I'm A Runner With An Autoimmune Disease: Here's Why It Doesn't Slow Me Down

Photo: Juri Pozzi

I've always loved running. I ran in the after-school program at my elementary school, joined the high school track team, and benefited from running’s stress relief in college. I've run 5ks, 10ks, half-marathons, Spartan races, and full marathons—I can't get enough.

There was a time in my life when I needed running on a daily basis, almost as much as I needed to breathe. Running was my lifeline; I loved the community aspect, the competitive nature, the sense of accomplishment after a race, and the feeling of pounding the pavement. I also have ulcerative colitis (UC)—a chronic inflammatory bowel disease—and it wasn’t until late into my marathon training and race day that I realized running and UC don’t always mix well. I stubbornly refused to listen to my body and pushed way past the point when I should have stopped and allowed my body to recover. More specifically, it was when I found myself racing toward the portable toilets at every mile marker instead of racing toward the finish line. Can you even imagine?! It was not healthy.

How to be a runner and still be healthy.

Running can be an incredibly healthy form of exercise for many people, but for those with UC or any another autoimmune disease, extra care must be taken to ensure it's enjoyed in a healthy manner and that it does not do more harm than good. Here are my best tips for running with ulcerative colitis or any chronic disease that threatens to slow you down:

1. Listen to your body.

I cannot stress this point enough. Above all else, listen closely to your body, and it will tell you when something is wrong. On the other hand, it may also tell you when you’re doing an awesome job and can kick it up a notch! The key is to distinguish between the two and be really honest with yourself.

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2. Swap processed foods for natural foods.

Do it right now! Processed foods are only harming your body and creating inflammation. If you're running regularly, your body is already inflamed due to the muscles trying to build and recover; processed foods will only inhibit this process and problems. Natural, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats will reduce inflammation. They will also help your body to recover faster and grow stronger.

On the list of problem foods are many running- or sport-specific supplements like goo packs, electrolyte tablets, protein powders—you name it. Find supplements that have no added dyes, sugar, or fillers that may upset your stomach. If those are still too harsh, you can stick to getting your supplementation directly from food. For a boost of sugar and carbs, bananas are excellent. For a post-workout protein, eat a high-protein meal with organic, free-range chicken or wild-caught salmon.

3. Rest when you need it.

Make time in your training schedule for rest days. These are essential for your body to recover and build muscle, in addition to reducing any burnout or fatigue. Your rest day can look like a yoga class, a walk with a friend, or a hike.

4. Find your cheerleaders.

Having a support system is everything. These people don’t have to run with you; they just have to support you in your love of running and also know how to care for you on days when you're feeling sick or worn down. When I was out on a long run, I knew my parents would be at home waiting to ask me how it went. They were also at every finish line cheering me on; I could never have gotten as far as I did without their support.

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5. Create the route around restrooms.

But seriously. Even the healthiest runners have a jostling belly and often need to "go" in the middle of a run. I found it incredibly helpful to create a route that stays within city limits and was near fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and other bathrooms.

What to do if running isn't an option right now.

In the six months it took for my body to heal from my UC flare-up, I had a serious heart-to-heart with myself about running and decided to try new forms of exercise as well. So, if you are a runner who just can’t run anymore due to UC or another condition, here are a few healthy alternatives:

1. Strength training.

Even when I was sick I lifted weights twice a week and found that adding this to my routine kept me from losing weight and helped to maintain my muscle mass.

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2. Cycling.

A kind soul gave me a road bike when I gave up running so that I could still be on the road exercising. It was a different kind of movement than I was used to, but it allowed me to smell fresh air and exercise regularly.

3. High-intensity interval training (HIIT).

This was my saving grace when I still wanted to push myself and feel challenged. HIIT workouts last just a few minutes but make you feel like you worked for a solid hour. It’s amazing! You can find HIIT workouts online, or you can go to a class at any local gym.

4. Short runs.

Two and a half years after the marathon that majorly slowed down my running, I still like to go for an occasional jog or run with a friend just for fun. I limit myself to no more than 3 to 5 miles and only when I am feeling 100 percent healthy. More recently, I've gotten into obstacle races because they include obstacles that allow my body to slow down and alternate movements.

5. Yoga.

By far, yoga was the most important exercise I incorporated into my new life without running. When dealing with gut health and autoimmune diseases, keeping stress in check is essential. Stress can wreak havoc on the microbiome and cause an imbalance between good and bad bacteria. Adding yoga into my weekly workout routine greatly reduced my stress levels and improved my health overall.

Here's how yoga can drastically improve your gut health and exactly what to do if you're a yogi that hates running.

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