This article is a reflection of Jess's experiences, and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice.
For years, pregnancy and motherhood meant taking time out from training and competing, changing an athlete's trajectory, and potentially never getting back to the same level of competition. And that's not to mention the challenges of getting pregnant in the first place, when you're training hard. So, it's no surprise that for many female athletes, the question of if and when to start a family has been fraught with difficulty.
But today, more and more female athletes are rewriting the rules around pregnancy, training through their pregnancies and returning to the very highest levels of sport afterwards. For Olympic Gold Medallist and Team SunGod triathlete Jess Learmonth, falling pregnant while training was completely unexpected - but it's given her career a whole new chapter. We caught up with Jess during her pregnancy to learn how she navigated being a pregnant athlete; from nailing her research, to adapting her training, to listening to her body.
Read on to discover Jess's 5 tips for pregnant athletes...
Pregnancy: The silver lining to Jess's injury period
Jess: As a female athlete, choosing to become a mum often means choosing between progressing in the career and sport you love, and the ticking time bomb that is starting a family.
I always thought I'd have to stop training to get pregnant because I have polycystic ovaries, so I never had regular periods. My partner and I thought becoming a mum would mean the end of my triathlon career, and we planned to review it after Paris 2024. So, when we found out we were pregnant earlier this year, it was a complete shock - it changed everything!
I'd been out of action for a long time thanks to a hip injury, and was finally getting back to full fitness, planning to be back on the start line in May this year. Although the pregnancy was unexpected and meant we had to change our plans, it was the silver lining to my injury - it turned what had been a bad period of my life, into a very good period.
Because now, I can get back to competing for as long as I like after I've given birth. I thought becoming a mum would spell the end of my triathlon career - and now that's not the case! I get the opportunity to come back and race with a family, which is something I never thought I'd have the chance to do.
Tip 1: Do your research
I did a lot of research at the start of my pregnancy, to find out if and how I could keep training. This included:
Reading papers and studies on pregnancy and sport. It doesn't take long - because there aren't many!
Speaking to as many people as I could about their training and pregnancy. You're not alone, and I'm sure any athlete will be like myself, and happy to help anyone else - just remember your experiences won't necessarily look the same as theirs!
Working with Female Athlete Health, who are part of the British Association of Sports & Exercise Medicine. They are experts on physical activity during pregnancy, offering advice and resources to help female athletes navigate their journeys towards motherhood, without having to sacrifice their sport or career.
Using my support network. British Triathlon have been extremely supportive, from getting female physios to assess me for my return post-birth, to financial support, to putting me in touch with Female Athlete Health!
Tip 2: Ditch the VO2 Max
After speaking to experts, I learnt that the main change I needed to make to my training was to keep my heart rate below 85% after 12 weeks; that means around 150 bpm. I typically do a lot of VO2 max training [high heart rate], so this was a pretty major change for me.
But apart from that, my training plan has changed very little. I've trained just the same amount, and the only significant difference is that I've stopped getting out on my road bike in the later stages of my pregnancy - but that's just because I wanted to reduce the risk of an accident. You can be confident in your own ability, but you can't predict what a car or bus will do! So now, for bike sessions I just go on my turbo, or take my mountain bike out on the trail, away from cars. Having a bump can be a little uncomfortable on a road bike, but on a MTB you're in a more upright position so it's a great alternative.
Zwift is also a great companion for the Turbo Trainer, with their "Baby on Board" pregnancy-specific sessions created by pregnant athletes.
Tip 3: Take your training day by day
As for running, I just take it run by run. Ligament pain is pretty common when you start running, as your weight is distributed differently, but I just walk and let it settle, then I'm good to go again. If I ever feel that I'm too tired, or I have a lot of pain, I just stop. I've basically just become really tuned into my body.
I think it's important to realise that there will be niggles here and there as your weight becomes distributed differently. But as an athlete, you're more in tune with your body so you can generally tell what's muscular pain, and what is just uncomfortable because you've got a bit of weight somewhere new.
So I've been pretty relaxed. I've barely felt like I've been pregnant, apart from the bump and the odd kick! But I've been really lucky - obviously, not everyone has the same experience.
Tip 4: Listen to your body...
Get as much information as you can - but there's a lot of conflicting information on the internet and everyone has got their own opinion, so make sure that the people you are listening to are qualified and are giving good advice!
Do the research that you can, then just listen to your body, and trust it. As an athlete, you know your body and what it's used to. If you run 5 times a week, stick around that; don't suddenly double it when you're pregnant. Take it day by day, because each day will be different, and listen to what your body is telling you.
Tip 5: ...because every pregnancy is different
I've learned that there is no one path that suits everyone. Everybody is completely different - so all I've done is try to get as much information as I can, and make my own decisions. Every pregnancy is unique, so it's hard for someone else to tell you how you feel and what you should or shouldn't do. I don't think I realized at the start.
You have to rely on yourself a lot to analyze how you're feeling and make your own decisions. In a way, this is good practice - because you're going to have to start doing that for someone else very soon!
Congratulations Jess - and good luck!
A few weeks after this interview, on 10th September, Jess gave birth to a healthy baby boy. And just 6 weeks post-partum, Jess is back training again, looking to get up to speed in time for the Olympic trials.
We hope Jess' story gives hope to other female athletes out there, who are weighing up their sports career and their desire to have a family. At SunGod, we know that the future can only look bright for pregnant athletes if governing bodies, sponsors and organisers continue their support - both personally and financially - during and after pregnancy. Through offering the right support, we can help female athletes plan their families without fear of getting dropped, sacrificing their ranking, or losing their income. And when we pair this with the ever-improving science out there, it means the future for pregnant athletes looks bright.
As for Jess, as she gets back into training post-partum, we know she's going to nail it. Good luck Jess - we're backing you every step of the way!
Follow Jess's progress as she gets back to race fitness at @jesslearmonth.