Swimming with bump!
Moving during pregnancy is good. From easier births, quicker recovery post birth and benefits for your baby too, finding an activity that can really work for you can make a huge difference to your pregnancy and beyond.
It’s not surprising that many of us think of swimming as an ideal choice. According to Sports England, swimming is still the UK’s largest mass participation sport with 1 in 20 people swimming at least once a week. It’s seen as a safe option and there are some unique qualities that make it fit perfectly with pregnancy.
So here’s my guide to swimming whilst pregnant and, in my opinion, worth getting your feet wet for!
One of the overriding aspects of swimming over any other form of exercise is the support of the water. During pregnancy we add a large amount of weight to our bodies in a very short space of time. This additional weight, along with hormonal and physiological changes, greatly challenge both our balance and our strength. By moving in the water, rather than on dry land, we can alleviate many of these challenges and as a result move more freely. Anyone who has experienced water therapy for rehabilitation from injury will be aware of how water can make a huge difference to what you can do. In the same way runners can rehabilitate by running in water, pregnant women who find running on land too much, may find they can switch to running in water instead.
It’s not just the physical stress on the body however that water can help with. I spent many a pool session whilst pregnant, floating and relaxing. It was a place of real comfort that helped to free my mind away from the stress of work. There is a lot of research based around Yoga and breathing and the importance of relaxing forms of exercise for calming the mind and helping you to prepare for birth. Swimming, without a doubt, can do this for you too and whilst there needs to be more research on this, we know swimming can help with mental health and there is no reason why this should be any different for you when you are pregnant.
Unlike Yoga, however, swimming has another advantage – it’s a BIG cardio mover! There is plenty of research that looks at the effects of cardiovascular (heart and lung) exercise including swimming along with cycling and walking. This research shows that moderate forms of any of these activities can have a positive effect on pregnancy and birth. In fact, there is a lot of evidence to show that cardiovascular exercise can help to reduce complications during birth, have a positive effect on baby’s birth weights, strengthen and prepare you for birth as well as boost body confidence during pre and postnatal stages.
But are there any downsides to swimming? And what should we be looking out for to ensure our pregnancy continues swimmingly?…
In 2002, a study was published that looked at the chemical reaction of chlorine in pools to other substances (usually human related!), and the resulting formulation of a by-product known as trihalomethanes. These trihalomethanes were thought to be harmful to mothers and babies. Since that study many more have been published and the overwhelming conclusion is that the benefits of swimming far out way any possible risks. Chlorine is used in pools and drinking water to help to get rid of harmful bacteria which could be of more harm to you and your baby than any other risk outlined in the 2002 study.
One aspect of swimming whilst pregnant, however, is the potential for rashes and skin sensitivity. If you have sensitive skin that can be made more sensitive by chlorinated water, you may wish to look at non-chlorinated swimming alternatives but remember to check the hygiene of where you swim generally. Always shower before and immediately after swimming.
Personally, I couldn’t stand a busy pool when pregnant, preferring to swim early in the mornings, when pools and changing rooms are not only safer but cleaner too.
Guidelines state that we should move at moderate intensities during pregnancy. This is where you feel challenged but at a level where you are always able to hold a conversation. Because of this, it is often assumed that breaststroke is ideal during pregnancy. Of all the strokes, however, this one is probably the least ideal! The reason for this is that when you perform breaststroke, particularly more leisurely styles with your head remaining out of the water, you are placing your body in even more exaggerated positions that can exacerbate neck, back and pelvic instability issues and cause pain. This is less likely to be an issue during your first trimester but can cause problems during your second and third. Alternatives such as crawl or side stroke are better and even back stroke is fine as the support of the water means you don’t have the same issues with lying on your back (which can restrict blood flow return) as you do on land. There are also lots of other movements you can do that take advantage of the support of the water so that you get to move more in a positive way for you and your baby.
CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR. There are certain conditions in pregnancy that can mean exercising is not recommended. It’s really important that you have checked with your Doctor first to rule any of these out before you start exercising.
KEEP COOL AND WELL HYDRATED. Most pools will be around 25-28 degrees Celsius which is perfect during pregnancy but check temperatures – they must stay below 35 degrees Celsius and remember your body will generate more heat than most – this is particularly important in the first trimester. It’s also better to steer clear of hot tubs unless you know the temperature is well below this. Remember they continue to be pumped with heat so whilst your bath water will gradually cool, hot tubs will stay hot. They also will have more chemicals that could irritate you.
WEAR APPROPRIATE FOOTWEAR. This can be inside and outside the pool so check the bottom of the pool is slip proof and if not, put aqua socks on, particularly if you are using the bottom of the pool whilst exercising. Slipping up in pregnancy – in or out of the water – can be really dangerous as your joints are less stable and more prone to injury.
KEEP YOUR INTENSITY MODERATE. All research points towards the fact that moderate levels are all you need to do. If you are an advance swimmer, then your level of moderate will be much higher than others – so LISTEN to you body – you want to feel challenged but not completely exhausted. Use the talk test – you should be able to hold a conversation – just don’t swallow any water!
KEEP YOUR MOVEMENT IN CONTROL. Because of the vulnerability of your joints and the resistance of the water against them, you need to insure your range of movement is controllable – particularly with upper body and lower body swimming actions. So rather than wide kicks, go for crawl style leg kicks and focus on using big muscles in the back rather than just pulling through your shoulders and arms. This also means having to swim consciously so, again, LISTEN to your body.
SWIM IN QUIET PERIODS. More crowds can cause more hazards. From being bumped into, to the increased level of chemical reactions in the pool to increased risk of slipping up. It’s not always you that’s hazardous – just what’s around you! Aim to swim early mornings or check for lane or women only sessions.
THERE IS NO GAIN WITH PAIN! During pregnancy you want to really listen to your body for any signs of pain or discomfort. These are warning signs that must not be ignored. Stop, adjust your position by using our exercise tips above, and if you can then continue pain free do so but at an easier level and let your midwife or GP know about it next time. If, however, pain continues, STOP immediately and go and seek medical advice.
STOP IMMEDIATELY AND SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION IF YOU:
• Feel faint or dizzy
• Get any vaginal bleeding
• Sudden water discharge
• Any signs of labour
• Decreased fetal movement
• Chest Pain
• Calf pain or swelling
IN YOUR FIRST TRIMESTER
• It’s important to stay cool and not forget that you need to drink more water than normal so take a bottle of water to the poolside.
• Most strokes are fine to do now but keep your intensity at manageable levels – aim to swim for 30 minutes continuously where you feel puffed but not exhausted. You should be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate cardio activity (this can include walking, biking etc.) at least five days a week.
• Nausea is often exacerbated when you are tired and or hungry – aim to swim after a good nights sleep and make sure you have eaten a meal within two hours or a small snack 30 minutes before.
IN YOUR SECOND TRIMESTER
• As your body starts to change shape, your posture becomes more important to control. This is also the time at which hormones, such as relaxin, can surge which causes laxity in the joints, making you more vulnerable to sudden movements and less in control of your movement.
• Avoid slipping at all costs – wear gripped poolside shoes such as flip flops or crocs and be careful of slipping under the water too, particularly if you are doing exercises with your feet on the pool floor.
• Water provides resistance, so your muscles need to work with strength, and this will pull on joints which is why it’s so important to stay in control and watch your posture. Areas to be particularly careful of are your back, neck and pelvis. Use good core control and posture at all times.
• Continue to swim for at least 30 minutes at a moderate level. If you feel more energised than you did in your first trimester, do a little more, keeping your intensity moderate.
IN YOUR THIRD TRIMESTER
• Your increased size and change in shape will be placing your body under more stress now. You may find you start to slow down a little.
• That extra weight means you are working harder anyway, so slowing up the pace is fine but still aim for 30 minutes if you can.
• As you get closer to your due date, try to relax and focus on your breathing more. Find time to float, breathe and calm yourself, ready for the big day!
About the author
Jane Wake is a leading expert on pre and postnatal exercise. She is a fitness media expert, appearing regularly on TV and in print, has written the Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy Fitness and regularly trains a number of celebrities and mums in South West London through her unique exercise programme, Baby A-Wake.