Baby Boost

For some female athletes, pregnancy and childbirth may improve their performance
August 17, 2008

AFTER A close finish in the women's 800-meter final at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928, several runners dropped to the track in exhaustion. The sight was so jarring that doctors declared endurance events too dangerous for women. For the next 32 years, women's races longer than 200 meters were banned from the Olympics, and doctors cautioned that vigorous exercise could inhibit female reproductive abilities.

How times have changed. Not only have doctors found that women who exercise have no additional problems conceiving—and often have healthier babies—but they also now speculate that pregnancy may be a performance enhancer. In 1983 Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen won the Houston Marathon five months after having her first child, and five years later at the First Permanent World Conference on Anti-doping in Sport, "abortion doping" was a prime topic of debate. There were rumors that some athletes were intentionally getting pregnant and having abortions to benefit from hormonal changes in pregnancy.

Those allegations have never been substantiated, but there is evidence that pregnancy can help an athlete. One change that occurs in a pregnant woman's body is an increase in blood volume (because there are two people being supplied). Once the baby is born, the additional red blood cells that remain in the mother's system carry extra oxygen to the muscles, an effect akin to doping with EPO. But the boon is short-lived. A 1991 University of Vermont study found that nonathletes were pumping only slightly more blood than usual three months after giving birth.

Pregnancy can be a mixed blessing for the body, says three-time basketball gold medalist Lisa Leslie. After she gave birth to her daughter, Lauren, last summer, she had trouble moving laterally because her hips felt unstable. At the same time, Leslie could do ab exercises like never before. Both developments may be a product of the hormone relaxin, according to Dr. James Pivarnik, who studies pregnant athletes. It loosens the hip joints as a woman prepares for birth, but it also gives her added flexibility.

At a workout last week, U.S. forward DeLisha Milton-Jones noticed that Leslie was easily beating her in abdominal exercises. "I said, 'Did they you give you an extra ab in that cesarean?'" says Milton-Jones. Unlikely, but Leslie did get some new motivation. Says Leslie, "My dream is to put on my four gold medals and run around the court with Lauren in my arms."

PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESMAMMA MIA The 20 moms on the U.S. team include (clockwise from top left), Leslie, Torres, Finch and Rampone. PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOAP[See caption above] PHOTOLUIS FORRA/EPA[See caption above]