It’s your first pregnancy and you’re feeling great. You’re happy that you’ve been able to continue running at your usual pace well into the middle of your pregnancy. Then, it happens—halfway through your usual run, your abdomen starts to feel tight and a little crampy. The sensations disappear when you stop running, but now you’re feeling scared that something may be wrong and that you’ll go into premature labor. Take a deep breath, exhale, and relax. In almost every case these infrequent, non-rhythmic contractions are your body’s way of preparing for the real event. They’re called Braxton Hicks contractions, and almost every woman will experience them at some time during pregnancy. Braxton Hicks contractions are your body’s way of “practicing” for labor and are also termed “false” labor pains.
You may start noticing these contractions sometime in the fourth month of pregnancy, and they may increase in frequency as you near your delivery date. For some women, exercise activates the contractions—abdominal movement may trigger them, but they can occur at any time. If the start of contractions during your exercise routine is making you feel anxious about exercise, read on to learn how to tell whether contractions are something to worry about or just a normal part of pregnancy. Here are the symptoms for each.
True Labor Contractions
- Dull ache in your low back that may radiate to or from the pelvis
- Deep, sustained pressure in the lower abdomen and pelvis
- Sharp pain or cramps that come in regular sequence with the period between each contraction becoming shorter over time
- Contractions that don’t ease or stop with a change in position or rest
- Bright red vaginal bleeding
- Leaking or gushing of vaginal fluid
- Contractions that are so painful that you can’t walk or talk
Braxton Hicks Contractions
- Intermittent tightening of the abdominal muscles
- Contractions span from less than 30 seconds up to a couple of minutes
- Abdominal contractions ease up with rest or change in position or activity
- Not rhythmic
- Contractions aren’t super painful, instead feel more like mild cramps or abdominal tightening
- No increase in intensity or frequency
Maura Shirey, owner of Bodies for Birth, advises her clients to take more frequent rests and switch to lower-impact exercise (such as swapping out jogging for walking) if contractions make exercise uncomfortable. She also suggests that taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly several times, as you focus on your belly expanding and contracting with each breath, is an effective way to ease the abdominal muscle tightness. This breathing technique can also help reduce the anxious feeling that can accompany the contractions and allow time for your body to relax.
So, how do athletes cope with Braxton Hicks contractions?
Asia Shah is an accomplished marathon runner who continued to run impressive mileages throughout her two pregnancies. She says she started to notice Braxton Hicks contractions in her second trimester during her runs. The first time she experienced the contractions, she checked in with her obstetrician. She was reassured that the contractions were a normal part of pregnancy, so she continued with her running, but implemented some changes to help her deal with the contractions.
Shah said that whenever the contractions occurred, she would stop and take some deep breaths as she rested. She also made sure she stayed well hydrated with electrolyte-infused water to avoid dehydration. Shah said that she consistently reduced her mileage as she neared her due date and didn’t push her body with high-intensity training.
How to Continue Exercising
Here are additional tips that’ll help you continue exercising when Braxton Hicks contractions occur.
- If at any time the contractions become increasingly painful, more rhythmic and frequent, stop exercising and check with your health care provider. It’s always better to be safe and assured that all is well with your pregnancy.
- Note when the contractions start during your workout. Scheduling a short rest right before the time that they usually occur can help you avoid or reduce the incidence of Braxton Hicks contractions.
- Consider reducing your exercise intensity or duration to see if that helps lessen the contractions. Splitting one workout into two shorter ones is another option.
- Hydrate before, during, and after exercise. Dehydration can activate Braxton Hicks contractions, so keep well hydrated by drinking a diluted electrolyte solution during your workout. Avoid full strength electrolyte drinks (as they have too much sugar), so dilute them to half strength or lower with water.
- Switch up your exercise mode. If you can’t continue to run through contractions, see if fast walking or a non-weight-bearing activity is more tolerable.
- Don’t feel that you’re going to hurt your baby if you continue to exercise through contractions. If the contractions are mild enough to keep going, it’s okay to continue with your workout.
- A belly band can be helpful if weight-bearing motion triggers contractions. Experiment with band positioning to see what position provides the best support for your tummy without impeding motion or breathing.
Don’t let Braxton Hicks contractions stop your prenatal exercise routine. Stay mindful of how your body feels through every type of exercise and take it slow or stop when necessary. If you consistently experience these types of contractions or other physical discomforts or pains when exercising while pregnant, consult your health care provider.
Catherine Cram is an exercise physiologist and a leading expert in the field of maternal fitness. Her consulting company, “Prenatal and Postpartum Fitness” specializes in providing the most current maternal exercise information and continuing education courses to health and fitness professionals.