Being diagnosed with a chronic illness like diabetes, asthma, auto-immune diseases or any other lifelong condition can be daunting. It’s even more so if you’re a runner with a lot of big goals in the sport. But your diagnosis doesn’t mean you have to hang up your running shoes: It just means you need to rethink your training and figure out what works for your new normal. It’s challenging, but definitely not impossible. In fact, 8% of Olympians have asthma according to one survey.
EMBRACE YOUR ACTIVE NATURE
Being diagnosed doesn’t mean the end of your career as a runner. It might mean making some changes, but staying active as much as possible is just as important as finding the right medications. “My doctors encouraged me to stay fit in a way that respected my body and in addition to running, they recommended regular strength training to protect my bones. They also suggested adding yoga for stress relief, amongst other physical benefits,” says Susie Lemmer a marathoner, personal trainer and run coach who has Crohn’s disease
FIND THE RIGHT PROFESSIONALS
Lemmer says finding the right people to help her learn to navigate the disease was key. “You have to advocate for yourself,” she says. “I’ve had doctors who are amazing and a few who I was not impressed with. You can’t be afraid to shop around and find the right fit for you and your disease. Medicine isn’t always the solution, it is typically just a part of the answer. Active lifestyles typically encourage healthier, more positive and resilient attitudes, which is important when dealing with chronic conditions and illnesses that are stimulated by stress and hormones.”
… AND LISTEN TO THOSE PROFESSIONALS
Make sure you’re talking with your doctor about your training. A doctor might hear “runner” and assume you run 30 minutes a day a few times a week, while your training actually consists of nine hours of serious marathon training in a week. Be as honest as possible with your doctor and coach about your current situation and your goals, and get clearance before starting or continuing a training plan after your diagnosis.
NOT DIAGNOSED? GET ANOTHER OPINION
About 20 years ago, triathlete Amanda L.C. knew something wasn’t right when she was running and lifting weights at the gym. At first, she assumed it was just fatigue, but the worse she felt, the more she knew something was wrong. After months of seeking answers, she was finally diagnosed with celiac disease after she found a doctor who understood her athletic goals and that her exhaustion wasn’t just in her head or the result of going hard in training. “If you find a doctor who’s an athlete themselves, it’s a gold mine,” she says. “Like so many other things in life, it’s all about surrounding yourself with people who understand you and share your values and priorities. It can take time to build that network, but once you do, you’ll have so much more success.”
DON’T BE AFRAID TO TRAIN (WITHIN REASON)
You may find your training needs to slow down and become more conservative, especially as you start to learn to manage your illness, says Lemmer. But that doesn’t mean you should stop altogether: Your goals may need to shift slightly, like going from completing a sub-4 hour marathon to completing a marathon or aiming for sub-5 hours, but you should still have a goal for your running. If you’re nervous about doing too much, have your doctor look over your training plan or talk to your coach about what’s realistic for you.
PLAN AHEAD AND BE PREPARED
If you have chronic asthma, run with your inhaler in your pack. If you have certain medications you need to take, make sure you always have extras in your gym or race bag, as well as in your toiletries bag so if you travel to a race, you have spares. If you’re dealing with a chronic illness that means you have a restricted diet, like irritable bowel syndrome or celiac, keep food you can eat on hand. “With celiac, bring your own food to races or training camps. This is especially relevant if you need to travel for races,” says L.C. “Bring too much food: You can always bring it back, but just make sure that you’re not going hungry. I have become the snack lady: I have snacks on me at all times. In my car, in my purse, in my race bag, it’s snacks-a-hoy here.”
MONITOR YOUR MENTAL STATE
Unfortunately, chronic illness — especially one that forces a change in the way you train — can take a mental toll as well, so don’t be afraid to seek help if you find yourself struggling with anxiety or depression. “Training is hard with depression: It really saps your energy and motivation and at the same time you’ve got the anxiety telling you that if you don’t work out, it’s the end of the world,” admits L.C. Even if you aren’t dealing with clinical depression, you may experience more emotional ups and downs than an average runner simply because you’re also experiencing more physical ups and downs.
FOCUS ON OVERALL HEALTH AND WELLNESS
While every runner should be prioritizing sleep, nutrition and recovering right, it becomes even more important for an athlete dealing with an energy-sapping chronic illness. “Sleep is critical!” says L.C. You may find you need more sleep than you used to in order to sustain the same level of energy for your training. Eating in accordance with a diet that works with your chronic illness is also critical, whether that means a focus on anti-inflammatory foods or an autoimmune protocol prescribed by a registered dietitian.
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Learning to listen to your body is a lesson all runners need to learn at some point, whether dealing with injury or illness or pushing for increasingly tough performance goals. “With asthma, I had to become aware of potential complications and their effects,” says L.C.. “If it’s a super humid day out, you know that the workout isn’t going to be top-notch, so give yourself a break in terms of expectations.” The same is true for flare-ups with chronic illnesses that cause pain or gut distress. Some runs will end in a long walk home or even a call for a pickup, and that’s OK (“That’s why I have Uber on my phone,” jokes Lemmer). Just getting started is a win on some days, while other days, your long run will seem easy.