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Melissa Bishop-Nriagu, left, enjoys an outing at the track with her daughter, Corinne, and her husband, Osi. Photo: Melissa Bishop-Nriagu

Pregnancy just another challenge for elite endurance athletes

Social media allowing athletes to start conversation around competitive training during pregnancy

By Josh Kozelj , in Feature story , on April 30, 2022

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu laces up her running shoes, steps on the treadmill, and breaks into an easy jog. It’s early March, her loose silky shorts sway with each step, and her tank top hugs her body tightly, revealing her “basketball” — the baby growing inside of her belly

At 19 weeks pregnant, she’s still training, logging roughly 300 to 350 minutes of exercise per week, and able to enjoy an activity that has brought her so much joy in the past.

Bishop-Nriagu considers this moment a win. 

“I think I’ve done a really good job at balancing a successful running career with a successful motherhood journey,” Bishop-Nriagu said. “It’s hard to find that groove, but once you find it, it’s a lovely space to be in.” 

Bishop-Nriagu is far from the only many athlete to train and compete professionally as an expectant mother as a new generation of athletes are speaking up on their pregnancy training.  

Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open in her first trimester, American middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño ran at the 2014 and 2017 U.S. track and field championships while pregnant, and Asics pro runner Makenna Myler ran a 5:25 mile nine months into her pregnancy in 2020. 10 days later, she gave birth to her daughter, Kenny-Lou. 

Bishop-Nriagu is a three-time Olympian, World Athletics Championships silver medalist, and one of Canada’s best 800 metre distance runners of all time. But, like so many other current athletes, what she wants people to know that she’s more than just a professional runner: she’s a mother who’s continuing to run amid her second pregnancy.

In July 2018, one year after setting a new Canadian record in the 800m in Monaco with a time of one minute 57.01 seconds, Bishop-Nriagu gave birth to her first daughter, Corinne. 

“Motherhood is one of the most wonderful things that I’ve ever been through,” Bishop-Nriagu said. “She is my priority.” 

 

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu and her husband, Osi, in 2018 before Corinne was born. Photo: Melissa Bishop-Nriagu

In most professions, women get pregnant and return to work. For professional athletes, however, the pressure of becoming a mother, maintaining endorsements, and high-level training can be a tough combination.

In 2019, Nike made headlines for not giving nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix maternity protections in her contract. They have since added compensation for athletes during pregnancy following widespread backlash.  

Trent Stellingwerff, Bishop-Nriagu’s coach and Senior Advisor of Innovation and Research at the Canadian Sport Institute, believes social media has played a significant role in allowing women to document their pregnancy. 

“Finally, finally, finally, we’re getting to a point where there’s a normalization of pregnancy and athletes,” said Trent Stellingwerff, Bishop-Nriagu’s coach. “There’s a galvanizing power of other people realizing or understanding that, of course, top female athletes get pregnant just like a whole bunch of other females in other jobs and roles.” 

He oversaw Bishop-Nriagu’s first pregnancy that saw her stop running after 18 weeks, and has incorporated more methods of cross-training like biking and swimming into her second pregnancy that has enabled her to run longer. 

“The first pregnancy she was having some sacroiliac joint instability, pinching in the groin, and a few other issues, and we offset that purposely with a fair amount of cross training,” he said.

It took Bishop-Nriagu a lot of trial and error to find the balance that comes with being a mother and elite athlete. She credits her husband, Osi, and Stellingwerff — whose wife, Hilary, is also a former Canadian track and field Olympian and made the 2016 Olympics after the birth of her first child — for giving her the support and roadmap to navigating both walks of life. 

Bishop-Nriagu trained in Victoria, B.C. to get back into peak physical fitness to represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021, after Corinne was born. 

Now, with her second child on the way, she has her sights set on making the Canadian Olympic track and field team in 2024. 

More athletes speaking up

For Myler, running ridiculously fast times and exercising during her pregnancy wasn’t just for herself. It was about being a model for others.

“This may sound dramatic, but I really thrive off of thinking about other women — them not feeling like they’re enough, and a team of moms trying super hard,” Myler said.

“I want expecting mothers to take away how capable they are, how empowered they can be, and if you feel your body right, give it rest, you can push yourself hard.” 

Lindsay Flach’s son smiling at the track. Photo: Lindsay Flach

Months after Myler’s 5:25 mile run, American heptathlete Lindsay Flach made international headlines for finishing 15th out of 18 competitors in the U.S. Olympic trials while 18 weeks pregnant. In the lead-up to the Olympic Trials, she announced her pregnancy on Instagram and helped normalize the idea of pregnant athletes competing and working out. 

“I’ve heard amazing stories from other people, like one lady reached out to me today and she surfed until she was 37 weeks pregnant,” she said. 

The majority of the reception around Flach’s decision to train and compete while pregnant was positive, yet some still worried her intense exercise would harm the health of the baby — despite a 2018 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that found elite female athletes experienced no significant pregnancy complications compared to non-athletes. 

“They were like, ‘No, you can’t do this, you’re going to hurt the baby,'” Flach said. “When I opened up, people were like, ‘Oh, no, I did all this, my kid is completely fine.’ That relieved me as well because I was just going with what society had said.”

Flach and her son at the gym in matching cargo pants. Photo: Lindsay Flach
Bishop-Nriagu running back to the start line 

Success was hard to come by in the season following the birth of Bishop-Nriagu’s first daughter in 2018. 

Bishop-Nriagu struggled adjusting to her new body postpartum — particularly the physiological changes — and suffered numerous injuries following her pregnancy. 

A stress fracture, a tear in her achilles, and hamstring and quadricep soreness all combined to derail her season in 2019. At the end of the year, Bishop-Nriagu took four weeks off to heal and says that time helped her realize the importance of listening to her body post pregnancy.

“It was very hard to come back,” she said. “The injuries, really, were hard. I mean, I was willing to put in the work and I was seeing these glimmers of hope … but my body wasn’t ready to perform at the level I needed.”  

Currently, Bishop-Nriagu’s training schedule consists of three cross training days, two days running, and one off day. 

“Some days I’m running at 5:20 [per kilometre] pace and feel like I can’t take another step,” Bishop-Nriagu said. “Other days, I’ll bust out a 4:30 average and be like, Oh that was great, I feel amazing!’” 

Melissa Bishop-Nriagu embracing Corinne at the track. Photo: Melissa Bishop-Nriagu

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises that pregnant women should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intense — exercise that gets you sweating and can still talk normally — aerobic activities per week. 

The ACOG suggests women watch for vaginal bleeding, dizziness, or shortness of breath before exercise as causes to stop exercising. 

“Bodies are made for pregnancy, carrying pregnancy, and made for doing normal activities,” said Dr. Erin Dawson-Chalat, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Portland, Maine. “If you do exercise, you can maintain most of what you do.” 

Looking ahead to 2024 

Bishop-Nriagu’s children will always come first in her life. Though she’s been able to run longer in the second pregnancy than the first, she acknowledges that pregnancy will be different for every woman. 

“Trent was very supportive, he said this is the time to just enjoy pregnancy,” Bishop-Nriagu said about Stellingwerff’s advice during her first pregnancy. “He said just enjoy it and go for walks, leisurely exercising, do what you want.” 

Like Corinne, her second child is also due in July — exactly two years before she hopes to represent Canada at the Olympics in Paris at the age of 35. 

She admits the timeline to get to the startline in Paris will be tight, but she has a wealth of knowledge and experience coming back to training that she envisions being there with her two children in the stands to watch. 

“I’m thinking it’s doable if I’m smart about it and listen to myself,” Bishop-Nriagu said. 

“There’s some unfinished business left on the track for me.”