Guest interview with Endurance Coach Extraordinaire Brittany Aäe
Brittany is a friend of mine, and current co-collaborator on a number of new projects. If you've been following my IG lately you may have noticed that my practice has been evolving. I've been focusing more on the nutrition and lifestyle needs of the female athlete, pregnant athlete and active women looking to maintain hormone balance or achieve a pregnancy. Brittany is such a great addition to my team of co-conspirators. She has a TON of experience coaching women and pregnant athletes and is an all around awesome human. I hope you enjoy learning more about her. Check her out on her own page at Magnetic North
Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to study the pregnant and postpartum athlete?
I am an endurance coach and creative making my home on the wily riverbanks of the čwáx (Chewuch). I founded Magnetic North in 2012. My daughter, Rumi Wren, will be two in May.
Throughout my twenties I had two careers: one in the research, implementation, and evaluation of large-scale public health programs on four continents and one as a mountain athlete. Even after leaving my corporate job for my small business, I still love diving into PubMed on a rainy day. In autumn and winter 2009 I lived in the Kumaoni Himalayas conducting primary research on rural home birth outcomes and broke 20,000 feet for the first time. Pairing my experiences at altitude and my research on the physiology and cultural environs of birth turned out to get me thinking in a revolutionary way about the pregnant body at work. I am also a trained doula.
During my 2012 speed climb on Aconcagua my then-partner Chad Kellogg and I were stuck at Camp II in a windstorm and had a lot of time to talk. He mused about how the initial ascent to altitude and the first trimester of pregnancy have similar symptoms but that the athlete and the preggo approach those symptoms differently. We talked about how I could do pregnancy differently when we had children. Where a high-altitude climber knows altitude will feel crappy at first, they know that with good nutrition, rest, and strategic training their bodies will acclimate ultimately increasing their athletic performance after returning to sea level a pregnant woman often assumes that she has no control over her symptoms and that her body can never adapt to the rigorous physiology of pregnancy.
When I first became unexpectedly pregnant I was living in the back of my Subaru climbing, running, and fishing the mətxʷú (Methow). I was broke AF and didn’t know Rumi’s dad well so I had a choice: I could either adopt a victim mentality and quit what I loved to do, making excuses that the baby made me stop, or I could transmute the difficult experience into my medicine. Thinking back on my decade of public health research, my conversation with Chad in the tent that day, and knowing the kind of example I wanted to set for my future child, I chose the latter. I am so glad that I’ve been able to inspire and inform other pregnant athletes and the professionals who support them.
You have a strong understanding of the biology of training and pregnancy. What are the positive outcomes of strenuous exercise on both mom and baby during pregnancy?
Given my unique background coupling public health research and endurance athleticism, I was able to unearth evidence supporting a radical hypothesis: Pregnancy is the greatest performance enhancement known to (wo)man. I took a list of performance enhancements that elite athletes experience and cross-referenced them with the physiologic phenomena the pregnant body experiences and the results not only confirmed my hypothesis. The miracle of science totally blew my mind.
Every performance enhancement sought by professional athletes who dope comes naturally to the pregnant woman - some even to the sedentary preggo. Beginning at eight weeks pregnant, the maternal heart remodels itself to contain more blood in each stroke. The kidneys in the pregnant athlete have a higher filtration rate (which is also why you pee a lot when you’re pregnant) which has the lovely side-effect of being unpumpable while rock climbing. The hormone relaxin, that we’ve been conditioned to believe only leads to unstable joints, is actually an effective vasodilator - even more effective than most doping drugs. The plasma levels in the maternal body increase by 50% or more. The pregnant body is more resilient to exercise in heat as a result. The fetus sends its mother an extra boost of stem cells to help her repair injuries or after a hard training session. In the well-trained athlete, the slow increase in weight throughout pregnancy functions as a custom progressive weight vest which, after birth, leaves the athlete with outsized musculature to perform her mountain tasks.
For the baby, less evidence is available. Anecdotal evidence is below on my own experiences birthing a capable, strong, healthy baby the day before her due date. The midwives postulated that my ultra-endurance pregnancy allowed Rumi and me to share a joyful physiologic birth at home rather than a surgical birth in the hospital.
I have shared the science behind these shocking realizations about the pregnant body on my website and coach pregnant and postpartum athletes using this evidence. Science is the antidote to misogyny.
What effects did pregnancy have on YOUR athletic pursuits?
I am even more feral inside and more connected to the more-than-human. I’m smarter, more efficient, more discerning with how I spend my time, and more self-assured. I trust my body and my intuition completely. Physically speaking, I recover more quickly, have a better understanding of how to engage my deep core muscles, my hematocrit two years postpartum remains as high as it was after my speed climb on Aconcagua - 45. I climb harder grades, I run faster and farther, and I’ve become the coach I always dreamed of becoming. I had always dreamed of setting an only known time before becoming pregnant and I did it when Rumi was 1 on the Kettle Crest Trail. I am leaner, stronger, and more serious about my mountain practice. No fucking around for this mama.
Anecdotally, the sport project I was working on when I got pregnant proved impossible for me to send through the spring and summer. In the months before becoming pregnant I’d climbed it obsessively over thirty times, every time whipping at a different spot - I was nowhere near ready to send it. But during the first trimester of my pregnancy something shifted. I don’t know if it was my mind or the new flood of plasma making me invincible, but I crushed it. When I clipped the chains on my project at nine weeks pregnant I felt like I could take another lap on it without fatiguing. I found a similar level of high performance in all of the other sports I engage in during pregnancy, continuing them until going into labor at the climbing gym at forty weeks pregnant
Were there any challenges-- physical, emotional or social-- that you faced while maintaining an athletic lifestyle through your pregnancy?
Yes. The biggest challenge was certainly maintaining my innate sense of what was right for my body and my baby. I had a small core of supportive loved ones who believed in me but no one told me “You should run/climb/ski while you’re pregnant!” I had to come up with the motivation myself. No one believed that I could run ultras while I was pregnant - which I did twice. No one else thought I’d send my sport climbing project while I was pregnant - which I also did. No one gave me permission to take a solo running road trip down the West Coast from six to eight months pregnant - I gave myself that permission. Rumi’s dad and I had known one another for six weeks (yes, six weeks) when I got pregnant so we worked long and hard to get to where we are now as caring co-parents. I also struggled with prenatal anxiety based on the unplanned nature of my pregnancy; my mountain practices served as medicine.
How did maintaining high levels of fitness throughout pregnancy affect your labor and postpartum experience?
First, I can’t imagine being able to successfully birth Rumi at home after thirty-eight hours of labor, twenty-seven active, and then push for four and a half hours if I wasn’t already an ultra-endurance athlete. Every time my cervix expanded, my strong abs made me puke. I vomited twenty or thirty times through the course of labor but I knew how to keep fueling specifically to keep me going based not on calories expended or actual hydration but based on this wild evolutionary thing our bodies have with sugar. Our feminine-power-denying culture posits birth as an incomparably painful, difficult, and unpredictable experience but that’s not what I experienced - I felt quite prepared for the ‘giving up’ necessary to birth because I birth myself on every solo ultra and alpine climb. My many simultaneously arduous and joyful days in the mountains gave me an excellent template for the experience of giving birth. I was able to pace myself, able to frame the productive pain of birth as yet another piece of information during an exciting experience while also being present for the other sensations involved in birth such as courage, triumph, connectedness, curiosity, gnosis, and gratitude. Rumi and I birthed like bosses.
Rumi was born a few hours before her due date at seven pounds and, because of the massive amounts of deliciously-oxygenated blood I gave her throughout my ultra-endurance pregnancy, her cord was a size usually associated with an eleven pound baby. This sturdy cord allowed me to push hard for over four hours without negatively affecting her vitals - ultimately saving us from an emergency surgical birth. After she was born the cord continued pulsing nourishing blood for over an hour and I lost less than a sixth of the blood my midwives usually saw a woman lose during birth. Rumi was immediately able to control her head and use her hands; she breastfed ably within an hour of being born. Rumi continues to be an intelligent, athletic, and funny toddler who currently measures in the 75th to 90th percentile for height and weight.
During the postpartum experience my uterus shrank from even with my ribcage to even with my pubic bone within an hour of birth. This quick involution prevented postpartum hemorrhage and sped healing. I was immediately able to walk comfortably on my own after birth. There were only four days between my final pregnant climbing session (during which I went into labor) to my first postpartum lead falls. I took my last pregnant run and first postpartum runs five days apart. My postpartum bleeding stopped completely within five days of Rumi’s birth. My midwives agreed that I had completed the recovery that takes the general population about eight weeks in the span of five days. Like I always say: I’m not only an expert at moving fast and high in the mountains; I’m an expert at recovery. My level of fitness and mental resilience developed over the last decade of elite athleticism allowed me to be completely present with the intense and beautiful experience of birthing my baby.
You have done research on how the blood volume increase that occurs naturally in pregnancy. You refer to this as “natural blood doping.” Can you briefly elaborate on this natural phenomenon and its benefits. What else is happening within a woman’s body during pregnancy that make her stronger athletically?
Performance enhancements of any sort, whether sleeping in an altitude tent or taking performance-enhancing drugs, feels bad. Just like the first trimester of pregnancy, any sort of legal or illegal doping stimulates the body into a different balance of plasma, hematocrit, and/or stem cell activity. The difference between the performance enhancement of pregnancy and the ones that non-pregnant athletes use is the mindset.
As I mentioned before, when a climber first ascends to altitude they expect to feel unwell. Rather than languishing in AMS and feeling resigned to crappy performance the entire time they are up high, they apply evidence-based acclimatization strategies to their practice in order to bring their performance up to a higher level than before going to altitude.
Pregnancy, according to the evidence, is a uniquely powerful time for the athlete. To unlock the potential inherent in all pregnant athletes requires a shift in mindset away from a symptomatic experience to a challenging but rewarding experience for both mom and baby. I am happy to dive deep into the research with any curious mama or birth professional. Find more information on my Coaching page.
Your athletic pursuits include ultra-running, rock climbing, and backcountry skiing. Can you provide our readers with one tip in how to continue pursuing each of those sports while pregnant?
Ultra-running: Think of your power as a runner during pregnancy like you might think of a diesel truck: Takes a while to warm up, sputtering and coughing, but once it gets going it is completely unstoppable and unbelievably durable. You’ll have torque and endurance that you never believed were possible.
Rock climbing: You may experience un-pumpability. With all the extra plasma and higher glomerular filtration rate, many pregnant climbers find that they are unable to get pumped. Climb steep, climb long.
Backcountry skiing: Get someone to help you unbuckle your boots in the third trimester. Other than that skiing is surprisingly normal during pregnancy.
Overall: Develop an internally-informed, self-sufficient sense of what is right for your body and your pregnancy. By releasing expectations, your high performance may surprise you.
Through your research and experience, what has inspired you most about the maternal athlete?
Fetomaternal microchimerism. Us uterus-havers evolved to gestate, birth, brachiate, and run - with each of those ultra-endurance feats supporting our performance in the other.
Interested in learning more??
Check out her pregnant athlete e-course and stay tuned for more info about our collaboration "Training With Your Menstrual Cycle: Troubleshooting and tips"