Train for Your First Walk/Run Race With Rheumatoid Arthritis
What to know about doing charity walks and noncompetitive races when you have RA
By Emily Listfield
Medically Reviewed by Alexa Meara, MD
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With the cooler months of fall fast approaching, marathon runners are kicking their training into high gear. (Okay, no, not us.) Luckily, though, almost every town has a 5K walk/run for charity or a fun run that even first-timers can take part in.
Before you shake your head and assume it’s not for you, consider this: Staying active is extremely beneficial in controlling rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms, and setting a goal can help you maintain motivation. A walking program is doable; walking programs can help you feel great physically as well as emotionally. Signing up for a no-pressure charity race is the perfect way to spend time with friends, meet new ones, and raise money for a cause, all while improving your health.
The following four-step walking program is geared to people with RA — no experience necessary!
1. Prepare Your Body for the Big Day
As with any exercise program, check with your doctor first, and be sure to ask if you have osteoarthritis as well, which may affect joints differently and affect how you train. Plan to start training four to six weeks before race day. “It can be beneficial to meet with a physical therapist to set realistic weekly training goals to help prevent RA flare-ups,” says Danielle Edwards, physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Scott Zashin, MD, a rheumatologist based in Dallas, suggests that you begin training with simply walking, especially if your RA symptoms include lower extremity or hip involvement. Gradually increase your pace and distance each week.
Edwards recommends incorporating low impact activities, including swimming, yoga, tai chi, and ellipticals, to increase aerobic conditioning without additional stress to your joints. “RA can affect the entire body. Including an upper body workout helps with overall body strengthening and will keep you moving while alternating from lower body training days,” she says.
If you want to give running a try, Robert Mandje, training and education manager for New York Road Runners, suggests that you start with a 20-minute session where you run for two minutes and walk for one. As your fitness improves, you’ll be able take shorter walking breaks. “When in doubt, slow down,” he adds. “If you’re running and can’t carry out a simple conversation then perhaps you’re going too fast.” Avoid strenuous workouts during RA flares, and be sure to stretch before and after you exercise.
2. Gear Up Your Feet
Two of biggest mistakes Mandje sees: Wearing new shoes that can cause , or untested shorts or T-shirts that cause . “Head to a local running specialty store, where a gait analysis can be performed to determine what your feet do — how they strike the ground, how they roll in or roll out — when you run and walk,” he says. This extra step will protect your feet and joints. Pick up a pair of moisture-wicking socks and waterproof sunblock, as certain RA meds can increase sensitive to sun, according to Dr. Zashin.
3. Know Before You (Have to) Go
Study the course ahead of time. Most have water stations every mile, plus first aid and bathroom locations, and it pays to know where you can find them. “The night before should be spent relaxing and going through your ‘race-day checklist,’ Mandje says. “You should have your kit — running shoes, top and bottom, and anything else you’ll want for race day — sorted. If it’s warm weather, plan on wearing lighter colored clothing. For cold weather races, layers are the way to go.
4. Event Day Dos and Don’ts
Wake up early and have a light breakfast, such as toast with peanut butter. Mandje warns against skipping meals, even if you are nervous, as it can leave you light-headed and lacking energy. "Hydrate well before the race with Gatorade or electrolyte water if approved by your doctor,” Zashin adds. “The may help with cramps.”
Don’t forget to stretch before you go. “Participants with RA will often wake up in the morning with stiffness,” Edwards says. “Start with gentle stretches, including the back, hips, thighs, calves, and arm muscles.” Allow time to travel to your race’s destination, factoring in time to get to check-in, bag drop-off, and then walking to the start-line area. Rushing can lead to unnecessary stress.
During the race, plan on taking a sip of water at every water station, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Waiting too long can lead to dizziness. You can also bring a portable, easy to grip and open water bottle.
One of the biggest mistakes Mandje sees is people coming out of the gate too fast and overestimating their fitness. “This can ruin your experience as you end up slowing down and even underperforming.”
If you experience persistent stiffness, sit the rest of the race out.
Video: UCHealth | Training for A 5K Race
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