of preterm labor]. Your body will gradually slow you down, or it won’t.

Q: Are there any health outcomes of exercise for moms-to-be — and their babies?

A: Research shows women who exercise have shorter labor, decreased risk of pre-eclampsia and a possible decreased risk of gestational diabetes. If they continue to exercise postpartum, they’re more likely to take off their pregnancy weight, and that’s better for their health. Their babies are probably born with less body fat. We’re not talking about low-birthweight kids, but ones with slightly less fat.

Q: What about exercise for the typical pregnant woman who doesn’t feel up to tackling 26.2 miles?

A: U.S. physical activity guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week for the average American. Pregnant women can do the same thing. If you haven’t been doing something more intense, this is not the time to start.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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