Returning To The Active Outdoor Life (Guest Post by Susan Vennerholm)

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I’m taking a break from blogging this summer as I focus on my move, but in the meantime I have some great guest posts on various topics lined up from the autoimmune community. This post is by Susan Vennerholm, who blogs at Backcountry Paleo.


In the autoimmune community, you’ll see a wide spectrum of tolerance for physical activity. For many of us, diagnosis came after reaching a low point that rendered us pretty useless physically. If that’s your storyline, you’ll understand how long it can take to regain the physical stamina to simply get through a normal day, never mind a workout, bike ride, or backpack trip.

When I came into the Hashimoto’s community two years ago, I rarely heard anyone mention they’d healed enough to start exercising again. Nowadays, I hear more people say so – whether they are gym rats, yoginis, or outdoor sports lovers. I believe this upward trend has to do with improvements in treatment protocols, and the ever-widening support community that has grown around living with autoimmunity.

I am no expert on returning to the physical life after debilitating illness, however, I am on that journey myself, and it has presented some interesting puzzles and hard-earned lessons. In this post I’ll share a bit about that journey, and offer some tips on navigating this tricky terrain. While my personal example is in outdoor sports, I believe this perspective applies to any physically demanding activity, whether for you that means hiking, gym training, or a walk around the block.

When the rules change

My overall health has improved exponentially in the past two years, after years of struggling to heal. Because of those health improvements, I have also returned to outdoor sports such as trail running, hiking, and climbing. It has not, however, been a linear course. Before I got sick, training for my favorite outdoor activities went like this: train hard = get stronger; don’t train = get weaker. Pretty simple, right? That was before. Now… not so much. I’ll have periods of increased strength and stamina, then suddenly I’ll respond erratically to exercise; my recovery time or my ability to handle a hard day on the trail will radically shift. Sometimes it’s not just physical, and after a big day out my mind gets fogged and I’m pretty worthless for a whole day. My theory: While my underlying issues (such as micronutrient deficiencies, methylation, adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalances, and anemia) are healing, I am getting stronger, but because I’m also pushing my body harder, it’s causing some bumps in the road that play out in erratic responses to exertion.

Okay, so that’s not rocket science. But it sure throws you off when it seems like the rules keep changing! It feels like I have a body with a new set of directions. If you find yourself in the same shoes, here are:

Seven tips to keep in mind while you return to the active life

1. Expect the training path to be non-linear

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Your response to exercise may not be as predictable as it used to be, whether that means different reactions to the same workout, or unexpected plateaus and valleys in your long-term training plan. Each of us has our own individual cocktail of underlying health issues, and they likely weren’t a big part of our terrain before getting sick. Now that they are, they speak up when we deplete our bodies with intense exercise. Where to start? Determine the specific issues you are dealing with, and add extra support for them before and after big days. Do you have vitamin deficiencies? Adrenal fatigue? Inflammation? Blood sugar imbalances? Methylation issues? Get clear on those issues and know the dietary, supplemental and lifestyle habits that support their healing. Consider adding support for them before and after intense exercise, and of course, consult your healthcare practitioner to make sure it is appropriate for you.

2. Expect longer recovery time

Whether you’ve done a mellow day hike or a crossfit competition, your recovery time may be longer than it was before you got sick. After exertion, simply hydrating and kicking your feet up may not cover it. Three things that can help improve recovery time:

  1. Get as much sleep as possible the night you get back, as well as the following 2-3 days. It’s profoundly helpful.
  2. Eat higher protein and carbs than usual the next day.
  3. Take extra L-Glutamine following exertion; it helps with muscle recovery, can aid in sleep, and as any autoimmune person needs to know, it’s great for gut health.

3. Drive is a danger and a blessing

Talk to twenty people with autoimmunity, and you’ll find a lot of them drove themselves into the ground right before getting sick. Sound familiar? Now that you’re active again, a driven nature can be both a blessing and a danger. It can lead us to push too hard, resulting in the need to backtrack on exertion for days or even weeks (… trust me). Ideally, that drive can help us stay patiently focused on our eventual fitness goals, and help us get back up when we’ve fallen off the wagon. Remember your drive, and manage it mindfully to your advantage. If you get greedy, you’ll pay. 

4. Learn when to say NO

Have you ever agreed to go on a hike, bike ride, or some other athletic endeavor, and regretted it later? Learn to say “no” without hesitation, and with total self-confidence. With practice it gets easier. If you doubt your ability to handle something, save it for another day. The mountains, the ocean, that kettle ball – they will still be there later. When you are in recovery, it’s better to err on the side of nurturing your body, not depleting it. You may not move as quickly on your training plan as you’d like, but you also won’t waste time in recovery from trashing yourself.

5. Go with those who know

Find adventure buddies who are supportive about your health challenges, and even better – have personal experience with them. You’ll be less prone to overextend yourself and suffer later. Having partners who respect your limits sets you up for more success in the long run, and you’ll have more fun because you won’t worry about being a stick in the mud.

6. Rest!

Rest is an integral part of training. Your body wants it!

7. Feel gratitude

When we feel gratitude, it empowers us. Be thankful for where you are at the moment, no matter how far you have come.

What about training for increased fitness, though? We can’t progress without pushing harder. This is tricky terrain. But hey, your whole life has likely been thrown off-kilter by having autoimmunity, what’s a little readjustment when it comes to training? We got this! You need to really listen to how your body responds to exertion, to know if it’s time to back off, stay steady, or increase your output. There’s a learning curve, and if you are still dealing with imbalances and deficiencies, you may have some detours and backtracks. If you expect them, they won’t be so disappointing. When they happen, dig in to the whys, and gently experiment with ways to modify your training, diet, and lifestyle to better support your body. As you go, you’ll start to recognize the subtle signs telling you that you’re approaching your limits. Learn to listen and respond.

For me, the greatest challenge in returning to outdoor pursuits has been balancing how my mind is wired from the past with how my body is wired for the now. They really can’t meet in the middle… yet. The joy of returning to the things I love drives me to try them at my previous level, yet I have to take it way more slowly than my mind and heart want to. As I’ve learned to slow down my training, my body is responding positively by recovering faster and more completely, becoming stronger, and allowing me to take on bigger adventures. I’ve learned the hard way that if I have to choose between backing off and pushing to exhaustion, backing off is the smart way to go. It’s the long haul I’m focused on, not the prize in front of me.

For all of us, it’s a journey; we will have backtracks, we may trash ourselves just because some trip was too good to miss, and then we’ll lay on our ass for three days afterward. We are passionate about what we love to do. But along the way, we’re learning our new bodies, and getting better at really listening to them in the pursuit of awesome fun. Remember to occasionally take a look back at where you were a year, two, five years ago; you will likely feel like a superhero in the moment. Bask in it!

I hope you are able to get out doing the things you love, and that you take great care of yourself. And I’d love to hear you share what your experience has taught you about returning to the active life!

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About Susan Vennerholm

Susan Vennerholm is the blogger behind Backcountry Paleo, where she shares AIP-specific recipes and autoimmune-friendly tips for backcountry enthusiasts. She also geeks out on the medical side of autoimmunity, and loves to write about it. Susan wholeheartedly believes that self-education and networking in the AI community are two of our strongest tools in living successfully with autoimmunity. As a way to pay forward the support she received during her recovery, she blogs so that others will have more resources for their healing journey. A certified yoga teacher, code wrangler, and freelance writer, Susan loves climbing mountains, watching Orca whales, trail running, volunteering for dog rescue, and a good fantasy novel. You can connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.

3 comments

  • […] wrote this piece as the second of two guest posts over on Autoimmune Paleo, Mickey Trescott’s fabulous blog about AIP food and healing. Mickey took part of the summer off […]

  • LizB says

    Awesome – thank you so much for writing this post.
    It’s nearly two years since i first got sick (leaky gut and adrenal issues) and i am just now starting to feel like i can tackle some bigger exercise. It seems like you need a total mindset change to approach this though, post complete body meltdown 😉
    I love intensive exercise but am trying to pace myself. It’s hard to know what you’re capable of though sometimes. I go by how i feel afterwards and how the recovery is but would like to hear how others handle this 🙂

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Hi LIzB! I’m sorry I missed this comment back in September… but I’d love to hear how you are doing now! Are you making progress, and finding others who are going through the same thing?

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