The Benefits of Low-Intensity Training During Pregnancy and Beyond
If you would have asked me three years ago if low-intensity training could help you meet your fitness goals. My answer would have been, "Sure low-intensity recovery training is great for rest days, but the majority of your training should come from higher intensity efforts." This mindset and training style was deeply flawed and uninformed. This is why so many women who identify as athletes, have an extremely difficult time scaling their fitness when they conceive. Brianna Battles, creator of The Pregnancy and Postpartum Athleticism Certification, coins this type of mindset "Athlete Brain."
Athlete Brain refers to the internally motivated force many fitness enthusiasts have which allows them to push themselves to go beyond and do more than most. This is super helpful if you are competing or breaking past plateaus. It can be dangerous though during pregnancy and postpartum when you can't "turn it off" to make the necessary adjustments in training. Brianna explains that the driving force is "often ego/ability, stubbornness and fear of losing control because of the anxiety it can create."
Shifting a long-held belief or mindset takes work. A lot of work. When my doctor explained to me that I was going to have to increase my calories and decrease my high-intensity exercise in order to get pregnant, I knew that I wanted a baby more than anything and it would be worth it. I had to alter how I viewed myself and my body. My body was no longer a tool to do work so that I felt personal fulfillment. Instead of turning off my brain and telling my body what it would endure, I had to learn to put my body first, be more intentional with my body, and let it lead my brain.
In doing so I experienced that scaling back my intensity and weights was still fulfilling. I focused my training on preparing my body for the needs of pregnancy and the postural and structural changes that would occur. The other purpose of my training sessions was to prepare my mind for birth. Even though I could technically still do a lot of what I used to do, I had to purposefully do less because that's not where I needed to be in this season. I am not going to lie, it was hard and slap to the ego.
"It's not forever it's just for now" was a mantra I said to myself when I missed doing movements or exercises that once defined who I was as an athlete.
Low-intensity and modifying movements and exercises do not mean that it is easier. It is just intentional. Focusing your efforts on the quality of your movements and control of your body can be extremely challenging. Most pregnant and postpartum athletes substitute strict movements for those that they previously performed dynamically, such as strict pull-ups over kipping, or strict presses instead of handstand push-ups. Strict movements increase your overall strength. More rest times are needed during conditioning pieces. During pregnancy, your heart is already working for two, which means that lower intensity efforts are going to provide a similar stimulus as higher ones.
There is a lot of value found in discovering new and different ways to define your athletic performance.
Post-pregnancy it took a lot longer to get back to baseline than I anticipated. I did not want to rush the process, although playing the long game was not easy. What I noticed during this season was that I was feeling better physically, emotionally, mentally. Taking a step back from volume and intensity wasn't decreasing my abilities, they were still there. Doing fewer HIIT workouts per week allows me to do more movement overall. I had more energy overall throughout the day.
Low Intensity Steady State (LISS) exercise calls for 30-60 minutes spent at the fat-burning rate of 60% of maximal heart-rate effort. At this level of intensity, you can exercise for longer periods of time and build endurance—not necessarily raw strength. This might resemble taking a long walk, bike ride, a scenic hike, or easy elliptical workout. Consider LISS workouts to be the opposite of HIIT workouts. During HIIT, your aim is to get your heart pumping and your body working hard. You are pushing yourself to the limits with short bursts of all-out effort followed by brief periods of rest. But with LISS workouts, you’re keeping your heart rate steady as you perform a less intense form of exercise consistently—for at least 30 minutes.
Some benefits of increasing your LISS may include:
Burns fat and calories
Improves cardiovascular function
Builds muscular endurance — through a high number of repetitions at a low resistance
Many types of low-intensity cardio workouts can be performed anywhere, have a low barrier to entry, and are low maintenance, and often give you a chance to reconnect with nature and find some joy in what you’re doing. Low intensity exercise won’t necessarily build raw strength or turn you into a calorie-burning machine like a HIIT workout would—but it still burns calories, builds endurance, and benefits your body in a host of other ways.
Low intensity does not mean less fitness or exercise, it is another option or tool in your pocket.
The mental benefits of taking it down a notch:
While I have mentioned all the ways the physical benefits of less intense exercise there is also a greater benefit to your overall mental well-being. So often, we think we have to push our bodies to the limits. But the “no pain, no gain” mentality isn’t always healthy. A less intense workout every now and then is not only physically restorative, but mentally restorative, too, helping you reconnect with your body in a form of movement that feels more natural to you. Working out to your limits each and every day can lead to burnout and irritability. HIIT workouts can become addictive because of the hits of dopamine and endorphins you receive at the moment, but it pays off in the long run to alternate your forms of exercise.
LISS exercise can and should be a BIG PART of your workout plan. A nice long walk, a bike ride in your neighborhood, an elliptical workout, paddle boarding, or an easy, fun dance class that makes you happy are all wonderful low-intensity steady state options. When it comes to getting consistent exercise, the most important thing is to find workouts that work for you. No matter what season of life you’re in, exercise doesn’t always have to be intense or painful to be beneficial. Embracing less-intense workouts will create an appreciation for exercise as a lifestyle—not a punishment, a fad, or something that always has to leave you feeling sore the next day.
If you are afraid that you are going to "lose" your fitness during pregnancy, I am here to tell you that it's not gone, it's just different and perhaps better.
For more information about how to adjust your fitness during pregnancy, download this handy guide: Training Through the Trimesters.