Ankylosing spondylitis hasn’t stopped this #ASWarrior. Let him inspire you to hit your stride, too.
When was the last time you stepped out of your usual routine and tackled something nobody thought you could do? If it’s been a while, if ever, we think this month is the perfect moment to take on something big. How about this: Sign up for a 10k race and commit to taking the next four weeks to training and crushing that goal. You can do it! Know how we know? We have a couple of expert trainers along with a detailed plan to pave your way to the finish line. If you’re looking for inspiration to level up your current run game, or just want to commit your body to trying something extraordinary, we can help you get there, even if chronic pain and fatigue are part of your everyday juggle with arthritis.
Why Run When You’ve Got Arthritis?
We all know regular exercise is essential for great overall health, but if you live with arthritis, it may even be part of your treatment plan. For ultramarathoner Helgi Olafson, who lives with ankylosing spondylitis (AS)—a chronic, inflammatory form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine—exercise is as non-negotiable as taking his prescription biologic meds. According to the Spondylitis Association of America, exercise can actually counteract some of the impacts of AS, which means maintaining mobility and flexibility long-term. Running certainly isn’t for everyone (more on that later), and our four-week training plan is geared toward folks who are already active and may even be doing some running during the week. Are you a walker or wheelchair athlete? Perfect. Our training plan is adaptable to whatever speed you’re currently at and we’ll help you improve as we train toward our ultimate goal of running that 10k at the end of this month.
Now, let’s meet the coaches!
Helgi Olafson, Ultramarathoner, AS Warrior
Olafson, 39, of Hollywood, FL, wasn’t a runner when a friend recruited him to take the running portion of a three-person sprint triathlon relay team a little over a decade ago. The squad already had a cyclist and a swimmer; they just needed a runner to take them across the finish line. The distance? 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). At the time, Olafson was in his late 20s, living and working as a chef on the big island of Hawaii, immersed in the competitive sports culture there. As an avid cyclist and paddling on a six-person outrigger canoe paddling team, he possessed what you might call a healthy dose of athletic arrogance. Why couldn’t he be a runner, too?
Having been diagnosed with AS at age 19, Olafson had always considered movement part of his AS treatment plan. But when he completed that first 10k for his team, he saw an opportunity to use future races for something bigger than just ticking off a personal goal. “When I crossed the finish line, it was a rush and I thought to myself, I can do this. I’m gonna do this,” Olafson recalls.
The next day, he not only set dual goals of completing both a marathon and an Ironman triathlon within a year, but he wanted to use his racing as a platform to help other people with AS. He reached out to the Spondylitis Association of America to explore how to use his racing as a way to raise awareness and money for AS research. He finished that marathon and the Ironman, plus countless 10ks during his training. He then set his sights on the beastliest of all endurance races: the ultramarathon, which, by definition, is longer than 26.2 miles.
As of last month—May was fittingly AS Awareness Month—Olafson had finished 18 ultramarathons, raising funds for AS along the way. His most impressive achievement was completing the Trans Triple Crown of 200s in 2021, which consisted of finishing three 200+ milers within three months, and he cycled the distance to travel between each of the states where those races were held—something no other competitor has ever done. And he used this event to raise $20,869 in donations to the Spondylitis Association.
Olafson, who works as a private chef on a super yacht, stays on top of his AS meds and is careful to give his body not only the training, but the rest, recovery, and nutrition it needs to accomplish all of these feats while living with inflammatory disease. Olafson says his rheumatologist cites him as an example of what life can be like for newly diagnosed patients, many of them just entering adulthood.
Luke Voss, a Doctor of Physical Therapy at MedSport Clinic, the University of Michigan
Not only does physical therapist Luke Voss specialize in rehabbing patients with orthopedic injuries (many of them runners) at the University of Michigan’s Ice Cube sports medicine clinic in Ann Arbor, he’s also a runner himself. His best advice to runners who are increasing their weekly mileage is to do so a little at a time. “Our goal is to increase gradually so the body can assimilate,” Voss says. This will help you go the distance with less chance of injury.
Keep in mind that running is a high-impact exercise that isn’t right for everyone. In fact, if you live with AS, depending how far your disease has progressed, your doctor may recommend against pounding the pavement at all, considering the potential impact on inflamed joints. In this case, crossing the finish line might look a little different (via walking or wheelchair) or you might want to add a few extra weeks of training to get you race-day ready.
Voss tries to avoid telling anyone who wants to run that they shouldn’t do it, chronic condition or not. It’s worth giving it a go, he says. “Obviously there’s going to be some individuals that are going to have so much pain in one or more joints that they can’t handle the load that running places on the body,” Voss says. He says it’s worth starting the training plan, and as you increase your weekly mileage, if any pain persists or gets worse, it’s probably time to consider what else you might be able to do instead. Maybe that means you’ll power walk the weekly miles and the race, too.
Week 1: Target Your Finish Line and Start Training
Sign Up for a Local or Virtual 10k
Olafson is a firm believer that everybody can do something physical, AS or not, and it just takes one initial step to get started. A good way to begin, he says, is to simply set a goal. “Signing up for a race is a good way to start—something achievable but a little bit out of reach so you have to work a little bit hard,” he advises. Because, as he says, the finish tastes sweeter when you have to work for it. We suggest looking for a 10k near you: Use the finder tab on the Road Runners Club of America site to select from races nationwide. Or, if you don’t see one that aligns with your schedule, look for a race you can do virtually. Schedule it for some time after the next four weeks or so. Sign up and put it on your calendar. Now, for the running.
Week 1 Training Plan
Tuesday: Do 3 miles at an easy pace.
Thursday: Warm up with 2 miles at an easy pace. Then run four 60-second intervals at a faster pace, resting for 2 minutes between each speed burst. Finish with 2 more miles at an easy pace.
Saturday: Do 5 miles at an easy pace. It is totally OK to walk some sections of this long run.
A Few Notes on Pace
You’ll notice each weekly plan has you varying your workouts between two paces: “easy” and “fast.” But what do these mean? Voss breaks it down like this: Easy pace is a speed where you can comfortably have a conversation with someone running alongside you. Your fast pace is one where you are exerting yourself enough that getting more than a few words out between breaths isn’t possible. Adding in these short bouts of faster-paced running will train your lungs and legs to sustain faster paces for longer periods of time when race time comes, Voss says. This week, try speaking during your workouts (even if you’re running solo—no judgment) to see what easy and fast look like for you.
Run, TLC, Repeat
Even though Olafson was superfit from cycling and paddling competitively, the whole routine of pounding the pavement was new for him when he took on his first 10K. He found that the switch to high-impact exercise didn’t seem to aggravate his spine. AS has caused some fusion in his sacroiliac joints (located between the base of the spine and pelvis) and he gets AS flares from time to time, but Olafson has learned that the more he moves, the less he has issues. “Listen to your body,” he says. He also advises other athletes to stay active on rest days to prevent stiffness from setting in and make sure to eat healthy and get plenty of sleep. Sure, your legs will feel a little next-day soreness but that will improve as those muscles get stronger. As long as your back is happy, keep going toward your goal. Olafson and Voss will be here every stride of the way—so see you in Week 2!