Lauren Au Brinkmeyer spent two years training and gained 10 pounds to swim the English Channel. After completing the approximately 21-mile crossing in July 2018 in 11 hours and 54 seconds, she was prepared to hang up her swim cap and start a family in Oakland, Calif., with her husband.
But when registration for the 20 Bridges Swim, a 28.5-mile circumnavigation of Manhattan, opened last November, she applied and earned one of the 67 spots for the July 2019 event. “I couldn’t resist the pull of the open water,” she says. When she struggled to become pregnant, she initially blamed her intense training in 50-degree water without a wetsuit. But her doctor told her many women her age have trouble getting pregnant right away.
An associate researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Au Brinkmeyer, 34, shifted her focus back to the water. She set her sights on achieving the triple crown of open-water swimming, a challenge that consists of the English Channel, the 20 Bridges Swim and the Catalina Channel, which runs about 20 miles between Santa Catalina Island and Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
In May, deep in training with two nonrefundable $1,000 deposits down for the final events, she learned she was pregnant. She had concerns about the Manhattan swim due to choppiness and pollution in the Hudson River. But under the supervision of her doctor, she continued and made it through fine. “It’s not like I started up a whole new sport when I got pregnant,” says Dr. Au Brinkmeyer, who has been open-water swimming since 2005.
Raul Artal is a professor emeritus in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at Saint Louis University and a member of the International Olympic Committee group that studies pregnancy and exercise. He says studies suggest that pregnancy is the ideal time to be exercising. “You obviously don’t want to take on a new endurance challenge, but if you’re an athlete and have been training, there is no concern, as long as you are being monitored by your doctor,” he says.
Dr. Au Brinkmeyer’s husband, Justin Brinkmeyer, is also a Masters swimmer. He supported her decision and paced her through the finish of all of her marathon swims. She completed the 20 Bridges during her first trimester. Her primary-care physician and obstetrician cleared her for the Catalina Channel, which she successfully completed during her second trimester. That made her the 231st person in the world to attain the triple crown.
Dr. Au Brinkmeyer is due in February. She plans shorter—but far from easy—swims, including the Alcatraz to Aquatic Park 1¼-mile swim Oct. 19, for as long as she feels well. “I’ve already set a post-baby goal of doing the round-trip Angel Island swim,” she says, referring to the 10-mile crosscurrent marathon swim in San Francisco. “I want other people to know that having a baby doesn’t mean you have to stop being active,” she says.
At the peak of her training, Dr. Au Brinkmeyer swam six days a week, averaging up to 23 miles a week. She did four pool workouts ranging from one to two hours.
“I find interval work in the pool helps when you need to fight the current and push through hard conditions,” she says. “Good technique in the pool translates to open water.”
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On weekends she’d brave the San Francisco Bay’s chilly waters and resident sea lions to swim between two and six hours with the fellow members of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club. At least one day a month at peak training she’d sleep 12 to 14 hours for recovery.
Now she does three one-hour pool workouts a week and an hourlong open-water swim on Saturdays, averaging 8.5 miles of swimming a week. She also takes a TRX class once a week. “I need strong abs to balance out the muscle swimming builds in your upper back,” she says.
Fueling yourself while swimming long distances is tricky. “It has to be something you can swallow quickly while treading water,” she says. Dr. Au Brinkmeyer uses drink supplements, applesauce, baby food and stroopwafels, a Dutch confection of caramel sandwiched between wafer cookies. Breakfast is peanut butter on wheat toast, a banana, yogurt and coffee. She brings leftovers like pozole for lunch. Dinner might be pesto pasta with fish or homemade pizza. The snack drawer in her office is filled with string cheese, trail mix, chocolate covered almonds and granola bars.
The Gear and Cost
Swim registration fees and the cost of the accompanying support boat are an investment, Dr. Au Brinkmeyer says. She spent $4,500 on the English Channel, $3,000 on the 20 Bridges Swim and $4,100 on the Catalina Channel. Gear is minimal, as the Channel Swimming Association forbids the use of a wetsuit or any type of buoyancy aid. She wears Speedo Vanquisher goggles ($22) and a Speedo long hair silicone swim cap ($12). Vermont’s Original Bag Balm prevents chafing.
She is a fan of Nike one-piece swimsuits and estimates she owns eight. “Your body changes a lot while you’re pregnant, so I kept having to buy new suits,” she says. She pays $28 per TRX class and $75 a month for Cal Aquatic Masters and $509 a year for the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club memberships.
“I don’t wear headphones, but during the Catalina swim I was going crazy in the pitch black of night, so I sang ‘100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ to myself as a way to count down the time,” she says.
Gameplan Your Exercise During Pregnancy
For generations, pregnant women were advised exercise was dangerous, says Raul Artal, professor emeritus in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at Saint Louis University. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists previously recommended exercise only for women who were recreational or competitive athletes before pregnancy.
Dr. Artal served as the lead author of the organization’s revised guidelines, introduced in 2015, which recommend all women with uncomplicated pregnancies engage in aerobic and strength-conditioning exercises.
Diana Ramos, an OB-GYN and adjunct assistant clinical professor at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, emphasizes that pregnancy isn’t the time to sign up for your first triathlon or marathon. If you were previously inactive, she suggests embracing a walking routine.
“If your feet are swollen and your balance is off, swimming or water aerobics can be great options,” she says. “The endurance you build will help during labor.”
Pregnant women should avoid heated activities like hot yoga, and sports with a risk of trauma, such as soccer or skiing, she says. Whether you’re an ultra-endurance athlete or a new exerciser, it’s important to consult a doctor first. There may be conditions that preclude certain activities. “Most importantly, listen to your body,” she says.
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