Training IBD Athletes

Recently I was asked by a national level coach for my opinion about training athletes with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Specifically, “what advice would I give to a coach who has never worked with someone with IBD”. A few thoughts came to mind.

First, how lucky and honored I am to be in a position to help improve the training for fellow IBD’ers while they compete and perform to the best of their abilities.

Second, the tips and strategies that work for “regular” athletes will most likely work for the IBD athlete – with just a few slight modifications.

There aren’t many secrets to becoming a better athlete – whether you are living with IBD or not. Becoming successful at nearly anything requires attention to detail, solid fundamentals, and adequate time practicing these skills – becoming “brilliant at the basics“.

However, there are few “basics” when it comes to living with IBD – and adding training, exercise and athletic improvement can bring about confusion and frustration…if you let it.

Follow these steps during your training and you’ll see improvements as you find your strength as an IBD athlete.

1. Manage fatigue and energy levels – Fatigue can present itself both chronically and/or acutely. Chronic fatigue may come about if you are battling a flare and not able to maintain proper nutrition. During a flare your body will most likely be in a negative energy balance – a caloric deficit where the body’s demands exceed intake – due to the inability to eat adequate amounts of good nutrition. First priority here is your health – not improving your 5k or 40 yard dash times! Contact your doctor and focus on recovering.

Acute fatigue may happen during a specific training session. Endurance focused training sessions – compared to more traditional strength focused sessions – tend to create more acute fatigue. We do have more control over acute fatigue however. Getting more/higher quality sleep, practicing good nutritional habits, and adequate hydration will all help against fatigue and promote higher energy levels.

Another strategy to help manage acute fatigue is having a “less is more” mentality. Some days may be more challenging than others – especially for an IBD athlete! If you find that you’re just not quite your best for that day it can be helpful to have a “bare minimum” strategy. This is a strategy where you simply get in the most effective training you can for that day – nothing more.

For an endurance training session that could be a 5 minute dynamic mobility warm-up followed by a 1 mile run/walk.

For a strength training session that could mean foam rolling, a few minutes of dynamic mobility drills, and 3 sets of 3 reps of deadlifts.

The “bare minimum” or BM idea simply allows you to get a training session in – probably not a full 60 minute one – but it’s still something that gets you closer to your goal.

2. Get stronger – strong fixes everything!

  • Having a hard time improving your 5k time? Get stronger
  • Want to increase bodyweight and build muscle? Get stronger
  • Looking to improve your IQ? Get stronger…then get a tutor!

In general focus your training on building strength throughout your core, glutes, and back muscles. Spend time improving ankle, hip, and shoulder mobility. Pretty basic stuff, right? Remember that we’re working on the basics until they become brilliant. Use this strategy and I’m sure you’ll see improvements.

3. Constantly improve the most important muscle – your MIND – everything begins inside your mind. Before you become a great IBD athlete you first have to imagine it happening. Before you complete your first triathlon, before you lift 200 lbs, before you get out of a flare – you first have to believe that it’s possible!

We always have control over the thoughts we think – sometimes it may be more challenging than others – but it will always be true.  As you continue to progress as a successful IBD athlete remember that you are on a journey. Each training session builds upon the next just as each step brings you closer and closer to the goal. There may be ups and downs along the way – especially as an IBD athlete! Remember to keep the goal the goal, as legendary strength coach Dan John says. With this in mind keep a patient outlook when times are challenging and simply try to get better. If you improve your race time from 60 minutes to 59:30 you got better. If you increase the weight you lift from 135 lbs to 145 lbs that is better.

Better is better – and working with this mindset each day will quickly add up to greatness.

I’m hopeful that my recommendations to the national coach will help add to his training program and improve the quality of training for many IBD athletes. When I started with my own recovery and strength training after my IBD diagnosis I had little knowledge of where that road would go. I knew that I wanted to regain the 50 lbs of weight that I had lost. I knew that I wanted to be able to trust my body again – to be able to move athletically and with strength. I knew that I was confused by the enormity of it all.

But I also knew that nothing would happen if I didn’t take that first step. What is your first step towards improving as an IBD athlete? Could it be something from this post? Could it be as simple as drinking a glass of water and walking around the block? Could you start today? What would happen if you did?

~With Strength & Nutrition



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