Forget the scare-mongering, cycling while pregnant is a matter of common sense, and it has health benefits too.
One thing pregnant women never go short of is advice: cut back on that, don’t do this, stop eating that. Where does cycling fit in? Is it a sensible way to stay fit and healthy during pregnancy, or are there risks for mother and baby? The official line from the NHS is clear cut – cycling is a definite no-no. The NHS website contains a list of sports to avoid, and cycling is included alongside horse riding, downhill skiing and gymnastics. The reason? All these activities have “a risk of falling”. But ‘cycling’ encompasses everything from tootling along a towpath to downhill mountain biking, with varying levels of risk.
No need to stop, but do take it easy
More reasonably, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) offers a less simplistic assessment of cycling in its leaflet ‘Recreational exercise and pregnancy: information for you’. Riding a bike is still listed alongside horse riding, skiing and gymnastics, but instead of a straightforward ‘no’ the RCOG suggests these are exercises to be undertaken with “particular care”.
Keen cyclist and GP Dr Andy Ward thinks this cautious approach is more sensible than putting your bike in a shed the moment you find out you are expecting. “If a pregnant woman was a confident cyclist prior to getting pregnant, I would have no problem with her continuing to ride during pregnancy. You are just as likely to fall off as you were before!” he said. “I would make her aware that there is a potential risk to the pregnancy if she did crash – BMX racing might not be the best idea!”
Long-distance cycle tourer and author Josie Dew chose to continue cycling through her two pregnancies, and agrees with Andy that normal everyday cycling is a reasonable thing for a pregnant woman to do. “I wouldn’t career headlong down a steep rocky hillside off-road, but I think normal cycling is fine – and is actually very beneficial,” she said.
Within moderation, cycling is a good form of exercise during pregnancy. Listen to your body
Benefits of cycling while pregnant
What are the advantages of continuing to ride a bike? “The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that maternal benefits appear to be both physical and psychological in nature,” says Andy Ward. “Many common complaints of pregnancy, including fatigue, varicose veins and swelling of extremities, are reduced in women who exercise. Additionally, active women experience less insomnia, stress, anxiety and depression.
“An argument for public health is that women who incorporate exercise into their routine during pregnancy are more likely to continue exercising after birth. These benefits are not exclusive to cycling, but if that is a woman’s preferred method of exercise, then it beats a sedentary lifestyle.”
However, while Andy sees many positives to cycling while pregnant, he concedes it’s not entirely risk-free, of course. “The two main risks of cycling while pregnant are falling off and injuring the foetus, and overheating, which can cause abnormalities in the baby if it occurs in the first trimester. To avoid overheating in the first trimester it is advisable to wear cooler gear, maintain hydration and avoid riding on very hot days.”
One condition that pregnant cyclists may be at increased risk of is pre-eclampsia, characterised by high blood pressure and increased levels of protein in urine. This condition can develop into eclampsia, with life-threatening consequences for the mother and baby. However, the risk remains small and the evidence of increased risk is mixed.
“There was a 2009 Danish study that showed a small increase in severe pre-eclampsia in women who cycled for more than 270 minutes per week during the first trimester of pregnancy,” Andy explains. “The problem with the study is that although severe pre-eclampsia is serious, it is rare (affecting only 0.5 percent of pregnancies), so even if your risk is doubled you still only have a one percent chance of getting it (the increase in risk was actually a bit smaller). A subsequent systematic review published in 2012 suggested that exercise may actually help prevent pre-eclampsia (although it did not give an idea about the optimum amount).”
This illustrates the value of doing your research, something Victoria Hazael, senior communications and media coordinator of cycling charity CTC, took very seriously during her first pregnancy. “I thought about whether to cycle and did some research online. I realised that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there and it depends which website you look at.”
If you’re a regular rider anyway, there’s no reason not to carry on when pregnant.
Consult with your midwife
When Victoria spoke to a midwife, she was advised that as she already cycled it was sensible to continue if she wished. “I was told that as I cycle everyday anyway and use my bike as transport, it made sense for me to carry on.”
However, not every medical professional Victoria spoke to was as enthusiastic. “You don’t always see the same midwife throughout your pregnancy, and I met one who was not supportive at all. She told me I shouldn’t have cycled from work to my appointment, so I explained the research I had done, that I cycled every day, and that I didn’t fit in a lot of other exercise. She backed down!”
Josie Dew found that her midwife was happy for her to continue riding. “When I asked her is it okay to keep cycling, she thought I meant maybe half a mile down the road to the shops. But no, I meant 10, 20 or more miles a day. When she realised I normally did a lot more than that a day, she was surprised but very supportive. But she stressed that I shouldn’t push myself, which I didn’t. I just rode the number of miles that I felt like riding.”
Don't overdo it
If you do decide to cycle during pregnancy, riding sensibly and not overdoing it makes sense. It’s a time for staying healthy, not starting an ambitious training schedule for a sportive or long charity ride. “Fitness and activity levels will naturally decline through the pregnancy, so setting realistic goals is important,” says Andy Ward.
Victoria Hazael’s GP gave similar advice. “He said to really listen to your body. He talked about not getting out of breath, and not taking on something big or training for a long-distance ride. You need to realise that your energy levels won’t be the same as normal, and think about the oxygen levels in your blood.”
As your pregnancy progresses you may want to adjust your position on the bike to make it more comfortable. “I raised my handlebars so the riding position was more upright,” says Josie Dew. If you usually ride a road bike, you may want to swap to something more comfortable. Victoria Hazael explains, “I rode to work on a mountain bike and later a Brompton folder.”
Towards the end of your pregnancy, you can expect to feel more tired and to find cycling more difficult. “As the pregnancy progresses, cycling does get more tricky, especially when you have a physical bump in the way. But I didn’t feel particularly unstable. If I had felt unsteady I probably would have opted to walk or take the bus into work,” Victoria says.
As for when to stop riding altogether, different cyclists come to different conclusions. While Victoria stopped at eight-and-a-half months, largely because of snowy weather, Josie continued to ride to within days of her due date. “I rode up until just a few hours before both girls were born. In fact, I think it was cycling over a bumpy, badly surfaced road that set me into labour with my first child!”
Andy Ward suggests it’s better not to push yourself. “Not being too ambitious in later pregnancy would be my advice. Ride with someone as much as possible and always carry a mobile phone. Comfort and energy levels are probably the biggest factor.”
In the end, how much you cycle during pregnancy boils down to listening to your body and using common sense.
As your pregnancy progresses make sure your bike set-up is still comfortable for you.
Cycling in the different trimesters of pregnancy
The first 12 weeks is a crucial time for the foetus to grab a firm hold inside the womb, and this period is the highest risk of miscarriage. Keep cycling but do it gently and only if you feel like it – fatigue and morning sickness, which can last all day and all night, might force you to stop for a while. Listen to your body. Cycling off-road is not recommended – it comes with too many jolts and bumps and to high a chance of being sent over the bar.
During months three to six the chances of miscarrying fall dramatically. The tiredness and nausea of the first trimester are likely to have eased too, meaning you might have more energy than before. Cycling at this stage will keep you fit and supple which should help you cope with any aches or pains from carrying extra weight. Just remember to remain cautious despite your newfound energy, because a tumble won’t be good for mother or baby.
From month six to your due date your bump will be big and active. You might get short of breath, especially on the hills, and leaning over the handlebar can be challenging. Dutch style bikes have a position that avoids leaning over on your stomach. Many pregnant women are plagued by haemorrhoids so a wide saddle with a gel seat cover might be required. If you feel unstable with the bump, it’s time to put your bike to one side, but this is a personal choice. Cycling keeps you fit, pliable and gives you stamina for the labour itself.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists advises that exercise in pregnancy can help reduce varicose veins, tiredness and swelling. Active women tend to experience less insomnia, stress, anxiety and depression. The main risks are related to possible falls and overheating. Be sure to keep hydrated. Stop cycling and seek medical attention if you experience excessive shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, abdominal pains, leakage of amniotic fluid or bleeding.
Note: while the advice published here has come from medical professionals and cycling experts, you should always consult your GP before cycling during pregnancy
This article was originally published in The Essential Guide to Kids Cycling.