Should You Still Train at High Altitude During Pregnancy?

Exercise, high altitude and pregnancy: three things that disrupt your body’s homeostasis. So, what happens if you do all three at once?

A common question when you become pregnant is whether or not you can keep doing the activities you were doing before. After all, it’s normal to want to keep healthy and moving during pregnancy, and doing so is now recommended by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But, does doing so at high altitude carry unique risks?

While it’s true that exercise, altitude and pregnancy all increase your heartrate, it’s not otherwise clear from a clinical standpoint that there are any real contraindications for exercising at high altitude during pregnancy – but this is mainly down to the fact that there hasn’t been much research done.

Besides a 2004 article in the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology, which suggests that exercising at high altitude during pregnancy might decrease the flow of oxygen getting to your baby and advises a more conservative approach to exercise, research on the topic remains scant.

So, what do locals who have been through the process have to say?

Dr. Diane Voytko, MD at Colorado Mountain Medical and mother of two says that most advice on exercising during pregnancy at altitude is to make sure you take care of hydration, which is harder to maintain at altitude but more important during pregnancy, and simply to not do it if you are not accustomed to it.

“Travelers should rest for three to four days after arriving, and then should not do anything too strenuous. The maximum heart rate of 150 still applies, though athletes at altitude who are pregnant may get up to 160 unsustained, but I felt lousy when I did and naturally backed off.”

Okay, so travelers to the valley should relax and enjoy creek side walks, mountain views from the deck and our phenomenal restaurants, but what about those of us that live here year-round?

It turns out that the risks of exercising at high altitude during pregnancy might have more to do with the types of activities we like to do, rather than the altitude itself. If you live in the mountains, you might want to keep doing activities like mountain biking and skiing – all things that increase your risk of falling and causing placental injury. So, while exercising on its own is okay, it’s generally not recommended to continue these high momentum sports as your pregnancy progresses.

You might find, however, that down leveling your activity comes pretty naturally, at least that’s what happened with Carrie Eckenhoff, founder of Equilibrium Physical Therapy in Avon and avid runner and mountain biker.

"You have to have a lot of grace for yourself and the ways that your body is changing to grow a life – which I found both challenging and absolutely amazing." Carrie Eckenhoff

“For me, taking it down a notch and focusing on swimming, early morning hikes and a regular yoga class has been crucial. You have to have a lot of grace for yourself and the ways that your body is changing to grow a life – which I found both challenging and absolutely amazing,” reflects Eckenhoff.

In fact, most active valley mamas agree that the activity you choose will end up having less to do with fitness and more to do with stress-management. Laura Seelig, mother and co-founder of GOAT in Edwards said that, at her gym, they don’t make a big change in training protocols for their pregnant members; rather, they try to keep them moving and breathing and work closely with their doctors.

“Manage your stress, manage your intensity, keep moving, give yourself grace. Your pregnancy is your unique journey; don’t compare yourself to others,” advises Seelig.

The stress management component also explains why so many women seek out yoga when they become pregnant. Georgina Baker, founder of Mountain Soul Yoga in Edwards and mother of two, found the benefits of a regular yoga practice to be a lifeline during her pregnancies.

“You don’t need to walk on eggshells while you’re growing your human. Don’t overthink it and just do what you’re comfortable with,” says Baker, advising you use whatever props you can get your hands on to modify poses. She says she instinctively gravitated towards hip openers during her two pregnancies here: “Those shapes felt nourishing and created downward pressure to get everything ready to open up for birth.”

And if you’re still looking for encouragement, Sarah Ellefson, founder of Altius Physical Therapy in Avon and mountain athlete extraordinaire, kept up her running regimen during her pregnancies and found that it served her once her little ones came along and not just because she was in good physical shape.

“Training through my pregnancies taught me important lessons that carried over into motherhood. I learned to appreciate a coexistence of intensity and tranquility. It is perfectly acceptable to applaud your strength in one moment and respect the necessity to slow down in the next,” remarks Ellefson.