Arthritis and Other Things That Make You Stronger

October 4, 2018


Recently I spent a good of amount of time going through the newsletters I’d written for the Joints in Motion teams I’d trained for the Dublin and Boston Marathons as well as the Falmouth Road Race from 2004 to 2009.  Joints in Motion was the Arthritis Foundation’s fundraising teams with a good proportion of them living with the disease.
In 2004 I had just been certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as an endurance/marathon coach and when the Arthritis Foundation hired me to train their athletes I felt like I knew everything and nothing.  I’d been training marathoners since 1994 and had a good technical base and experience to deal with most situations and types of athlete but athletes with Arthritis was something different altogether.  Receiving USA Triathlon’s Level 1 Coaching certification did not help either.  At about this time the Arthritis Foundation dropped Joints in Motion and scaled back its exercise programs especially here in Massachusetts.

Fast forward to 2018 and after training 15 teams with people living with Arthritis and other movement impairing diseases there are lessons which all athletes can learn and take from to become stronger more competitive athletes.

  1. Athletes with Arthritis are Just Athletes – One of the most frustrating things about being an athlete with Arthritis is that most references and advise sound very much like what we’d tell any athlete.  Assuredly it depends on the type of Arthritis the athlete is living with but for the most part modifying the training plans, activities, schedules, and goals had more to do with the athletes desires and goals than their condition.  As a result my athletes would bombard me with everything from, “I can’t do pushups” to “What should I eat?”  (Answers: don’t do pushups and eat whatever you normally eat.)  Even after 20 years of identifying exercise  as the best way to manage your Rheumatoid Arthritis athletes are wary.  Or as a very tiny and adorable triathlete once said to me, “Coach all my joints hurt and I’m about to collapse.  What should I do?” (Answer: Don’t do an Olympic Triathlon next time.)  The whole point is unless a doctor says you can’t or shouldn’t – just do it.

  2. Athletes with Arthritis are not Just Athletes – All of us live with limiting conditions.  People who live with Arthritis have learned the discipline needed to manage theirs.  Especially athletes.  Depending on the severity of their condition people living with Arthritis may take medication, have restricted or specialized diets, and require specific build and recovery regimens.  This is the kind of discipline that wakes up with you and goes to bed with you.  But it also makes you wary.  Without naming names my favorite Russian triathlete on the team continuously challenges exercise routines which may exasperate pain in her joints.  Amazingly, she balances that fear with the strenuous demands of the sport.  There is a faith in movement, a hope in motion as we used to say.  When the first Dt team completed their first training session my concern was not their times but what inflammation and joint damage would follow.  By the end of the season they had kept such perfect logs of their workouts and how they recovered that I learned as much about training any athlete as well as  people living with Arthritis.  Pay attention to your training and how your body is responding.  If you don’t keep a log, and modifying your training because of it, you’re not training.

  3. Food is not fuel.  It’s life. – Most of us enjoy food and we’ll sometimes categorize it into pre-training fuel or recovery fuel or fast-fuel during workouts.  Or Breakfast.  And sometimes we’ll have to worry if it is something we’re allergic to.  Or if it’ll make us bloat.  Rarely do we consider whether it’ll cause us pain.  Athletes living with Arthritis sometimes have to consider food as not just nutrient but what effect it’ll have down the road.  As such these athletes are more considerate about what they eat 24-7.  In Dt’s first year I worried as much as to when athletes took their medication as often as to when they fueled until I realized they were experimenting with timing of food and liquids with workouts and with their medication as well.  Their eating and medication were in a cycle with their swimming.

  4. Pain and Injury and Movement Are the Same Thing – We all have those aches from time to time.  For Dt’s first Ironman athlete, Elizabeth Peterson, it was as constant as the day was long.  She wore a balm on her shoulder joints that was very strong (she had shoulder replacement surgery before her first Ironman) and sometimes conscious of it.  She approached pain as something to learn from and to deal with.  When injury inevitably came in the midst of her training she set out to understand it, recover, and prevent it.  She would attempt Ironman Cour d’Lene twice succeeding the first time.  The ice cold water would literally freeze her artificial joint the second time.  Running was always a pain but she managed more miles than most people I knew as she learned how to recover and not run out of impulse.  Pain was never going to go away but neither was movement.  After 14 years she eased off the long distances realizing triathlon was much to manage.  She gave her triathlon bike to Dt and we passed it along , without giving any names, to our favorite Mexican photographer-architect-triathlete.  To paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts, “Movement is pain.  Anyone who says different is selling something.”

  5. If you go; take everyone with you – In Dt’s first year we’d have training sessions much like now except no one had bikes and those that did should have been disallowed from riding them.  No one had wetsuits.  When the team did get bikes  I spent the first 30 minutes of every training session cleaning, degreasing, oiling, and pumping air.  At the first sprint is when a majority of the triathletes decided to first put on a wetsuit.  We had to pick up one athlete to get her into her suit.  Yes, three of us picked her up and dropped her into the suit slowly.  Not only were they arthritic they were also a mess.  But they brought everyone with them – I met boyfriends, parents, husbands, grandparents, cousins, BFFs, and fans.  All would get upset when I yelled at their beloved whoever.  “Do you have to yell at them?”  “Do you have to put them on a road with cars?”  “Do you have to put them in the North Atlantic in September?”  They all had a posse.  They were there to see their child or wife or buddy do what they didn’t think was possible: The Witch City Triathlon in Salem.  Their BFF, sister, aunt mom was going to do what less than 0.005% of the United States population has ever attempted.  At the end more than a few of their posse were thinking, “Well this changes things.”  Athletes with Arthritis naturally inspire.  All athletes do and you should bring a posse with you.  Teach them there is hope in motion.










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