Cycling while pregnant: The do’s and don’ts according to a cycling journalist

Rebecca Charlton

by Myles Warwood |
Updated on

There’s a common misconception that you must give up cycling when pregnant. However, there has been little academic research in this area - staying on your bike while pregnant will keep your fitness levels up and keep you motivated.

Mother&Baby sat down with well-renowned cycling journalist and new mum, Rebecca Charlton, to find out how Rebecca kept active while pregnant after suffering from pregnancy-related Pelvic Girdle Pain (PGP).

Often referred to as Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD), this is a collection of uncomfortable symptoms caused by a stiffness of your pelvic joints or the joints moving unevenly at either the back or front of your pelvis.

Despite this condition leaving Rebecca on crutches to help her get around, she even needed her partner’s help just to get about the house on some days; she could still ride her bike.

Rebecca’s passion for cycling comes from a very early age when she used to race bikes and now presents races and writes about cycling. It was vital for Rebecca to keep up her passion for her mental health and to try and be in the best shape she could for the unpredictability of labour.

What was early pregnancy like for Rebecca?

Walking into the unknown

“I had so many myths in my head when it came to pregnancy," said Rebecca. "I imagined I would balloon and become massive overnight and have this big bump straight away. I know that sounds crazy now in hindsight, but that was my perception that I would change overnight.” This can be a common misconception, and while pregnancy can last for nine months, the reality is that your body just doesn’t become a ballooned version of yourself; change takes time.

But does this change mean that you should stop your active lifestyle? For many people, the response is to stay active, if and when you can, without getting your heart rate too high, or letting your body temperature become too high either.

Like many people, Rebecca turned to Google to help with the research, and while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that you can exercise while pregnant, the hard evidence somewhat falls short of the mark.

Rebecca said, “I couldn’t find concrete evidence saying it's safe to cycle and exercise to this extent in pregnancy, and so, something that I felt was lacking in research and data readily available to me was about the first trimester.” In the first trimester, you may not be showing, or you might be suffering from morning sickness, which might restrict you from exercise in a way a bump in the later trimesters won’t.

So, what did Rebecca do in the first trimester?

“I was riding with several Olympic cyclists because I was filming the Bunny hop series. So, I was out cycling up hills with Katie Archibald, an Olympic Gold Medallist. This was before I’d even told anyone I was pregnant.”

While it doesn’t seem to make much sense to be riding after an Olympic Gold Medallist up hills in Scotland, the lack of research and studies in this area shows that not enough is being done to help new-to-be-mums. In hindsight, Rebecca realises it possibly wasn’t something she should have been doing in the first trimester, as it’s one of the most important developmental stages.

“It was only when I started to tell people that I was pregnant when I'd had my first scan after 12 weeks, that people started saying, 'oh, you haven't got your heart rate up too high, have you?' or 'make sure you haven't been going too hard on the bike.' And it was all this retrospective advice because we don't talk about it, and that's why it was essential to me research the subject as much as possible and document it in my YouTube series Bump and Ride, so no one else felt as in the dark as I did.”

So don’t expect to be able to keep up with an Olympic Gold Medal cyclist and make sure to ride within your limits…

Pedalling while pregnant

Most of Rebecca’s riding changed from cycling outdoors to cycling indoors on the training platform Zwift. “I would say that I consistently rode my gravel bike right through the pregnancy as well, but I turboed a lot more because it was easier for me to get on and do half an hour than it was to kit up and go outside.”

For Rebecca, the challenge of getting your lycra on could have become a barrier to exercise.

“At that point, I hadn't gone into wearing maternity Lycra, and I'm trying to get my winter kit on and overshoes on my feet. It was easier to do an indoor session half the time than actually getting the kit on. That was the biggest part of the workout.”

Rebecca says a big ‘do’ here is, “preparing kit that I knew would be comfortable in. Also, making sure I'd pumped up my tires and done everything on the bike before I put on my clothes because again, I couldn't get down to put the valve the pumping with all these winter clothes on and a bump because I was so restricted. So I would do everything then put my lycra on at the last minute.”

The kit

Best all rounder

A smart trainer which replicates the effects of riding up a hill when using training products like Zwift or the Wahoo SYSTM training programme. If you're buying Wahoo, you have to get your head around the fact they don't like vowels in their product names... we don't understand why.

Pros
Easy to get your bike on and off
Great entry-level smart trainer
• Very well-respected brand

Cons
It is a little heavy to shift about

Best on a budget

A good trainer mat will not only make it easy to clean any perspiration and water spills off of the floor but it will also help to dampen the noise of a turbo if the mat is thick enough.

Pros
Low cost
Helps keep the floor clean
Easy to roll

Cons
Not quite thick enough to absorb all the sound your turbo makes

Great value

A good quality heart rate monitor (HRM) will help you keep yourself in the correct heart rate zones during your workout, not putting too much stress on your and your body. This one from Wahoo will also record your body temperature, too.

Pros
Easy on and off
Records body temperature as well as heart rate
Great for keeping a track of how you're doing

Cons
Forty quid is a lot but we think it's worth it for the piece of mind.

Rebecca's experience with PGP

Then came along the PGP, where Rebecca struggled to get about, had to walk on crutches, and needed much help.

Rebecca was lucky enough to get a physio who said that cycling could help, and she was still able to exercise.

"And I think that was one element people online were possibly questioning," said Rebecca. "Well, you can't walk. You're on crutches, but yet you're doing a turbo session. But with the guidance of a physio, cycling was the least weight-bearing and uncomfortable thing that I could do day-to-day. So I ended up cycling way more than I would have done if I could go for walks and it was very positive, and that was my truth.”

During pregnancy, Rebecca partnered with cycling brand Veloine to get her cycling kit; Veloine has a maternity cycling wear range with shorts that come up over your bump and a jersey that allows space for a bump to grow.

“It was one of the reasons I could cycle as long as I could because if I had not been comfortable, I couldn't have got on the bike. So that was a major factor. But if you're in a position where you can size up and buy much bigger bib shorts that come up quite high anyway, there's a potential that you could keep them on the right through pregnancy as well.”

While not all brands offer a maternity range, exploring options that could help like the Rapha Cargo bibs matched with a technical tee can provide support for your bump while not being overly tight. The pockets also make great space for extra snacks and your phone. You might find that pockets on your jersey may get further out of reach, for example.

Maternity cycling wear

Best for support

Yes, these are on the pricey side but it’s been said that the Rapha Cargo bibs matched with a technical tee can offer support for your bump while not being overly tight, the pockets also make great space for extra snacks and your phone as pockets on your jersey may get further out of reach.

Pros
Handy side pockets
Well-respected brand
Able to use after pregnancy

Cons
High cost

Best over base layer

The technical tee is light and breathable, made specifically for mountain biking. Available in a choice of colours and sizes up to XL, it provides a layer over your base shorts that'll comfortably move with you.

Pros
 Made to be layered
 Lightweight and breathable
 Able to use after pregnancy

Cons
 Some found it took a few tries to find the best size for fit

Recommended

You might find a nice high waistband which goes over bump to be much more supportive during your ride.

Pros
• High waistband
• Low cost
• Reputable brand

Cons
• Might not work for later pregnancy

The bike

Rebecca rides a Cannondale Lefty on the road and her turbo trainer. The only adaptation she did to the bike was to raise the handlebars. Again, Rebecca is lucky that Cannondale was able to put different forks on to allow Rebecca to do that, but “I strapped loads of towels on top of my bars as well. So that's a non-techy way of adding height to your bike’s bars.”. Always one for a quick hack is Rebecca.

[It was] just about enjoying the bike and reaping the benefits and the rewards and keeping my body moving and as mobile as possible in the pregnancy

Do what you need to do to make yourself feel comfortable on the bike; for Rebecca, it was “just about enjoying the bike and reaping the benefits and the rewards, and keeping my body moving and as mobile as possible in the pregnancy.”

Don’t take everything you see on social media as a given, and give yourself a break; as Rebecca says, “sometimes you're not going to exercise, and that's OK. I think that is the problem that social media exacerbates now, as you see a snapshot. And it can look straightforward from the outside for everybody else except you. Give yourself a break; it can be tough for everyone.”

Editor's Choice

The truth is, you could ride any bike you have and still be able to enjoy it. But the critical thing to remember is that every pregnancy is different, and while you can cycle while you are pregnant, you cannot cycle after until your GP or NHS physio has signed off on you postpartum.

The biggest do’s we can take from this are doing what you feel comfortable with, giving yourself a break, taking social media with a pinch of salt, and celebrating every win. Enjoy your pregnancy as much as possible, and don’t beat yourself up. Talk to your friends, NCT groups, and family – everyone will have different experiences, and that’s OK.

Inspirational women in cycling

It wouldn’t feel right to be rounding up this article without mentioning women along the way who have been groundbreakers in everything they’ve done for women’s cycling.

Dani Rowe, in her Baby on Board series on Zwift, helps women keep active without raising their heart rate too much.

Lizzie Deignan, who has pretty much written the maternity leave rule book in cycling and has just taken maternity leave to have her second child before returning to racing again.

Elinor Barker has just had her first baby and will return to the professional peloton after competing at the commonwealth games later in the year.

Laura Kenny has five-year-old Albi and has shown you can come back from pregnancy as strong as you were before and carry on winning Olympic Gold Medals.

Are you having an active pregnancy? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

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