Rheumatoid Arthritis and Marathon Training

Rheumatoid Arthritis and Marathon Training

I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2021, I wrote all about it in a previous blog post. It was a long-winded, painful and frustrating process. Post-diagnosis life is often still painful and frustrating!

 I take medication which, for a long time, has kept me pain-free. One of the really tricky things about having RA is that, despite being stable on medication, I still get ‘flares’. Flares are when RA symptoms increase, sometimes this is because I have been ill and I can’t take my immunosuppressant medication when I’m ill. Most of the time I can’t identify a reason for it. Flares can be triggered by stress, poor sleep, an illness or even hot weather in summer, but they feel like they’ve come out of the blue and it can be hard to pinpoint a reason. It feels confusing and unfair and leaves me feeling quite helpless.

Prior to being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) I ran lots of half marathons, I think about 7 but I always lose count! I never wanted to do a marathon, it seemed like a scary distance and a lot of training! However, there’s something about being diagnosed with a chronic illness, one which I often feel like I have no control over, that made me want to do something big and scary. I wanted to regain the feeling of having a strong body. A body that could take on challenges. A body in which I felt confident.

I got a place to run the London Marathon 2024 with Versus Arthritis. I was so happy because I thought that having RA would put them off giving me a place. I found out I’d got the place in April 2023 so I was confident that a year would allow plenty of time to accommodate flares or periods of illness which often take longer than normal from which to recover.

I started training straight away. I was already running consistently, swimming and using the watt bike at the gym to improve my fitness and I was half-heartedly following a resistance training plan. I was increasing the distance of my long runs in tiny increments to remain injury and flare-free. I had to stop running when I first experienced symptoms of RA and 10km was the furthest I’d run post-diagnosis. I just didn’t know what my RA would allow me to do.


Pre flare running joy

In June I took part in the Rasselbok Rainbow run and surprised myself by doing four laps (23.15km), of course, I cried when I rang the bell to finish. I was so happy with what I’d achieved. I signed up for the Rasselbok Hardwick Hobble in September. The reason I like these events is because they’re so RA-friendly. I can do as much or as little as my RA or medication side effects will allow on the day.

Through the summer of 2023 my RA symptoms remained ‘quiet’, despite the usual swelling in my fingers. Many people think that rain and cold weather is the worst type of weather for RA, but it’s quite common for us to experience worse symptoms in summer.

Enjoying a post-race cake at the Rasselbok Rainbow Run

Winter is horrible because the cold gets into your bones, particularly if you take a chemotherapy drug like methotrexate. This makes you feel even the mildest cold as a painful arctic blast! I tend to have more synovitis (inflammation of the synovial membrane that lines joints) in my fingers in summer.

By the end of the summer, after the really odd, hot weather in September I started to have pain and swelling in my ankles and I felt a bit ‘flarey.’ ‘Flarey’ is this sort of heavy, wading through treacle feeling, alongside a general feeling that I have a bit of a fever. I got exhausted doing the smallest things and kept getting pain and swelling in different joints. I was also feeling some numbness down my inner thigh and calf on my right leg.

In September I ran 4 laps (25km) of the Hardwick Hobble. I loved it despite hurting in a lot of places. I didn’t sleep well that night, I had pain in my lower back, hip and leg but I put it down to post race aches. What I now know is that I pushed my body too far during a flare.

 Between September and January running, and any other kind of exercise, was on hold. I experienced the worst pain I have ever felt. I had to walk with a cane, I was on a huge number of painkillers that were relieving very little pain and my doctor just kept telling me I had a bulging disc. I couldn’t stand in the shower without crying in pain, I was frightened and barely sleeping.

 What I now know is that yes, I had a bulging disc, but because of RA and the flare I was experiencing, inflammation developed around the bulge that couldn’t be calmed. The lack of sleep then exacerbated my RA, I had pain in my wrists, toes, fingers and knees.  The final blow was being told I also had a stress fracture in my foot!

As the new year began I started to feel much better. I’d had two steroid injections and an increase in my RA medication. It felt like there was light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I was back on the bike in the gym. I was allowed to run on the treadmill, intervals only and with orders to be sensible! I started a proper programme of strength training, not the rubbish attempt I had made previously because I hated it. My physio advised me to deadlift, which I started with very light weights and elevated off the ground – I don’t mind admitting I was scared to hurt my back. I also allowed a rest day between each training session.


Slowly progressing with my Deadlifts

 I lost five months of Marathon training and my place in this year’s London Marathon to RA. I can be angry and sad and frustrated, but I can also take a lot of learning from it.

RA causes muscle wasting so I need to make sure I am lifting heavy and consistently. I came to the end of a block of training last week and deadlifted 50kg for 19 reps! I now love my strength training and see it as an essential part of managing my RA.

I ensure plenty of rest days. I used to see them as a waste of time, but I now see them as a necessary part of being able to be active with a chronic illness. Most importantly I’m sensible with my running. I ran the Rasselbok Rainbow run again this year and stopped after two laps (11km). I wanted to do more but I knew that it would be pushing myself too far too soon. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one shocked with my new sensible approach!

The biggest thing I’ve learned is that while I may have no control over my chronic disease. I can control how I manage flares and the recovery from them. I have also learned how strong and resilient I am. I could have given up on any hope of being physically active, but I refuse to let RA dominate my life.

So happy with my first ‘recovery’ medal

I haven’t written off the Marathon. I’ve signed up for The Charm Bracelet Marathon in April 2025 which follows the coast path from Redcar to Whitby. The terrain is going to be way more challenging than London, but it also has a ten-hour cut off  and it feels like an adventure!

 Running is finally back on… Sam- 1 Arthritis - 0


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