Joss Lowden thought that she might have difficulty getting pregnant. Like many female athletes, she suffered from an unmanaged energy deficit that left her with irregular periods.
“This could be too much information. But basically, I was quite worried that I wouldn't be able to ever get pregnant because I had really irregular periods,” she tells me at her home in Andorra that she shares with her husband, aerodynamicist Dan Bigham.
“If I had an off-season, if I didn't train for a few weeks or something I'd have one. I had one in April [last year], and then I was like, This is really stupid. I've got to have regular periods. Because it's just better for me as an athlete, I'm obviously not in an energy surplus or something.’ So I was like, ‘right, got to sort this out.'”
In the hope of redressing the balance in her body, Lowden set out to gain some weight by increasing her carb intake on her training rides. “Even if it was a super steady ride I'd eat eighty grams of carbs an hour. And then I had a period at the beginning of October,” she explains.
Despite her earlier concerns, Lowden found that the return of her menstrual cycle led to her becoming pregnant just a few weeks later. “So it happened very quickly. I think my body was obviously up for it. But I just needed more carbs, loads more carbs.”
Having found conceiving much easier than anticipated, the 35-year-old rider turned her thoughts to how she might balance her pregnancy alongside her cycling career. Lowden has only been competing in cycling since 2017 when she raced at national level in the UK before moving to Drops – now Lifeplus Wahoo – in 2019 aged 31. While racing her first international UCI events with the British squad, Lowden’s career took off, culminating in an impressive 2021 season that saw her win the Tour de Feminin and place tenth overall at The Women’s Tour.
Her results caught the eye of the newly-formed Uno-X Pro Cycling team, and the Norwegian squad signed her up on a two-year deal from 2022. That same year, the team also signed a pregnant Elinor Barker.
Lowden is by no means the first female professional cyclist to start a family during her career with a return to racing in mind. Since the introduction of maternity leave as part of the Women’s WorldTour in 2020, there have been a number of riders who have temporarily paused their careers in order to have a baby. Perhaps the most high-profile example is former world champion Lizzie Deignan, who has now given birth to two children and returned to racing on both occasions. Closer to home for Lowden, her teammate, Olympic gold medalist Barker, gave birth to a son in March 2022.
Still, temporarily hanging up her race wheels to take maternity leave was a big adjustment for Lowden. “People kept saying, ‘Oh my gosh, when your baby comes, it's going to be the biggest change to your life,’” she recalls. “And I was like ‘getting pregnant was the biggest change to my life.’ I felt like as soon as a baby came, my life would regain some normality because I'd be able to – obviously, it is really different like you have a newborn baby, there's obviously huge numbers of things that are different – but when you get pregnant, and you immediately are like, 'Okay, well, I'm now not racing, so essentially, I'm not really doing my job.’ And if I wasn't doing any form of training what would I do, just sit around? Like my whole life would just suddenly have completely changed.”
Her team’s attitude towards her pregnancy helped alleviate some of those feelings for Lowden. They made a point of continuing to include her – and pay her in full – and she attended the team’s training camp in December, riding alongside the others on a reduced programme as well as attending the Spring Classics, even joining a Flanders recon with her teammates. “I was like, ‘Oh my god this is the first baby to ever ride these cobbles,’” she jokes. “It was so nuts. There was one section, I can't remember which one it was, but I thought, ‘this is too much. I literally feel like I'm going to give birth right now.’”
“My coach Jelle [de Jong] has been amazing, and has researched it all the way along. And because of El [Barker] being pregnant last year, that's really good. And then her coach is in the team. So, you've got these really good points of reference and his knowledge as well. But they were really like, ‘Don't stress about training, you're not being paid to train. Take it easy, don't do too much.’ And then as we moved along, I think Jelle began to realise that I actually want to do it, I enjoy doing it and it makes me feel good.”
It is clear that Lowden is not an athlete who struggles to self-motivate. Rather than reduce her training down to the bare minimum as some might want – or even be told – to do, she resolved to continue with a structured programme, including hard intervals. Under the guidance of her coach, Lowden continued to push herself in training, setting a maximum heart rate for the safety of her baby while measuring her blood lactate as an indication of form.
“I think it was in December camp when we decided to do the lactate testing and track it throughout. Because I'd said, I want to carry on riding, I want to carry on as much as I can, and we'll just see how it goes,” she recalls. “And that's when we started. So the first time we did some lactate testing was in December camp. And then we sort of just carried on doing that throughout the year.”
In the earlier iterations of the testing, Lowden struggled to get far enough into the test due to an elevated heart race. “My resting heart rate had been like 38 bpm or something, and suddenly it was like 65,” she says, meaning that it belied her perceived effort.
“So it was a ramp test on the turbo, and essentially, every five minutes you go up 20 watts. But the problem was that my heart rate was so much higher than my legs could cope with. So just in terms of training all the way along, we sort of said training to about 90% of your original max. So if my original maximum was like 196 bpm or something like that, I said roughly about 178 bpm was what I said was this new ceiling.” She never surpassed 180 bpm, she says.
“When we first did it, we had to finish the test, essentially, because my heart rate hit the max. I can't remember how many watts it was, 240 or 260, or something like that. But my lactate was at like 1.3mm. So it barely even got off the floor, and I felt absolutely fine. But we'd said like that's the ceiling. And then, as the months went on, we just carried on replicating the same test with the five-minute step-ups, and I would do it at both altitude up here [in Andorra] and down at sea level and [we] looked at the difference throughout.”
One thing she learned was that not only was continuing to train helping her maintain fitness for when she returned to racing, but it was also benefiting her baby, too.
“Essentially, lactate is a fuel source, babies love lactate. Apparently, they gobble it up and it's really good for them. So that was quite a nice peace of mind. I mean, he didn't complain,” she says of her newborn son, Theo, who is sleeping soundly in a chair next to her. “Sometimes I'd go out riding and he'd be sitting in a really weird position and be like digging in, or kicking or something, and then I'd start doing some efforts and he would really chill out.”
Remarkably, Lowden’s training volume remained at around 20 hours per week throughout her pregnancy. However, she is quick to point out that much of that volume consisted of easy rides for her own enjoyment. “You're just kind of riding, you stop, you have cafes, I was just having a nice time, it was just like being on holiday,” she says of a period she spent in Spain.
The key, she says, is “just sort of listening to your body, knowing what you want to do and being okay to just do what your body wants to do, I think was the most important thing really.”
As for the intensity, Lowden also stresses that her pre-pregnancy fitness is what allowed her to continue structured training. “I wouldn't suggest that anybody that didn't train like that originally should go out and start doing efforts and pushing their heart rate to the max,” she warns. “But, for me, it felt pretty easy. I was like, if you can basically talk, you're not collapsing after efforts, and you're completely in control. And you can keep pedalling and stuff, then I was like, I think it's all fine. And that seemed to work quite well.”
Not only did it work well, but Lowden also found that she improved towards the end of her pregnancy. Something that she partially attributes to living and training at altitude.
“Ironically, the last test I did, which was about two weeks before Theo arrived, was actually the best test of all, throughout the whole pregnancy. I got to the highest power for the lactate. So the lactate was still only like 3mm before my heart rate maxed out, but I got the most power,” she says. “And that was at the very end of the pregnancy. So I suppose that I probably had therefore adapted to being up here. So there must have been some gains for that.”
Lowden was riding her bike right up until the day before she gave birth. Having had a C-section, time off the bike is non-negotiable for a while, but the British rider is okay with that. “Everyone's going to have a month off before next season, it's just that mine's now,” she reasons.
Lowden’s determination – and care – around continuing structured training throughout her pregnancy leaves no doubt as to whether she plans to return to the peloton when she is able to.
“It was always the plan. I definitely wasn’t ready to retire,” she says. “I was a bit torn, but I felt like if I wasn’t 35, I probably wouldn’t have had a baby right now in terms of where I was in my career and where I was in my life. If I was, say, 32 and in the same place, I probably would have given it a few years. But I just thought, I didn’t have regular periods, I didn’t know how long it would take to conceive, so I thought it was probably best to start thinking about it, thinking that it could take a bit longer. Then it happened super quickly, which was really lucky, but that just meant I’m not ready to finish. I definitely want to come back, and I want to be able to show that you can stay fit and you can train.”
Luckily, her team, Uno-X, have offered her a contract for 2024, meaning that Lowden will join the likes of Barker (who has won two world titles on the track this month) in being the latest mother to return to the pro ranks. “It's going to be interesting this year because there's going to be two babies on team camp,” she says.
“There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to continue, so I think if they hadn’t offered me a contract, I would have been pretty disappointed but would have found a way to keep riding.”