Can running help ulcerative colitis?

I have been pondering for a while about whether or not to publish this post. I am fairly reserved when it comes to discussing personal issues, and must confess that it took a fair amount of courage to post this on my blog. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (pancolitis) in September 2005. After an initial period of anxiety and shock, I was prescribed a cocktail of medication, ranging from corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and anti-inflammatory agents. For those who may not know, ulcerative colitis is a form of inflammatory bowel disease, in which the large colon can become inflamed. As there is no known cause for this condition, treatment measures are usually prescribed to help control symptoms, as there is no known cure. Going through periods of active symptoms and remission, my health was never quite the same as a pre-colitis state, resulting in some degree of impairment with leading a normal lifestyle.

Being somewhat of a cliche, I have always been very active with exercise, maintaining (albeit infrequent) gym training sessions since diagnosis. In fact, it is worth mentioning that just before my initial diagnosis, I was in very good shape. However after being afflicted with colitis, no matter what I tried, could never achieve the same level of physical fitness. This post will not be questioning the various hypotheses and research surrounding the cause of ulcerative colitis, but rather focus on what palliative measures one can take to prevent a relapse of symptoms.

In September 2013, I found out that I had been accepted in the ballot to run the London marathon. Having never run more than 10km before, and being aware of the low odds of securing a place, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, due to various commitments (and a certain degree of complacency) I did not train much for this event. The longest pre-marathon run I had completed was 25km, well below the recommendation of being able to run at least 32km before the event. During the race, I was at the half-way point in well under 2 hours (1hr 56minโ€™ to be more precise), however, after 28km, my legs became severely cramped, resulting in me walking the rest of the distance. I finally finished in 4 hours and 52 minutes, and very disappointed with this time.

I met with my consultant gastroenterologist shortly after the London marathon, who was quite impressed that I had managed to โ€˜finishโ€™ the event. However, I was a little underwhelmed by my accomplishment, and felt that I had so much more running potential. At the point of this consultation, in May 2014, I had been off prednisolone (a drug used to treat inflammatory and autoimmune conditions) and was on a minimum dose of azathioprine (an immunosuppressant). Despite having been in remission for over 2 years, I still felt unlike my pre-diagnosis self. Being constantly lethargic and terrified of having a flare-up, I decided it was time to make some committed, long-lasting and consistent changes to my exercise plan.

I had already gained a sound level of cardiovascular conditioning from a few long runs I did in preparation for the London marathon. Capitalising on this, I picked up my mileage and in the following months began to average around 180km per month. I also signed up to quite a few further road races, designed to keep me motivated and further test/improve my performance.

Here is a break-down of the types of distances I had been running (and the times of races completed) over the summer/fall of 2014:

May: 156km (10km: 43:34)

June: 204km (HM: 1:37:31)

July: 205km (10km: 42:37)

August: 271km (10km: 40:04)

September: 251km (10km: 39:11, HM: 1:27:32, HM: 1:27:23)

October: 258km (HM: 1:23:39, HM: 1:23:44)

November: 274km (10km: 38:18)

December: 99.5km

I had originally hoped to achieve a sub-45 minute 10k, and sub 1:40 half marathon, in 2014. In actuality, I finished off with a 38 minute 10k, and 1:23 half marathon. Increasing my running distances not only resulted in a sudden and dramatic improvement in my performance, but I also noticed a huge improvement in my physical health and well-being.

It would be no hyperbole to say that running has truly changed my life. It has not only transformed my body physically, putting me in the best shape of my life, but provided immense mental clarity and purpose in life. It is something I get up for in the mornings, looking forward to constantly bettering myself. Going out for a long run of 30-40km seems to be no mean task anymore. I in fact managed to run a full marathon (42.2km) by myself, with no prior preparation as part of my normal training, completing the distance in 3 hours 36 minutes. That is well over an hour quicker (1hr 16minโ€™, actually) than my first attempt at the London marathon, just 4 months earlier!

In my experience, running has definitely improved the prognosis of my medical condition. I should add that alongside my running training program, I have also made some positive changes to my diet. I eat plenty of fruit, a daily smoothie consisting of fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries and blackberries), fresh fruit juice and plenty of greens. I have also dramatically reduced the amount of processed/refined food in my diet, and steer clear of anything high in unhealthy fats, particularly saturates. Alcohol and surgery drink consumption is also very much in moderation and rare.

I am now looking forward to a productive year of running and training in 2015. Having signed up for plenty of road races, I am also trying my hand at a Duathlon (run-10km – bike-44km – run-5km) in September. My target is to achieve as close to a 3-hour marathon as possible, as well as a sub 1:20 half marathon. All-in-all, I am attempting to run over 3000 miles in 2015, and will be regularly blogging about how my attempts with this are going.

Getting back to the original question at hand, it is very apparent that every individual will respond differently to their colitis, both physically and mentally. This is perhaps true for any given ailment that impacts day-to-day life. In my case, I have been fortunate enough to be in a position where I have not only induced remission, but achieved some very good race times. I am writing this blog post not to boast about the improvements in my athletic performances, but to provide hope and reassurance to other UC sufferers out there that it is possible to achieve your goals, both physical and mental, with this condition.

The fear of being diagnosed with bowel cancer is a real concern for me, as well as other people with inflammatory bowel disease. Taking life-long medications is also not easy. But there are people with far more serious health concerns, who go through life with such courage and dignity, that it drives me forward to pursue any goals I have, be they physical or mental. Living with such a condition has definitely strengthened my mind, and I am confident that anyone can achieve what they desire if they dedicate themselves. It is not always easy, but definitely not impossible.

3 thoughts on “Can running help ulcerative colitis?

  1. Andy, I was scrolling through some of your race reports after reading yesterday’s one on the vitality 10k and came across this post. It’s actually made me pretty emotional and I’m not one to get emotional that easily.
    You have such a great attitude towards your condition and a huge amount of courage.
    It would be easy to give up on you training regime and put it down to your health, but you’ve refused to do that.
    I really admire you and love your zest for life.
    Keep doing what you’re doing, stay strong and keep smiling.
    I once read a quote which really stuck with me…it is not the cards you are dealt, but how you choose to play them that determines the outcome. You’re definitely playing your cards right ๐Ÿ˜Š

    • Sam, thank-you for taking the time to read through the post! Your words truly mean a lot; really appreciate it! It is quite ironic that I wrote this at the start of 2015, and that was the year my health problems became more of an issue! It’s okay though, have learnt a lot about myself and got even more perspective of what is important in life. Coincidently, I have always lived by and love that Moto! You can be dealt a good set of cards and loose the game, and be dealt a poor set and win! The cards being genes, I suppose ๐Ÿ˜‰ You’re amazing as always and your running also continues to inspire me ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Thanks so much for this information. I have been dealing with Ulcerative colitis on and off since October and I have visited several docs but they canโ€™t tell me what is causing it. One of my friends told me about and PeaPlex is very helpful therefore.

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