Training with a chronic illness can be a challenge, a challenge I am familiar with. I live with two chronic illnesses — endometriosis and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). Both of these illnesses make training BJJ hard at times. Neither of them are curable. There are treatments that make both conditions manageable, but I’ll have to live with them for the rest of my life.
Sometimes my symptoms are debilitating. It’s hard for me to get out of bed, let alone work, chase a toddler, and train. Other times, my symptoms are relatively mild, and I can participate in life the way I want.
For years, I couldn’t imagine training with these chronic illnesses. I’d trained years before, when I wasn’t as sick. But as my illnesses progressed, the dream of training again always seemed out of reach.
With the help of a personal trainer, we modified my exercise regimen based on how I was feeling each day. She planned “good day” and “easy day” workouts, which she could easily swap out based on the severity of my symptoms. We didn’t know it then, but she was giving me the skills I would need to go back to training.
Earlier this year, I got the opportunity to help some close friends open a new martial arts school. The excitement of opening the dojo gave me the motivation I needed to finally figure out how to make training work. I won’t lie, there’s been a lot of painful trial and error. More than once, I’ve done more than my body could handle, and I paid the price — a massive uptick in my symptoms, sometimes even a flare.
However, I’ve learned quite a bit about successfully training with chronic illnesses, most importantly, that it is possible. Here’s how I’ve made training with chronic illnesses work and maybe these suggestions can help if you’re struggling with chronic illness too..
Adjust Your Training to Your Symptoms
The most frustrating thing about living with chronic illness is never knowing how you’ll feel from one day to the next. You need to become a master at pivoting and adjusting your expectations. When I have a high symptom day, I try to accept that as early as possible and adjust what I expect from myself. If it’s a training day, I reach out to my favorite training partner and ask her if we can do “lazy martial arts.” Basically, we make a mutual agreement to focus on form and technique instead of speed, power, and cardio. We don’t get in as many reps per round and we don’t hit as hard, but we do get work in.
If she can’t make it to class, I’ll usually skip. I know if I train with another partner I’ll push myself too hard. Of course, it sucks to miss a day on the mats, but if I go too hard, I might have to miss the rest of the week. So, it’s the lesser of two bad choices.
Rest Days Are NOT Optional
Chronic illness has taught me that if I don’t choose to rest, I’ll be forced to rest. Like many chronic illnesses, MCAS has a lot to do with chronic, systemic inflammation. My body has allergic reactions in response to totally normal inflammation, like the inflammation caused by exercise. If I don’t build rest days into my schedule, the systemic inflammation continues to build, and eventually, my body will have wild reactions to exercise. I get short of breath and my heart rate spikes to around 200 bpms. I get flushed and sometimes I get a rash. Sometimes I have to sprint to the bathroom in the middle of the drill. Sometimes I nearly pass out. And once these reactions start to happen, I’ll be sidelined for days. I have to take real rest days between every class. I don’t mean active recovery days; I mean true rest.
Hydration and Diet Really Matter
We all know that staying hydrated is important to training, but for people with chronic illnesses it’s even more crucial. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances often trigger an increase in symptoms. So, it’s important to have an electrolyte packed beverage handy while training.
It’s also super important to hydrate before and after training. Put a big focus on hydration on training days, starting the minute you wake up. I like to drink plain water beforehand and tons of unflavored coconut water after.
It’s also important to consider your diet. Not all chronic illnesses are impacted by diet, but many are. I hate dieting, and I hate cutting out foods that I like. But a very strict diet is an important part of my symptom management. If I eat something that might trigger an allergic reaction earlier in the day, it makes me more likely to have a reaction to exercise. On training days, I keep my diet very bland and boring. I only eat foods that I know won’t cause a reaction. I don’t eat too soon before training so my body is reacting to fewer things at one time. I wait until my system has calmed down a bit from training before refueling.
Training with a chronic illness takes a lot of forethought and planning, but all that effort pays off with being able to participate in the sports I love.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.