Pro Mountain Biker Sonya Looney Talks Pedalling Through Her Pregnancy
Looney—who was “just trying to keep things moving!”—continued to ride throughout her entire pregnancy, blogging about the ups and downs, and now she hopes to show women that you don’t have to sit it out on the sidelines when you want to have a baby.
Bicycling caught up with her just a few days before her baby was born to ask how she’s getting it all done.
That pump track video is pretty rad. What did it feel like being more than 40 weeks pregnant?
I feel good and comfortable on my bike. I definitely can feel the extra weight uphill, and I don’t feel nearly as powerful, but I actually feel balanced on trails and more or less like myself on the descents. I’ve been riding five to six days a week since I got pregnant, so I think the gradual change in my size and shape doesn’t feel as extreme as you’d think. I also am riding my 170mm mountain bike with a dropper, so that gives me a lot more room for my belly and [allows me] to move my bike around.
I’m only riding trails that are 100 percent within my comfort zone, so I never feel scared or nervous while riding. I’m happy I can get out and just have fun on my bike, and I feel really fortunate that I’m going to ride right up until the day I give birth because I love to ride my bike.
Have you received any negative feedback [to riding while pregnant]?
I’ve gotten a little, but it’s mostly from men! They’ll say I’m being irresponsible or that’s dangerous… I know it’s coming from a good place, but really only the pregnant individual can say what they feel most comfortable doing. I think women need to adjust to their own comfort levels. Some people see what I’m riding and they think that’s it’s so technical and I shouldn’t be doing it. But for me here in British Columbia, my comfort level might be very different from someone else’s.
Everyone has a different skill level, and I think if people are riding well within their limits, then you’re totally safe. I see pregnant skiers doing things I couldn’t do on my best day not pregnant, and I don’t say they are being irresponsible. I know they are just way more skilled than me.
Honestly, I’ve had a few near-misses falling down while walking and zero near-misses of falling in the 300-plus hours I’ve spent riding since getting pregnant. If a feature or trail causes me any tension or doubt, I don’t ride it. I definitely am not riding all the trails and features I was regularly riding before I got pregnant. I use a risk equation and just play it smart. No one cares more about the baby than the mama! There have also been people commenting to “calm down” or telling me I don’t have to ride my bike. The thing is that I want to ride my bike. It’s my favorite thing to do. Telling me not to ride would feel like punishment.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had way more positive comments than negative ones. I’m glad that I can show women that you can ride throughout your pregnancy. I’ve heard from women who say that they were questioning if they should get pregnant or should have a baby because they’re nervous about losing their identity or not being able to ride anymore. I’m happy that women like Laura King who has had a parallel journey to me and just had her baby—and you—who have ridden all the way through their pregnancy and myself can show women that it’s possible.
It’s obviously okay if you don’t feel comfortable riding or if you don’t want to. It’s every woman’s personal decision. But if you feel safe and comfortable, and your medical team says it’s okay, then you can ride until the end. Why not? Pregnancy is not a handicap, an injury, or a sickness where you are fragile. As long as you are healthy, you feel good doing a lot more than most people think. My midwife told me that as long as I feel good, then keep doing what I’m doing, and I know my body best.
Riding most days and being in the forest has also been great for my happiness, attitude, and mental health. During a time when there are many things you can’t control when your body is changing, and in some cases you’ve had to change your riding style, doing something that makes you feel positive and happy when you’re done is so key.
There are days I haven’t felt like going out to ride, where I felt lazy. I committed to just showing up and giving it 10 minutes, and I almost always rode longer and felt so glad I got started. “Show up” has been my mantra during pregnancy and I think in general, it’s a great mantra to have in life because getting started with something is often the hardest part.
How have you changed your setup as you’ve gone along?
My XC bike on my trainer has a stem extender that I put on after my third trimester, and I’m riding my 170mm outside, but otherwise I haven’t had to change my position. Mountain bike set-ups are a bit different these days and I think it actually is beneficial when you have a pregnant belly.
Pregnancy can make your joints feel loose and wonky with all the hormones; do you feel any of those things while you’re out riding?
I have had some pain from joint laxity, but ironically the bike is one of the only places I don’t notice it. We got a lot of snow in January, and I thought nothing of shoveling our long driveway, but it caused an injury called pubic symphysis [stress on the joints in the pelvis].
It was really painful. I didn’t even know what that pain was until I finally got checked out. It was really painful and took about eight weeks to heal. I also noticed it after hikes. With cycling, your pelvis is more or less stable so it doesn’t aggravate anything. I also had some diastasis recti pain—where your abs actually separate—in my third trimester. I don’t usually roll to my side to get out of bed or to get up and I didn’t know that I was supposed to stop sitting straight up. I felt like I did something wrong, but then I learned from my pelvic floor physio that diastasis recti is really common in fit women because our abs are so tight and most of the time, it can be easily rehabbed post-partum.
I’ve been following your blog and it looks like you’re doing some structured training indoors. Are you following a plan?
Mostly I just go out and ride for fun and to get some exercise. My body seems to have a pretty strict governor, and I haven’t been able to ride anywhere near to high intensity. Some women feel good enough to do some racing while they are pregnant, which is pretty amazing, but I definitely did not feel good enough for that. My goal is just to show up and ride five to six days a week.
You can’t ride outside where I live in the winter, so the only structure I’ve done has been on my Wahoo KICKR for a few months. I use TrainerRoad for my indoor training, but I just changed the intensity like I would ride outside, pushing myself as I feel comfortable.
Outdoors, your effort changes as you go uphill or hit steeper sections of trail, so I tried to choose workouts that would mimic that. I mostly just kept my TrainerRoad workouts in the endurance and recovery sections and those were challenging enough. Some days 130 watts felt hard! … It hasn’t been about trying to make gains in fitness, it’s just about maintaining a base and staying fit. That will come after, and I can’t wait to do intervals and get faster again.
You’re a plant-based athlete. How has [following a vegan diet during] pregnancy been going?
Some people have questioned me being a vegan during my pregnancy, but it’s been massively beneficial. First of all, most of the foods you’re not supposed to eat while pregnant are animal-based and the number-one food aversion women have while pregnant is meat. Folate is something you hear about with pregnancy supplementation, but plant-based diets are very high in folate, and natural folate is way better than the synthetic folic acid you’ll find in a vitamin. I did take a prenatal vitamin as a just in case for other things, but I haven’t had any concerns about protein, iron, B12—which I do supplement—or any others.
In terms of symptoms, I’ve had a very easy pregnancy. I had no morning sickness, no constipation, no heartburn; I’ve gained a healthy amount of weight; my blood pressure did not change at all, and I’ve had no swelling—my rings are still loose, and I can still see the bones in my feet. I didn’t have any cravings except for fruit. I’m comfortable in my body, and I’m at the end of my pregnancy. Of course, I spent some time researching if I needed to do anything different as a vegan pregnant person.
Some women (regardless of diet choice) become anemic during pregnancy and my hemoglobin and iron actually increased. I feel great and very confident about my food choices.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell women (and men) out there about riding through pregnancy?
I want to add that while it might sound like everything has been a breeze, I have had difficult days too. I struggled with anxiety in my first trimester about something going wrong. I actually got pregnant last year and had a miscarriage early on and that definitely added to anxiety my second time around.
I felt really nervous about how my body would change and if I would actually be physically able to ride to the end of my pregnancy. I didn’t like the way pregnancy looked. I was also very worried about sponsorships because that is how I make my living. I was worried about viewed as less capable and afraid of other peoples’ biases. I’ve been very transparent about my journey on my blog where I wrote a series of posts about how I’ve felt, what I’ve been doing for riding, doubts I’ve had.
My goal was that I wanted other women going through what I was to know they are not alone. Pregnancy can feel really lonely and like no one can possibly understand how hard it is feeling. It also can be hard if you don’t know what you’re “allowed” to be doing in terms of how much riding is too much? It’s a time where you’re supposed to just feel overjoyed and love being pregnant and feel excited.
I was incredibly thankful to be pregnant and it was planned, but it took me a really long time to feel excited. I mostly just felt frustrated as I had to adjust to my new normal, new expectations about how I should feel on my bike, how long I felt like riding, the extreme fatigue of growing a human, and just being slower. It was around the halfway mark that I sort of accepted where I was at and truly mentally adapted, and learned about letting go!
As I’ve gotten past the 40-week mark of pregnancy, I’m still continuing to ride and to use my “show up” mantra. But the biggest thing I’m still working on is letting go. Letting go of expectations and timelines, especially as I saw my due date come and go, letting go of trying to control my body, and birth will be another exercise of letting go. As athletes, we are so accustomed to trying to make things happen as opposed to letting them happen… and pregnancy is a lot of letting things happen. I’ve learned a lot about myself and I know that having a baby will definitely create many, many more opportunities to learn too and hopefully be a better, more patient human.