A personal report by German climber Julia Schöpp
I climbed through most of my pregnancy, and bouldered through more than half of it. While some people thought I was brave, many others probably thought I was stupid, and irresponsible. Interestingly, nobody said that to my face. But that is what we have the internet for, isn’t it? Ask in any of these pregnancy forums, if climbing is “allowed” during pregnancy, and I’m sure you will find someone to tell you what a horrible person you are for even thinking about it. That’s very unfortunate, because what most climbers will probably do when they get pregnant – myself included – is to search the internet for any reliable information on pregnancy and climbing.
Fortunately, there are also articles and blog posts of people like Beth Rodden / @bethrodden or Melody Meigs / @patchworkandpebbles, who went through similar situations. I found these testimonies, among others, incredibly helpful. While reading about the experiences of other women, I felt more confident to make my own decisions. This is so important; as traditional wisdom about sports and pregnancy still mostly covers aqua gymnastics and yoga. And even though many people will tell you to “just do what feels right for you,“ it is still good to know that others have done similar things before, and it all went well.
Now that our baby is born, I want to add my own experience to the growing collection of testimonies out there covering pregnancy and climbing; hoping that other climbers might benefit from it. At this point, I probably need to add that I’m not a doctor, nor an expert, nor do I necessarily think that everything I did was right, or even smart. I’m just trying to add one more voice to the debate; so that others can decide for themselves.
I will cover three different aspects:
1) bouldering, 2) sport climbing, and 3) training. Finally, I will post a collection of articles and blogposts on pregnancy and climbing that I found helpful for further reading.
1. Pregnancy and bouldering
While toprope climbing during pregnancy has become quite mainstream; bouldering is still quite a taboo. My doctor recommended that I stop bouldering right in my very first appointment, and most athletes that have written about climbing and pregnancy write that they stopped bouldering pretty early on – most are not very specific, unfortunately. The exception was Melody Meigs (her blog is listed further down). The reasons are quite obvious: falling is pretty much an essential part of bouldering – or at least one that is relatively hard to avoid. And falling, people will tell you, is a total no-go when pregnant.
I bouldered well into my second trimester, but of course, I had to adapt to the changing circumstances. In retrospect, I was able to go bouldering far longer than I would have expected, and I enjoyed it up to the point when I didn’t. This is when I stopped and changed to toprope climbing -and training- exclusively.
Pregnancy and bouldering – here’s a summary of what I did
- Gym: I reduced falling as much as possible in my normal gym-bouldering pretty early on in my first trimester. For trying hard, I turned to the moonboard as it’s not so high. I stopped falling from higher than knee-high by the end of the first trimester (at least I tried – there were a few unforeseen falls, but nothing serious). Of course, I down-climbed every boulder without a topout. As for the difficulties, I would still try to climb as hard as possible, if it was low risk. I quickly realised that risk is not necessarily related to difficulty, as easy dynamic boulders could feel a lot scarier than static boulders close to my physical limit. Around week 22, I got bored with climbing only easy boulders; so I tried to mix it up by playing „freeze“ on boulders, which worked fine for about a week. In week 25, I finally gave up, and stopped bouldering except for very easy boulders for warming up.
- Outdoors: Around week 6, I went on a trip to Albarracín, bouldering pretty much at my limit (up to 7b). The only thing I didn’t do was try highballs. No beer though, but my friends didn’t even find that weird – they had not known I was pregnant at that point. I went on bouldering and climbing trips outdoors as much as I could during my first and second trimester. Around week 12, I started being pretty careful, avoiding any falls higher than around 50 cm, and making sure to have a good and active spotter. In week 16, during the Easter holidays, we went on a trip to Ostaš and Bor, where I climbed a lot more than I thought I would, avoiding high and risky boulders or falling in general. I still enjoyed bouldering a lot during that trip. In week 17, during a trip to Bahratal, I projected a hard traverse, which was great; as it was challenging, but low risk. My last outdoor bouldering trip was in week 21/22 to Fontainebleau, where I mostly tried easier boulders. I did one blue Parkour, skipping the highballs.
- Competitions: I basically stopped competing seriously right away. However, I took part in two competitions (week 15 and 19), participating in the recreational categories (without falling). I just enjoyed the atmosphere of the local funcups with all of my friends.
Some further thoughts:
- Spotters become even more essential than usual, when you’re not really allowed to fall. I’m incredibly thankful to my friends who were always there to catch me!
- To my understanding, in the early stages of pregnancy, the embryo is still very small and pretty well-protected by the abs and uterus. However, most doctors and mainstream websites will still recommend that you do neither any “high impact sports” nor even sports in general. However, it seems like the reasoning behind this is as follows: in the first trimester, the pregnancy is not very secure yet, i.e. the risk of an early miscarriage is relatively high (up to 25% according to some sources). If people lose the baby at this stage, they will likely think their behaviour is the reason for it; even though, in almost all of the cases, a genetic reason is to blame. My doctor literally told me not to take any risks; because if something would happen to the unborn baby, I would blame myself – even though the falling had nothing to do with it. I find this kind of thinking pretty disturbing, and would wish for a more fact-based consultancy instead. Still, after that doctor’s appointment, I tried to limit the falling to the absolute minimum, and rather down-climb or not do a move where I thought I might fall.
- The other reason why people recommend you to stop falling pretty early on is because injuries are said to become more likely, due to the changing body-structure; especially muscles and tendons getting softer. I had no injuries during my pregnancy and I didn’t feel more unstable, but that might be completely different from person to person.
2. Pregnancy and Climbing
Lead climbing and, especially, top roping is the obvious choice for bouldering addicts who have to stop falling. Many women can and do keep climbing until pretty much the end of their pregnancy – again, taking certain precautions like using a full body harness. Even my doctor thought it was ok to toprope. Here’s a short summary of my climbing during pregnancy:
- I hadn’t been lead climbing much before I got pregnant, so when I first started in the early days of my pregnancy, I pretty much sucked (compared to my level of bouldering). Retrospectively, that was great for me: while my physical capabilities got worse and worse (more weight, less abs etc), by climbing a lot more than before I had actually learnt some rope-climbing technique; therefore improving my sport climbing (even in terms of grades) during pregnancy.
- I started sport climbing regularly around week 10.
- I mostly lead-climbed until approximately week 20, which was when I had started doing harder or more risky climbs on a toprope. I stopped lead-climbing completely when I started climbing with a full-body harness (actually, I used a breast harness in combination with my normal harness) in week 24.
- In week 28, I did my hardest (gym-) flash (on a toprope, of course) to date. Climbing on slabs or vertical walls felt great; overhangs, on the other hand, were super hard, due to the missing abs.
- In my very last climbing session (week 31) I felt great, sending a route I had tried the session before (and failed), in rental shoes (note to self: try not to forget your climbing shoes at home!). I didn’t know at that point that it would be my last session and thought I could go on like that for quite a while.
Some further thoughts:
- One of the most valuable lessons I had to learn was that you just can’t plan what will happen to your body during pregnancy. I was feeling great and strong up until the day my doctor told me I had to stop doing anything exhausting. That was in week 32. I was devastated! Most people thought it wasn’t a big deal, and there were only a few weeks left anyway. From today’s perspective, I think they had a point. But back then, it felt like the end of the world (maybe blame it on the hormones?). Yet, I think I was very lucky with how my pregnancy went; I had neither a lot of nausea, nor pain, nor much of the other unpleasant things that can happen during pregnancy, and you just don’t know whether they would hit you or not. Somehow, I was naively convinced that I would climb all the way until I didn’t feel like it anymore. Now, I know that I am lucky to have been able to climb for that long.
3. Pregnancy and Training
While many might consider training the first thing to skip when pregnant (why would you torture yourself even more?) – for me, it was crucial: I could stick to my habits, see friends that only hang out in bouldering gyms, and later, keep myself busy. I loved training, because it offers so many ways to tweak the difficulty of your exercise, in order to make it suitable to your current abilities. In addition, it was easier to find information on how to modify exercises, or what to avoid, e.g. by peaking over into the world of crossfit. There, it seems to be more common for pregnant women to keep training, and there are even specialised coaches for pregnant athletes. So, here’s a summary of my training during pregnancy:
- Early pregnancy: I did some performance testing, while the pregnancy hadn’t really affect me yet; that was helpful to later reduce the intensity of the exercises. I also tried to learn the movements of new exercises that I was planning to incorporate into my training.
- I participated in @teambertablock ’s circuit trainings, more or less, until I wasn’t allowed to exercise anymore. Our coach @felex81 was kind enough to adapt the exercises to my current state, while not letting me off the hook too easily.
- I started doing yoga once or twice a week in my second trimester, and really enjoyed it. I switched to special pregnancy yoga when my bump was getting too big.
- At some point when I was growing bigger and my abs were getting weaker, I felt that most pulling-related exercises (including pull ups and dead hangs) were getting really strenuous for my core. That sucked, because training for climbing mostly consists of pulling. I had to come up with some adaptations, mostly keeping a foot or even a toe on the ground to take weight off the core. Some exercises I did regularly: 1-on-1-off endurance on the campus board (my favourite, I think, because you can do it with a friend), deadhangs with my toe on a foothold, pulling on two fingers to keep tendons busy, rowing pull-ups etc.
- After week 32, the only exercise I still did was “hangs” (or pulling on my fingers), which I did sitting on a barstool. In retrospect, it is easy to think I probably would have been OK doing some easier climbing. But you just never know, and I didn’t want to take the risk.
Our baby, Jakob, was born two weeks before his due date. We had to induce labor because I had developed a high blood pressure. Case in point, you never know what will happen to your body during pregnancy… I’ve recently started climbing and bouldering again (exactly 6 weeks after the little one’s birthday, which was the minimum time I had promised my partner to rest). I don’t feel ready yet to write anything meaningful about recovery. I’m feeling good so far. Then again, I think there’s a dramatic lack of good information on the topic. Maybe I’ll follow up at some point, stay tuned…
4. Further Reading on Pregnancy and Climbing
This is not a conclusive list – I’m sure there’s a lot more great articles out there. These were some of my favourites, though:
Beth Rodden’s Blog
Beth Rodden – a professional climber from the US, and very vocal about things related to social questions in climbing (like pregnancy, but also body image issues). On her blog, you will find her own thoughts, but also interviews with other interesting climbers (Jen Bisharat, Janet Wilkinson, Long Huynh – a climber and gynaecologist, and even a small medical study. Beth Rodden had also published an interesting article in the NYT on the topic pregnancy and climbing.
Melody Meigs’ Blog
I found this blog very helpful, as it is incredibly detailed, and the author is not a professional climber, but more of a highly-motivated amateur (which made her very relatable to me). She has done a lot of research and even looked into the medical questions of training and pregnancy. You will also find further literature recommendations there.
More articles on pregnancy and climbing:
Dr Keri Wallace in UKClimbing
Rebekah Drumond’s Blog
Caro Ciavaldini on Instagram
Rachel Briggs on the TrainingBeta Podcast
The mum’s gone climbing network
Laura Snider on Climbing.com