Running With a Chronic Illness Means Letting Go of PRs

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I never ran before getting sick. Most days, my health was a constant I didn’t even think to acknowledge — a kind of ignorance I almost envy now.

After contracting COVID and surviving two strokes, I spent months in and out of hospitals, focusing only on recovery. My resting heart rate remained in the triple digits and something as innocuous as a catchy song could throw my health back into turmoil. Most of my time was spent completely and utterly still. I only ever walked the length of my hospital room, feeling the floor through grippy socks (I have quite the collection). I knew how important it was to listen to my body and give it the rest it needed.

But further along in my healing journey — possibly inspired by the high-dose corticosteroids coursing through my system — I started making small steps toward life outside of a hospital bed, trekking up the stairs and slowly making laps around the neighborhood.

I’m still not a full-blown runner, but I do understand the need to keep moving after illness — and how doing so can help you grieve your former, healthier self. I also understand how unique a relationship to running and other forms of exercise people with chronic illnesses often have, compared to others.

The world of sports tends to hyper-focus on tangible achievements: winning an event, breaking a record, beating a personal best. While running is a highly personal sport and runners are often “competing” only against themselves, the community can still pay a lot of attention and lip service to personal records, or PRs. But runners with chronic illness have an especially unique perspective when it comes to setting goals and confronting discomfort, which often underlines our very existence. And although doctors are sometimes quick to prescribe exercise as a quick fix or cure-all for chronic illnesses (some of which can actually be worsened by exercise), in practice, people with chronic illness often learn that their running or movement journeys will have to look different than other people’s. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t making strides.

When Jay Marie Ashby started running in 2019, she didn’t know she had MS. Although she had experienced mild symptoms for years, after running consistently for a few days, 27-year-old Ashby went completely numb from the waist down. She sought medical advice from three different doctors, all of whom attributed her numbness to anxiety. “I was like, ‘Pull yourself together. Try and get a good mental health space. Do some meditation,’ thinking that I [was] just crazy,” she remembers.

Throughout this process, Ashby kept trying to run, triggering what she now knows were MS relapses (also called flares). “I was literally Googling how to run with numb legs because . . . I don’t know, Google has the answer to everything,” she says. It took eight weeks of numbness before a doctor finally brought up the possibility of MS. It took another six to eight months to get the necessary medication.

Ashby’s new diagnosis changed her life and running journey. When she started running, she’d hoped to work her way up to completing a 5K — and from there, who knows. But as she learned to manage her MS and run without triggering relapses, she came to terms with the fact that she had to go slow, sometimes tackling longer runs and other times only making it out for 30 seconds.

Either way, she takes nothing for granted. “When you think that your health is going to be taken away from you and you realize it’s everything, your mindset just flips,” Ashby says. “There were times where I was like, ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ But there was something in me, it was like, ‘Just try one more time.'”

“It was like a battery that was just drained.”

Trina Wilcox knows the frustration of looking for answers and coming up short. She was introduced to running as an adult, and it became her refuge from the juvenile rheumatoid arthritis she had dealt with since she was 6 years old. “Being able to do something and actually get decent at it was surprising and exciting and I loved it,” she says. “It all came to a screeching halt when I got sick in 2020.” Wilcox developed COVID in the early days of the virus, before there were many treatment options or widely accessible research. She tried to keep running like normal, but her post-COVID performance wasn’t the same, and sometimes she had to stop completely. “It was like a battery that was just drained,” Wilcox says. “It was just so discouraging and disappointing, and I couldn’t put a finger on what was going on.”

As she continued dealing with long COVID, it felt like the rest of the world was running without her. “I had to stay away from social media at times because — even though I was happy for my friends that were going out there — I was so envious, and I missed it,” Wilcox says. Now, on the days she does have more energy, she tries not to compare her current pacing to her pre-COVID self. “You cannot be comparing yourself to somebody else or to yourself last time,” Wilcox says. “When you’ve got these chronic factors that you’re dealing with, the comparisons need to go out the door, and you just need to deal with today.”

This part of the journey can be so emotionally draining, some chronically ill runners abandon PRs altogether. As an autoimmune athlete, Mireille Siné works hard to give herself this very grace. She started exploring distance running in college and quickly fell in love with the sport, but around the same time, she gradually began noticing strange symptoms, including hair loss, issues with temperature regulation, and stiffness. Siné eventually went to the ER after three of her fingers started turning black. She was diagnosed with lupus and needed chemotherapy and the right medication to get into remission.

“[W]hat are you going to tell me? I’ll get there eventually.”

After finishing chemo, Siné worked up the courage to tell her rheumatologist she wanted to start running again. “I just told them that they would have to adjust to the lifestyle that I wanted to live, and I wanted to cook for myself, and I wanted to get back into running and working out,” she says. Siné originally planned on picking up where she left off, but she soon realized that her return to running was going to be a lot harder than she’d anticipated. “I would run on campus, and it was just like starting from negative five,” she says. “I remember my body feeling so against it — something that used to feel so natural to me.”

Siné put in the work, motivated by the idea that she’d never see progress unless she tried. “I was fine looking like a turtle doing laps, because what are you going to tell me? I’ll get there eventually,” she laughs. Siné stayed in remission for several years, saying running helped her gain back her health (and then some). Then in February 2022, she had another unexpected lupus flare. “I could feel my running sort of declining and being painful again,” Siné remembers. “You think you’re [in] the clear for so long, you’ve been managing so well, and then you just get hit with these things.”

In 2024, she’s excited for a fresh start. Although Siné does occasionally check her old PRs, she says her mindset has changed tremendously. “I’m working my way back to where I’ve been, but not in the sense that I’m pining for the past,” she says. “It’s just like I have so much more knowledge now, so I can do things differently and do it in my own way, versus back then, [when] I was just gunning for PRs.”

Many runners will acknowledge that their sport is as much a challenge for the mind as it is for the body; that running feeds the spirit in a way that’s hard to describe. And that’s why people with chronic illnesses may feel so determined to continue running, even when they’ve at least temporarily let go of the idea of hitting new distances or speeds. Running can become a way to help cope with the emotional rollercoaster that is chronic illness.

“You doing it is better than not.”

Talia Madden, for example, took up running in college, just a few years after being diagnosed with lupus at age 16. “That was my first real foray into ‘I actually do care about this, because I want to live and I want to have control over the areas I can control,'” Madden explains.

At the height of her running journey, Madden was training for a half-marathon, running up to nine miles at a time. But a bad flare-up put a damper on her progress and, more importantly, her passion. “I became so internally defeated, I actually stopped being as into running,” she remembers. As Madden began coming to terms with her chronic illness, her approach to running shifted, emphasizing self-compassion and steady persistence over any particular metric. “I was at the eight-minute [mile mark] and change. And then I was back to 12-minute, 13-minute miles. And I just keep saying to myself, ‘You doing it is better than not.'”

While specific experiences differ, chronic illness does seem to bring a rare sense of perspective, teaching us how to fall down and get back up again . . . and again . . . and again. As an autoimmune athlete, Siné has completed 12 marathons and now coaches other runners with chronic illnesses. Post-flare, Madden worked her way back up to 10K status, crossing the finish line with her husband. Wilcox runs her own podcast and is a vocal advocate for Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and long COVID awareness. To top it all off, Ashby exceeded her original 5K goal, recently running a 10K of her own. “I do think that strength to keep going was like — you have a disease that can take away your ability to walk, [but] you’ve got a body that works right now, so make the most of it,” Ashby says.

“I don’t wish this on anyone, but it’s made me so much more grateful for everything.”


Chandler Plante is an assistant editor for POPSUGAR Health & Fitness. Previously, she worked as an editorial assistant for People magazine and contributed to Ladygunn, Millie, and Bustle Digital Group.


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