Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Rock Climbing and Pregnancy: What Changes to Expect

A lot of folks assume that rock climbing and pregnancy go together about as good as ants and a picnic.  However, with one pregnancy under my belt, and well on my way to completing a second, I can honestly say that climbing can be a healthy and enjoyable prenatal activity.  That being said, just as not all women should attempt to run/bike/yoga during pregnancy, climbing is not for everyone.  But if rock climbing is an activity that you engaged in on a regular basis before becoming pregnant, it’s an activity that is perfectly acceptable to continue for most women.  (Disclaimer: it’s ALWAYS a good idea to clear it with your OB/midwife first.) 

There are a few extra precautions that many expectant moms choose to take at certain points in their pregnancy.  For example, with both of my pregnancies, I stopped bouldering and leading early on and switched to a full body harness around 20 weeks.  For more specifics on those safety precautions and why they are important, click here.  

Crankin' at Pilot Mountain during my first pregnancy

Crankin’ at Pilot Mountain during my first pregnancy (28 weeks)

But in addition to these logistical changes that are made on the OUTSIDE, a pregnant mama will undoubtedly experience numerous physical and mental  changes on the INSIDE.  And that’s what I’d like to focus on in this post.  Obviously, every woman’s body handles pregnancy in different ways, but the following is a compilation of what symptoms a cragmama-to-be can expect to feel and experience on the rock, and some tips on how to handle them.  

SYMPTOM:  Increased Tiredness. Ok so this one may seem obvious because it literally affects EVERY pregnant woman I’ve ever met, no matter how active or lazy they are, but don’t underestimate the impact it can have! Tiredness is ironically at it’s worst during the 1st trimester, when most people don’t even know you’re pregnant!  
HOW TO HANDLE:  Rest when you need to rest.  Now is not the time to push for one more pitch before dark when you know you have a grueling hike out at the end of the day.  Pace yourself, drink plenty of water, and listen to your body.

SYMPTOM: Nausea. This will affect some women more than others, and can vary from pregnancy to pregnancy in frequency and intensity.  With my first, I had zero nausea, but the second time around I had an almost constant low-level nausea for the first 10 weeks.  
HOW TO HANDLE:  My nausea seemed to improve with activity, so a short session at the climbing gym was a great remedy.  I learned the hard way that activity on an empty stomach did not bode well, so a stash of snacks in my gym bag was essential.

SYMPTOM:  Out of Breath.  Without fail I would start sucking wind the minute I put a pack on my back (or a 30 pound toddler, in the case of pregnancy #2.)  Hormones are responsible in early pregnancy, and your growing womb-mate is to blame later on.
HOW TO HANDLE:  Take it slow on approaches, especially the uphills.  When your heartrate starts to soar and you can’t carry on a conversation, take a break.  Be realistic about the amount of gear you need to schlep in.

A 6 months pregnant Melissa Love training at her local gym.

A 6 months pregnant Melissa Love training at her local gym.

SYMPTOM: Swollen Feet.  Edema in a non-climbers feet make for some slight discomfort, especially at the end of the day.  But to a climber, it can make putting on a pair of climbing shoes downright torturous!  
HOW TO HANDLE:  You know that very first pair of climbing shoes you bought, way back when you didn’t know how they were supposed to fit and sized them 2 sizes too big?  Or your comfy “all day trad” shoes?  Time to break those out full time – trust me it’ll make a big difference!

SYMPTOM:  Pressure “Down There.”  While rather unlady-like to talk about, a swollen feeling in the nether regions is something most women endure at some point during pregnancy.  Don’t worry, your baby won’t fall out!  Pregnancy hormones and all that extra blood flow are to blame.
HOW TO HANDLE:  As odd as it sounds (and embarrassing as it is to admit!), a post-activity ice pack can help relieve the swelling.

SYMPTOM:  Loose Joints.  Relaxin is a pregnancy hormone designed to loosen up the pelvic joints to prepare them for all the expanding they’ll need to do during your baby’s birth.  Unfortunately, this “loosening” is not limited to just the ligaments involved in childbirth, which makes a pregnant woman’s entire body more vulnerable to strains, sprains, and instability issues.  
HOW TO HANDLE:  Avoid tweaky moves that put your joints in a compromised position, especially if you’ve ever had dislocation issues.  Drop-knees, hard gastons, and cranking hard on tiny holds with bad feet are some examples of situations where you’ll need to be extra careful.  

SYMPTOM: Pelvic Instability.  Related to the above, this condition involves an instability of the joints that make up the pelvis.  Symphysis Pubic Dysfunction (SPD) and SI Joint Pain are quite often the source of a lot of hip, back, and pubic/groin pain for pregnant women.  
HOW TO HANDLE: Kegel exercises can help strengthen everything in that area, but there’s not really a way to prevent this from happening, as the body preparing is itself for what it will need to do during childbirth.  As with the others, listen to your body – if it feels good, it’s probably fine, but if a certain type of movement causes pain, stop doing it. 

Aimee Roseborrough "preggo-pointing" 5.12 in her 8th month with baby #2!

Aimee Roseborrough “preggo-pointing” 5.12 in her 8th month with baby #2!

SYMPTOM:  Diastisis Recti.  This condition occurs when the connective tissue in between the Rectus Abdominis (6-pack muscles) thins and separates, creating a gap in the midline of the body.  Julie Tupler, an RN who has worked with pre/post-natal patients on this issue extensively, does a great job explaining what this condition is and exercises that can be used to prevent/heal a separation in this interview.  
HOW TO HANDLE:  DO NOT do any sort of abdominal exercises that flex your upper or lower body up towards your midline (ie crunches or hanging leg lifts), or forceful twisting on the oblique (side ab muscles) after the 1st trimester, and make sure any separation has healed before attempting ab work post-partum.  Fellow climbing mama and PT Aimee Roseborrough (who’s been interviewed on this blog here) recommends sticking to vertical/slightly overhanging terrain during pregnancy, or well below your limit on steep terrain.  She also recommends wearing an ab binder and seeing a PT specializing in women’s health post-partum if you end up with a separation – the first 6-8 weeks post-partum are the best opportunity for healing, before scar tissue starts to build up in the separation.   Fellow Trango athlete Melissa Love had a diastasis with her 2nd child that went undiagnosed for 15 months, and after lots of time off is still climbing in a splint – she warns, “Be careful!  You do not want this!”

SYMPTOM:  Braxton Hicks.  These annoying “practice contractions” are a prelude to the real thing, although in my experience, feel nothing like real labor.  With my Braxton Hicks I could feel (and often see) a “hard spot” on my abdomen where part of my uterus was tightening.  While they were not painful, they got progressively more intense and uncomfortable as the weeks went on.
HOW TO HANDLE: While there’s nothing to do to prevent these harmless annoyances, a surefire way for me to trigger more of them was/is to let myself get dehydrated or by standing on my feet too much.  If you feel them coming on at the crag, take a rest and some swigs of water and they should eventually settle down.  

My 1st pregnancy and 35 weeks along

My 1st pregnancy and 35 weeks along

SYMPTOM: Lack of motivation.  It’s hard to stay psyched to do something that you get measurably worse at it with every passing week.  
HOW TO HANDLE: If you stay focused on the numbers, you’re going to be disappointed.  It’s time for a shift in perspective – pregnancy is not a time for sending at your limit, it’s a time to enjoy the freedom that comes with moving on the rock. That being said, it’s certainly okay to take some time off, especially if any of the above symptoms are starting to get to you – do what you feel is right for your body.  

SYMPTOM: “I can’t do _________ anymore!”  Depending on the level you were climbing at before you got knocked up, most women find themselves saying this to their partner at some point (and often in a whiny voice…thanks hormones!)  The bigger my belly got (gets), the harder it was (is) logistically to do mantles or certain high foot/rock on type moves – that darn belly just got in the way!  
HOW TO HANDLE: Again, shift your perspective – staying active is important, but sending that red-taped project in the gym is not.  Laugh it off and move on.

Pregnancy is a unique and miraculous journey, one that I have been blessed to experience twice now.  Despite the various unpleasantries I had to endure, it was always worth it in the end.  Fellow Cragmama Charmagne Cox once said something when I interviewed her that always stuck out to me – “I never regretted the routes I didn’t send while I was raising my babies.”  My guess is that I’m not the only mama out there that wholeheartedly agrees with that one!  

If you’ve climbed through a pregnancy before, what was your experience?  If you stopped at a certain point, what symptom(s) finally “did you in?”  If you are a climbing mom (or dad!) hoping to start a family in the next few years, what do you think your attitude towards climbing will be after you see those two pink lines on your (or your significant other’s) pregnancy test?  (And thanks to all the strong mamas out there who shared pictures and advice with me for this post!)

Aimee Roseborrough still crushing at 37 weeks!

Aimee Roseborrough still crushing at 37 weeks!

 

 

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24 Responses to “Rock Climbing and Pregnancy: What Changes to Expect”

  1. BethC

    I climbed about once a week a the gym during my pregnancy. I think I stopped around 20 weeks when my belly started making my harness uncomfortable. I was nervous about taking falls so I didn’t move on to the full-body harness. I just started going to the (regular) gym while my friends climbed (in retrospect, it was kind of a bummer).

    Reply

    • BethC

      PS. Having to get in and out of my harness ten million times for bathroom breaks wasn’t too fun either.

  2. Really great article Erika! I needed this 8 months ago. :) I kept climbing through my first trimester, but with my nausea (similar to you, an annoying low-level throughout the first 12 weeks) and new stretching sensations in my upper abdomen when I’d reach, I found it hard to enjoy as much.

    That, with an OB’s look of horror when I talked about climbing (although trail running – which has just as many risks in my opinion – didn’t seem to phase her), left me feeling worried and questioning my judgement, which, as a first-time mama-to-be, was much more challenging.

    It took me a few months to let go of that worry and trust my instincts, but by then, I was out of climbing shape, bigger, and less motivated to get to the gym, so I ended up letting it go and focused on running and hiking.

    Thank you for assuring us that climbing IS POSSIBLE and that trusting ourselves is the best thing we can do. :)

    Reply

  3. I climbed throughout my first trimester and a little into my second. I also noticed that exercise helped a lot with my nausea. If I could overcome the desire to hibernate on my couch, I was always happy I made it out to the gym and felt better.

    I had planned on continuing to climb but my main climbing partners were out of commission for various reasons and I didn’t have the motivation to go on my own. I wish circumstances had been different so I could have seen how it would have gone but it worked out for the best as the time I stopped climbing coincided with the best weather for hiking!

    Reply

  4. Erica

    Beth – The good thing is that long-term it really doesn’t matter, ya know? Kudos to you for still finding other ways to stay active. Oh…and I TOTALLY hear you on all the bathroom breaks!!!

    Amy – Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the feedback that it would have been helpful. Hopefully it will be a good resource for other mamas-to-be out there! It’s so hard to navigate what to do and what not to do. There’s a big misunderstanding out there from non-climbers about what it is that we actually DO on the rock. But again, the important thing is to stay active in whatever way feels best, and it sounds like you did that, so good on you!

    Reply

  5. Erica

    Sarah – YES, getting off the couch was the hardest step for me too! So glad that phase is over! Each season has it’s own “perfect” activities. Glad that hiking has been enjoyable for you :)

    Reply

  6. Noell Lewis

    I climbed up til 8 months in my pregnancy, and led up til about 5/6 months. I wore my own harness up til around 4 months, and then I actually decided to wear my husbands harness instead of investing in a full body harness b/c Craig’s harness fit on top of the belly (where my waise belt went right across the belly and didn’t fit anymore). I will say that I only led at my limit until about month 4. During the second trimester, I led only what I knew I wouldn’t fall on (ie old tried and true warm ups at my local crag that I could climb blindfolded).

    We took Riley out to the Lily boulder field when she was one week old. I didn’t boulder, I just walked around, enjoyed the outdoors, and hung out with my new little wonder. To be honest – I was sooo nervous taking her out that whole spring! But when I think back – I was nervous taking her to the grocery store and out to eat too! You just have to jump right in and you will learn together, as a family, how to make it work.

    Now, Riley will be two next week, I am sure we will all be out at the Obed this weekend, and I may not be climbing as hard as I was before she was born, but I am pretty happy being a cool climbing mama with a tough little girl in tow each weekend!

    Reply

  7. I climbed till about 5 months with my first pregnancy, but that was because I was mostly a boulderer and didn’t invest in the full body harness. My son is two now and I have since gotten into sport climbing. I’m just getting into the second trimester of baby #2 and am way more motivated to climb all the way through this time. While I started climbing two weeks after my son was born, it was a long road! I actually cried when I found your blog in those first few weeks of having him at home (dang hormones). It just gave me so much hope! Gave me the confidence to get him out there with us. We took him out for his first trip at 8 weeks and haven’t stopped since. He loves it!

    Thanks for this article. Once again it has given me hope. I am excited to see how you guys manage with baby #2 as we will not be too far behind. Good luck!

    Reply

  8. Sabrina

    I actually climbed (in the gym primarily because of the heat in Alabama in the summer) until I was 7 months pregnant. I actually caved quite a bit then too. I had to put a halt to climbing because I got pregnancy carpal tunnel. CT was the absolute worst (I truly think even more than labor). I still enjoyed going to the crag and hiking with everyone.

    Reply

  9. Erica

    Noell – Thanks for sharing your story! It’s always awesome to hear success stories from bad ass climbing mamas! :)

    Liz – Yeah those hormones can really do a number on your psyche…But I’m delighted to know that you found the blog helpful! Congrats on baby #2! I know so of so many preggo climbing mamas right now – it must be something in the water ;)

    Sabrina – Hmmm, Carpal Tunnel, I’d left that one out, so thanks for mentioning it! With both pregnancies I lucked out to not be large and in charge during the heat of the summer – but I can see how the gym would be a much more pleasant option during that time :) Good on you for staying active as best you could!

    Reply

  10. Christine L.

    I liked how you put pelvic instability in there. Made me stop climbing both times. I did all sorts of stuff to try to be able to climb with the first pregnancy. Physical therapy (concentrating on pelvic muscles), Pilates, you name it, I tried. But it got to the point where I couldn’t walk very fast the next day after climbing super easy stuff at the gym. I actually went through a grieving process when I had to quit. I had tremendous fear that I may never be able to climb because for some women the pelvic pain can last beyond pregnancy. It was easier the second time. I knew as soon as I felt the pain, it was time to quit knowing the instability will go away, and I will be back. This was not what I had in mind. I always envisioned my water breaking on some hard move on the wall. Used to joke I was going to get an umbrella hat for my belayers. Oh well. Life goes on.

    Reply

    • Erica

      Christine – I’ve heard that those stability issues can stop anybody in their tracks, seems like you concur! I can imagine that the fear of the unknown would have to be the worst that first time around, I bet it was a lot easier the next time when you knew what to expect. Thanks for sharing your story

  11. Patricia

    My story is like Christine’s. Pubis symphasis pain stopped me around 4 months. I was bummed. I had bought a full body harness and only used it twice. I worked out with a personal trainer and did lots of yoga and hiking to stay in shape and sane. I’m 6 weeks post partum and back my old weight. But I still have the pain. Just started some Pilates and hoping to climb again in the new year.

    Reply

  12. Erica

    Patricia – 6 weeks post partum? Then congrats to you on the birth of your little miracle!!! I’m sorry that you still have the pain. Give yourself some time though – don’t underestimate the havoc a pregnancy can wreak on your body! Wishinig you a pain-free climbing in the new year – with your little cragbaby in tow!!!

    Reply

  13. Love this! I believe my last day climbing was around 38 weeks. Up until then I had been slowly decreasing the difficulty of the climbs I was doing, and eventually there was one day in the gym when I just knew it was time for me to quit. I loved my experience climbing while pregnant!

    Reply

  14. Rachel

    I’m mainly a boulderer and we’ve just started trying for a baby. Whilst climbing at the wall a couple of weeks ago I was delighted to get to the top of a pretty difficult (for me) problem but as I dropped off back onto the mat had a sudden panic about the impact of hitting the mat on any potential baby that might be in there, all be it just a tiny collection of cells at the moment! It knocked my confidence so much that I really couldn’t climb very well for the rest of the session.

    I have tried to research the potential risks an impact like that my have on a pregnancy, particularly in the very early stages, but there is very little out there. My partner is taking the attitude of ‘carry on as normal until we know you are definitely pregnant’ but given the fact that they advise you to stop drinking/smoking/caffeine/certain foods right from the off, this feels weird.

    I’d be interested, and indeed delighted to hear anyone’s thoughts and experiences on this (on a safe space like this where we’re not going to get slammed for taking ‘unnecessary risks with the life of your baby’) or if anyone does have any useful evidence they can point me to.

    With thanks and my fingers crossed!

    Reply

    • Rachel – If it makes you feel better, I spent the first two weeks I was pregnant deep water solo’ing in Thailand. There were a couple of long/awkward falls in there that I distinctly remember. I was just sure that “nobody gets pregnant on their first try” and I had nothing to worry about. Ha ha! Oh well, I have a super healthy little climber boy now, and a pregnancy with no problems related to climbing (a lot of nausea though).

  15. Erica

    Amy – I love how you said you just “knew.” Props for listening to your body :)

    Rachel – You are right that there is little information about climbing risks out there, but I think there’s a fair lot of research on contact/high impact sports in general, which from what I understand almost all resources say that it’s safe to continue all activities during the 1st trimester, provided you don’t let yourself get overexhausted. I would suggest “Exercising through your pregnancy” by Dr. James Clapp. I also thought that the link I listed in the intro of this post did a good job of explaining the risks for each trimester. There’s also this link: http://www.climbing.com/skill/pulling-down-while-pregnant/

    My philosophy during the 1st trimester was to stick to boulder problems that were of reasonable height (ie no highballs) and with solid flat landings and good spotters. However bouldering tends to be more of a winter sport in the southeast, and both times my 1st tri was during the heat of the summer, so any bouldering I did was mainly in the gym. I kept leading both indoors and outdoors all throughout the 1st tri. I didn’t hold back in difficulty level at all, but I did pace myself carefully (ie, maybe only 1 or 2 project burns in a session, rather than working on a hard route all day). I also stuck to familiar routes with safe fall zones (mostly well-bolted sport routes.) In my (non-medical of course) opinion, the impact from a softly caught lead fall, or even jumping down onto the mat from a reasonable distance, is far less impact than what you’d experience in something traumatic like a car wreck. I don’t think any point in pregnancy is the time to push your limits on dangerously runout terrain (or highballs with horrible landings), but the everyday falls and jump-downs aren’t anything to stress about in those first few weeks, due to how well-protected that tiny fetus is. Again, that’s just my take, and you obviously need to do what you feel comfortable with, but based on my own experience, as well as the majority of other preggo mamas I’ve seen/talked to/climbed with, there aren’t that many changes that need to be made during the 1st trimester. Hope that helped!

    Reply

    • Rachel

      This is really helpful, I had skim read the article but will have another good look at it (when I’m not supposed to working!) and soak it all in.

      Thanks so much for all the insights, help and down right inspiration! I’m looking forward to becoming a blocmama!

      x

  16. Sarah Kay

    Thanks so much for this post! I also delt with some low level, but constant nausea in the first trimester. I still went out to the walls with my group but spent some days just laying on the ground while everyone else climbed! Once the nausea was gone I was right back on the wall! I was still climbing 3 times a week up until the very end and went on several out of state climbing trips for multipitch and back to back days of climbing. I switched to the Mountain Mama harness at the beginning of my third trimester, which is about when I started dealing with the drop in climbing grade / ability, loosing some endurance and that darn belly certainly did get in the way! But I definitely think that climbing during pregnancy can be a great thing for your body (if cautiously approached – just listen to your body!) I even went climbing the day before giving birth. I can’t help but share that being active and climbing during pregnancy seemed to make giving birth (all natural) “easier”. I love climbing mamas! :)

    Reply

  17. Erica

    Sarah Kay – Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with you that climbing (and really just being active in general) is a big if your goal is to go all-natural. Obviously that’s not feasible for all birth situations, but I too think keeping my body strong throughout pregnancy was a major factor in my ability to cope with labor sans medication. My first kiddo went fast and relatively smoothly except for about an hour where he was trying to come out sunny-side up. Fingers crossed this second one will be just as smooth! :)

    Reply

  18. Adrian

    Thank you for this post! I am 26+ weeks and still climbing 3 days per week. I’m lucky because I live in Vegas where the weather has been amazing this winter and I’ve been able to get out every weekend in Red Rock. I’ve definitely experienced many of the changes you list here. One strange thing is that my crimping strength has actually improved…not sure what that’s all about. However, overall I have noticed a decrease in my ability from week to week, which is fine with me as long as I can still get out and climb and have fun! I’m experiencing two other things that I’d be interested to hear if anyone else is experienced/has experienced: 1) I have the Petzl full body harness. When I lower off a climb the leg loops ride up in the front and sort of pinch my belly on the sides, which is uncomfortable and worrisome as I don’t want to squish my little peanut. I’ve tried adjusting the harness and it still happens every time. Anyone experience this? Have any comments/suggestions? 2) When doing certain moves, usually moves that require core tension on a steeper climb or a dynamic move, I’ve experienced what feels like a pulled abdominal muscle. I try to steer clear of these types of moves, but sometimes it’s just instinctual to move like that while climbing. The pain has gone away in less than 24 hours both times this has happened, but again, it worries me a little (FTM here!). Anyone else experience this? Thanks again for your post and your blog. Great resource for pregnant climbers and climbing families!!!

    Reply

    • Erica

      Adrian – Congratulations on your pregnancy! Sounds like you have a healthy mindset about everything, and are well on your way to giving your little one the healthiest start possible. Unfortunately I can’t speak for the harness issue or the ab issue, but maybe some others on this thread can and will chime in. It could very well be a tweaked abdominal muscle, or maybe just a severe round ligament pain? Just hypothesizing though. I will say that whether I’m climbing or just walking around, pregnancy causes all sorts of weird twitches/sensations that I’ve never been able to identify. While we’re just sticking to our normal routines, our bodies are doing all sorts of crazy stuff on the inside! If you are concerned about it or if it keeps happening, it might be worth mentioning the ab thing to your doctor or midwife.

  19. Kristel

    Especially for Rachel (and of course for all other mothers-want-to-be);
    I’m 12 weeks pregnant now! I’m also a boulderer and now googling around what I can do and can’t do… It’s impossible to find investigated information. But now I’m 12wk I want to know what is dangerous for the little one. Till yesterday I jumped of the boulders (if I couldn’t climb them down) but now I read a bit on the internet I descided just to climb down.
    But till now I just bouldered as I did before. So, Rachel, don’t be afright that it will harm inplanting or developing the foetus! It won’t!

    Reply

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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN