Cycling With An Autoimmune Disorder: Notes From My Journey
Autoimmune disorders have become more common in the last decade. These are conditions in which the immune system attacks & destroys tissue within the body. It’s a chronic inflammatory condition that people can often successfully manage (or mitigate) through tactics that include dietary & lifestyle strategies. Pharmaceuticals can also be successful in mitigating autoimmune symptoms. We’re going to focus on how an active cycling lifestyle may help those suffering from this (often) invisible malady.
Autoimmune symptoms vary widely from one individual to another, depending on the tissues their immune system is attacking. Sufferers often struggle with bouts of fatigue, energy “crashes,” brain fog, weight gain or weight loss, tremors racing heart beat, joint pain & swelling, inflammation, loss of balance & chronic pain. Symptoms like these can throw a frustrating wrench into your riding routine . . . not to mention confusing your riding buddies. For instance, I look fine to people who see me at my shop (Mojo Cycling) & even during rides. But, internally, I’m wheezing, in pain & suffering. During rides I’m just trying to make it through. This is so damn frustrating, especially after so much work & goal setting throughout my life. For other suffering riders, their symptoms might prevent them from continuing an exercise routine. But, from my experience, regular exercise could be the best means for managing their condition.
Before I jump into some of the tactics that I use to mitigate my symptoms, I must state that there are 80 known autoimmune disorders. These vary in both symptoms & severity. My symptoms include: constant pain & fatigue in my arms & legs, pins & needles in my extremities, lack of energy, heavy legs, weight gain, minor balance issues & blurred vision. Autoimmune riders should understand that strenuous exercise with some symptoms could be life threatening. With MS or Diabetes–just to name two–exercise should be closely monitored under the guidance of a cyclist’s doctor, & maybe undertaken with a certified trainer. Consult with your doctor!
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself:
For me, the key to starting a cycling routine is to keep my ego in-check. It’s not easy. For several years, I tried to keep my tried-&-true cycling pace & intensity, to no avail. It was infuriating & made me feel like my body was betraying me. This set me up for a combative relationship with my body. During rides, I’d push & push, only to watch my performance crumble. As my abilities slowly drained away, every ride became increasingly anguishing & enraging. I got so slow that I started to hold-up the group rides that I once confidently led. Finally, one day I had to push my bike up a small slope that I’d never even noticed before. I gritted my teeth so hard they ground; I was on the verge of tears. A buddy that I’ve ridden with for over a decade pulled me aside & said: “You don’t have anything to prove. We all know how you used to ride. This is about having fun. Get an e-bike & enjoy the ride again.” This discussion flipped a switch inside me. Since then, my riding regimen has changed to work with my body, instead of against it. Getting an e-bike has helped to facilitate this change.
Autoimmune riders must be attentive to their body’s fluctuating needs & tolerance levels. Studies show that intense exercise without adequate rest can decrease a rider’s immune response. Building muscle & endurance requires the breaking down & repair of muscle tissue. Therefore, intense & prolonged exercise can actually hurt or suppress vital aspects of a rider’s immune response system. I’ve definitely found a “wall” that I shouldn’t extend my riding beyond. Pushing through this now is extremely painful (not that “good” pain that you feel on a good climb, etc) & results in reduced performance for days following a ride. I’ve learned that such rides are counter-productive for me.
By heeding messages from my body, I have a rewarding cycling regimen that helps to reduce my symptoms. For instance: It was difficult for me, but I had to move away from my identity of being that uber-fast, fit, try any obstacle, cyclist. Riders must tune-in to their body to find the exercise sweet spot for autoimmune management — not too little & not too much. This is accomplished by challenging yourself enough to release your body’s anti-inflammatory compounds, but not working so hard or long that you can’t comfortably return the next day. This sweet spot may be difficult to ascertain. Be sensitive to what you do or for how long. Take stock the next day about how you recover. Adjust your rides accordingly.
Don’t ever give up! Remember regular exercise is critical for managing autoimmune conditions for the reasons noted below:
If done correctly, exercise produces anti-inflammatory compounds, such as endorphins & nitric oxide. Nitric oxide aids in tissue recovery & regeneration, while enhancing your blood flow. It also dissolves plaques & dilates blood vessels.
Regular physical activity improves your circulation. Improved circulation oxygenates body tissue & delivers nutrients to tissues. It also facilitates detoxification.
Riding your bike can release chemicals that enhance brain function. A healthy brain creates a healthy body.
How To Train:
Starting a cycling strategy can be daunting. I created a realistic, goal-oriented plan, one step at a time. My doctor provided great advice: “Don’t get overwhelmed; turning a workout into a stressful situation is counter-productive.” On days when I feel the worst, forcing myself to get out & ride actually reduces my symptoms. This strategy may not work for others with autoimmune issues. It’s key to “listen” to your body. You may want to improve your fitness level. Learn if you should carefully incorporate longer workouts, weight training & some endurance training into your routine. Always consult a doctor & remain cognizant of how your body reacts to training. If you feel worn out, reduce the length & intensity level of your rides.
I keep the following tips in mind when planning my riding/training strategy:
Remember, autoimmune disorders are life-long conditions that require regular attention. Make each day’s ride about your long-range goals as much as that day’s cycling experience.
With your doctor’s supervision, challenge yourself enough to push your heart rate up. Seek good aerobic rides.
Stay positive. Finding an understanding riding group, class or social setting, is key for helping you stay optimistic about your health & your goals.
Don’t ride so hard that you trigger a flare-up. A consistent riding schedule delivers the best health benefits. Don’t push yourself so hard that you can’t ride again the next day.
Pay attention to your body. If you’re so run down that daily activities induce stress & pain, it’s not a good day to ride. However, if you’re feeling slightly run-down but can function, go for a ride but ratchet-back the intensity level. Then, note your body’s ability to perform. As noted previously, pushing myself to ride on days when I don’t feel well often helps me to feel better.
If you feel unduly run down while riding, it might be better to head home early, rather than pushing through.
Use the days you feel good to push yourself more than normal. Be cautious, however, not to overdo it.
Find a good physical therapist or massage therapist to help your body stay limber. I visit a massage therapist every week to work-out muscle knots & muscle groups which have involuntarily tightened, due to my condition. Some weeks, it’s the only way I can stay at my normal functioning levels.
Sleep is critical for fighting an autoimmune disorder’s damage to your body. Plan for a full 8hrs of sleep every night. When you sleep at night, your brain produces delta waves for a few hours. This is the most restful kind of sleep. During delta wave sleep, your muscles become completely relaxed. Your immune system also gets a boost. You need this to rejuvenate yourself to prepare for a new day.
Finally, I’ve learned that keeping active is important for mitigating my disorder. When my doctor & I first began working to alleviate my symptoms, I fearfully asked him “Should I still ride my bike?” Thankfully, his response was “Yes. It’s probably what’s kept you going this long.” Exercise boosts my body’s physical energy. This is because it fosters endorphin production, which is a natural painkiller. Exercise helps reduce inflammation throughout my body. Exercise also helps combat the anxiety that accompanies my autoimmune issue. I think beyond the discomfort to remember why I enjoy cycling. I focus on these thoughts. Then I grab my bike & head back to the trails.