By Pete Williams
Erin Kowal Downs is the woman who makes many of her fellow new mothers envious.
The 5-foot-3 nutritionist and triathlete gained just 21 pounds during her pregnancy before delivering her first child on Nov. 27, less than two weeks after her 37th birthday. Between son Dylan’s healthy size (7 pounds, 15 ounces) and a quick return to training, Downs was back to her pre-pregnancy weight of 115 pounds not long after ringing in the New Year.
As a registered dietician, Downs understands that women respond differently to pregnancy and not everyone will make such a smooth transition.
“I’ve met many women over the years who say they ate like a pig while pregnant and that’s why they gained 60 pounds,” says Downs, who lives in Redington Beach and is pictured in the banner collage at the top of this site wearing a black swimsuit. “For others, they gained weight regardless of what they ate. Everyone is different.”
Downs has a triathlete friend who was pregnant at the same time, maintained an active training schedule, and still gained 60 pounds.
How did Downs, an Ironman finisher who also has completed four Ironman 70.3 events, manage the weight during an after pregnancy?
For starters, she kept track of her calories. The general rule of thumb is that women need an extra 300 calories per day and only during the last six months of pregnancy. That’s significant, but not as many calories as many women assume.
Downs continued training up until birth, swimming in a pool the day before her son arrived two weeks early, boosting her calories from 1,800 to about 2,100. Had she dialed down her training significantly, she might have adjusted those numbers.
As for cravings, she experienced nothing unusual. “My craving for cottage cheese went from maybe every other day to twice a day. And I ate more nuts – cashews and almonds. But other than more dairy, I was fortunate in that I wasn’t craving anything unusual or unhealthy.”
Like a lot of new mothers, Downs discovered that breastfeeding jumpstarted the weight-loss process, even though it requires additional calories.
“That’s something that’s really important because exercise decreases milk production,” Downs says. “You really have to be in tune with your body on that.”
It’s also important to maintain an exercise regimen. Pregnancy is no time to start a new training routine. At the same time, it’s not necessary to dial it back completely. Downs raced her last triathlon of 2010 in April, not knowing she was nine weeks pregnant.
Once she got the good news, she swapped her bicycle for a spin bike, kept running until she was seven months pregnant and maintained her swimming routine. When she no longer could run, she substituted work on an elliptical machine. Swimming became her favorite exercise.
“You’re so buoyant and it’s the only exercise where you feel normal,” she says.
Doctors told her to keep her heart rate under 160, which she did, but maintained a weekly schedule of six days training: two each of swimming, biking and running.
“If you can exercise for at least 30 minutes a day during pregnancy, it’s going to help with delivery, decrease the chance of complications, and make for healthier babies,” Downs says.
It also helps to get back to training, even though everything in life changes with a baby.
Downs stresses that she’s fortunate to have a good support system to assist with the newborn. She has two stepchildren, ages 12 and 14, who will help and when she returns to work at the end of February, a nanny will watch the little guy three days a week. Her husband will watch the baby on those mornings prior to the nanny’s arrival, giving the new mom time for early-morning training. Working at home two days a week also will provide some flexibility.
Some doctors suggest waiting six weeks after childbirth before resuming a training routine, but Downs began after just one week. The plan is to return to triathlon in April at the Escape from Ft. DeSoto Triathlon in St. Petersburg and complete an Ironman 70.3 race this year.
“As an athlete I feel so in tune with my body,” she says. “I started with spinning lightly and lifting weights. By week four I was running. Again, everyone is different, but if you focus on nutrition and training throughout, it becomes a lot easier to get back into routines.”