Update 8/18/2016 – This article was featured on TheMighty.com website on August 9, 2016, which is such a huge honor. Thank you all for your continued love and support.
If you’d like to read the shorter, edited version of this post on The Mighty’s Website, please visit https://themighty.com/2016/08/how-training-for-olympics-is-like-having-a-chronic-illness/
As a patient who has not only been diagnosed with multiple rare forms of chronic illness and as a former athlete that competed on the national level in swimming, I feel that I offer a unique perspective as to how some aspects of day-to-day life are quite similar between the polar opposites of having a chronic illness and training to compete in the Olympics. Here are some of the
Top 10 Ways That Living with a Chronic Illness
is Like Training for the Olympics:
10. You’re friends and family don’t understand why you never hang out with them.
Obviously, training for the Olympics requires a great deal of time and dedication. In an effort to become one of the top athletes in the country, sacrifices have to be made and one of the first things to go is generally your social life. Spending months at a time at training camps or traveling for competitions takes you away from your family and most days it was far too tiring to even think about going out and socializing with my friends, let alone actually doing it.
Now that I have a chronic illness, there are days when I can barely walk to the bathroom by myself, let alone take a shower. I’m lucky if I make all of my scheduled doctor appointments or medical tests even though I have assistance in getting there since I can no longer drive. Having a social life on top of it – that’s honestly asking too much of myself. The majority of people can’t understand how truly difficult it is to do the basic things that many people take for granted, such as going to the grocery store or cooking dinner. When you become sick while still young, though, the discrepancies between living a so-called normal life and that of “the sick life” are far more dramatic in comparison. Friends just simply don’t have the capacity to comprehend why their formerly “fun friend” is suddenly stuck at home on the couch. As they say – you don’t really get it until you get it.
9. You’re always tired, regardless of how much you sleep.
When you’re working your body hard, either to make your Olympic dreams come true or to merely make it through the day, fatigue seems to have a tendency continually build up to the point where you don’t know what it’s like to NOT feel tired anymore. No matter how much you sleep – it could be 8 hours, 12 hours, or 2 hours – it all feels the same.
Professional athletes are likely to suffer from a condition called Overtraining syndrome (OTS) if they work themselves too hard over a long period of time. As Kreher & Schwartz (2012) explain, “athletes train to increase performance. Performance increases are achieved through increased training loads. Increased loads are tolerated only through interspersed periods of rest and recovery—training periodization. Overreaching is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements requiring days to weeks for recovery. Overreaching followed by appropriate rest can ultimately lead to performance increases. However, if overreaching is extreme and combined with an additional stressor, overtraining syndrome (OTS) may result. OTS may be caused by systemic inflammation and subsequent effects on the central nervous system, including depressed mood, central fatigue, and resultant neurohormonal changes” (p. 128). However, depending on the pathophysiology and etiology of the condition, a number of treatment options are available, including hormone therapy, cognitive or physical therapies, stress management, and prolonged periods of rest.
Prolonged fatigue in chronic illness generally comes from the medical condition itself but other factors that come along with the illness can also influence a person’s physical, emotional, and social lifestyle in a way the creates additional fatigue as well. For example, sleep patterns can be affected by conditions like dysautonomia or autoimmune disease. While there are some strategies available for managing the fatigue that result from the various conditions of having a chronic illness or pain, once again it really just depends on the type of condition that is causing it. Delegating duties to friends or family members, practicing stress-reducing technique or and good sleep behaviors, and taking a lot of breaks throughout the day can help to a degree. In most cases, though, chronic feelings of fatigue cannot be cured or treated unless the underlying condition is cured or goes into remission.
8. You’re usually awake to see the sunrise.
Olympians often start training in the early hours of the morning, long before the rest of the world is even awake.
Those with a chronic illness are often awake this early in the morning as well – mostly because they haven’t gone to bed yet due to high levels of pain or because they spent most of the evening lying on the bathroom floor.
7. You’ve become really good at hiding how you really feel.
In order to be seen as a “good sport”, athletes sometimes have to cover their disappointment in their performance by shaking the hands of their opponent.
Those with chronic conditions tend to hide their illness by responding that they’re “fine” while they keep a smile on their face, even though they may feel like they’re dying on the inside.
6. It’s just like having a full-time job but without the weekly paycheck.
Potential Olympians train both day and night to achieve their dreams of competing in the Olympics. When I was in training, I’d have practice in the morning before school, strength and/or weight training immediately after school, and then practice again in the evening before I went home to do homework and rush off to bed. Also, I either went to practice or to a competition on both days of the weekend as well.
As a chronic illness patient, I spend most of my time calling doctors offices, faxing recordings, fighting insurance companies, researching treatment options, and recovering from various surgeries or treatments that are often difficult in and themselves. I also spend a lot of time going from one appointment to another, shuffling from one specialist to another, going through this medical test or that treatment plan, one hospital visit after another hospital – it’s exhausting.
5. You make plans way ahead of time.
When you’re training for the Olympics, everything is planned months ahead of time – sometimes even years in advance. This includes everything from what competitions you’ll compete in and the travel plans to go to such events to the training schedule you follow throughout the year.
Making plans when you have a chronic illness also requires a lot of preparation. As a rule, I try not to commit to anything unless I absolutely have to. On those rare occasions that I do make plans to hang out with friends or family, every detail is planned out way ahead of time and every potential or possibility needs to be accounted for. However, considering that most of my symptoms can change substantially in the blink of an eye, most efforts to plan anything are basically futile. More often than not, I have to cancel these plans at the last-minute anyways – leaving me to feel guilty or worthless because of my illness.
4. Proper nutrition and hydration are imperative to your ability to function.
One of the most important elements of training for the Olympics is good nutrition. If you want to reach your peak performance, it’s import to follow a well-balanced diet. It’s also important to stay hydrated both before and after practice so that you don’t become ill or injured simply by losing important nutrient and electrolytes from pushing your body passed its physical limitations. According to an article in Men’s Fitness Magazine (2014), “for Olympic-level performance and off-the-chart energy, you must eat properly including eating a breakfast of complex carbohydrates and lean protein, then eat again every 3-4 hours and within 90 minutes of working out. Consume half your bodyweight in fluid ounces of pure water and if exercising intensely or for long duration, consume a sports-drink to replenish electrolytes” (para. 2).
Similarly, some of my diagnosed conditions require extreme effort and dedication to dietary guidelines in order to thrive. For instance, my vascular surgeon identified that has malnutrition after years of not really eating due to a combination of pain and early satiety caused by a rare condition called Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (or SMA Syndrome). In order to survive the life-saving surgery that I need in the upcoming months, I was sent to a dietician to bring up my nutritional blood screens so that I could have the surgery to fix the compression of my SMA, as well as the other three rare vascular compression syndromes I have as well, including Nutcracker Syndrome, May-Thurner Syndrome, and Pelvic Congestion Syndrome. However, because the third portion of my duodenum is being compressed by the SMA, food becomes obstructed as it tries to move into my small intestines.Therefore, the dietician had to be somewhat creative in prescribing a diet of foods that could move past the compression. Currently, my daily dietary regimen consists of:
- Multiple “shots” of either a protein shake or Carnation Breakfast Essentials (I do “shots” because I can’t drink 8 to 16 oz a day in one or two sittings without getting sick).
- 2 small jars of organic baby food – levels 1 and 2 only.
- 1 pouch of pureed baby food
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
- 2 high-calorie coffee drinks from Starbucks (to maintain/gain weight).
- 1 yogurt packet.
- As many pretzels, crackers, or chips I can handle.
- Popsicle or Italian ice – only if I can manage it as well.
For another condition, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (or POTS Syndrome), I require a high intake of both water and electrolyte drinks (e.g., Pedialyte) to help increase blood volume and prevent dehydration, along with a high sodium (or salt) diet to keep my blood pressure high enough so that I don’t faint multiple times in a single day .
All day long, all it feels like all I do is eat and count calories. One bite here, another sip there – it’s honestly exhausting! Especially when you spent years actively avoiding food since it was the source of so much pain.
3. You prepare yourself to be strong mentally.
In any form of competition, you have to be strong not only physically but mentally as well. According to an article by Sports Psychology Today (2011),”mental preparation helps athletes achieve a focused, confident and trusting mindset to help them compete at their highest level” (para. 2). While some athletes use meditation, others prefer to listen to music for motivation. I always preferred visualization when I was able to compete. As Handel (2012) explains, “in preparation for a game, athletes will run through different situations in their imagination as a kind of mental rehearsal. This way, when they are confronted with the situation in real-life, their mind is already primed to respond to the situation in an effective way…Contrary to common misconceptions, visualization is most effective when athletes focus on the process rather than the outcomes” (para. 11 and 13)
Essentially, I use this very same strategy to manage life as a professional patient as well. After years of doctors telling me that my symptoms were caused by anxiety or depression, I mentally prepare for all appointment by preparing notes and deciding what I want to say ahead of time. Then I formulate counter-arguments based on current medical research to make sure that my concerns are taking seriously. Sometimes I need to prepare myself mentally before I gain enough courage to go ahead with a certain medical test or an experimental treatment plan simply because it makes me nervous for whatever reason. There are some days that my symptoms can be so bad that mental preparation becomes necessary just to make it out of my bed.
2. You can handle high levels of pain like a champion.
For the most part, nearly every competitive sport out there involves feeling pain in some, way, shape, or form. For instance, pain and injury could result from overworking yourself during practice or you could suffer a really bad head injury during competition. Although I never personally got severely hurt in competitive swimming, aside from the ocassional ear infections and a pulled muscle or two, other sports I did over the years did result in extreme forms of pain and injury. In cheerleading, for example, I suffered from 6 concussions, a broken nose, a fractured jaw, and two broken ankles – all in the span of a single season. Even with broken bones, though, I still performed because I was the captain and I didn’t want to let my squad down.As the old adage goes, no pain – no gain, right?
It is the same with chronic illness. Often we feel pressure to do things we know we shouldn’t do but we do anyways because we either feel guilty or think that it’s an expectation. Additionally, since we experience high levels of pain almost each and every day, we have learned to handle our pain much better than the average person. When I started receiving Botox injections for migraines, for instance, my neurologist commented about how I was her favorite patient because I didn’t even flinch once as she injected needles into various places across my face, forehead, and neck. I’ve also had nurses surprised that I would barely move when they would blow a vein during a catheter placements or the fact that I didn’t cry when I had a biopsy taken from my scalp without any form of sedation (not even a local), which was later cauterized with colloidal silver instead of the normal placement of sutures. Really, it’s not that you don’t feel the pain anymore – it’s just that you handle pain better now because you’ve dealt with it for so long.
1. There’s strong camaraderie between you and your team members/fellow spoonies.
When the entirety of your life is spent training and competing, often the only people you get to see regularly is your fellow team members. Basically, they become your new family since you spend every waking moment together and they understand what you’re going through.
When you’re sick, it can be hard to relate to people who are healthy. We feel judged by others because of our illnesses and most people can’t understand what it’s like to be chronically ill. This includes the majority of our closest friends, family members, and doctors as well. The only people who get it are other spoonies or warriors that have gone through what you’ve gone through, and therefore understand where you’re coming from.The chronic illness community offers a lot of support to members because we all know what it’s like to be alone or afraid. We’re so tight-knit that we have developed our own language, laugh at our jokes, and establish rules that most outsiders are unlikely to be conscious of unless they’re given an explanation. Even then, it’s hard to understand because they have experienced as much as we have. In a way, it makes up for all that’s been lost to chronic illness. Like a secret society, but one that nobody chose to join by their own accord – it’s simply involuntary recruitment into this life.
Edger, M. (2011). Five tips for mental preparation. Sports Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.sportpsychologytoday.com/youth-sports-psychology/five-components-of-mental-preparation/
Men’s Fitness Magazine (2014). Fitness Secrets of Olympic Athletes. Retrieved from http://www.mensfitness.com/training/pro-tips/fitness-secrets-of-olympic-athletes
Handel, S. (2012). The Emotion Machine. Retrieved from http://www.theemotionmachine.com/4-mental-exercises-olympic-athletes-use-to-gain-that-extra-edge
Kreher, J.B. & Schwartz, J.B. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome: A practical guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128-138. doi: 10.1177/1941738111434406