Those who suffer from chronic illness know how daunting, frustrating, and often lonely it can be. Although there are more resources available now than there have ever been before, the challenges posed by chronic conditions are still not well understood by those without first-hand experience.
For cyclists in particular, managing chronic illness presents both an opportunity and an obstacle. In many cases, riding a bike can provide relief and improve the overall condition while, at the same time, illness inevitably presents a huge roadblock when it comes to reaching one’s athletic goals. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring cyclists who have refused to let their illness keep them from their passion. We Love Cycling spoke with two women, Lucy Appleton and Fiona Blyth Auld about how cycling helps them manage their condition, what they do when the going gets tough, and what they wish more people understood about chronic illness.
Accepting that chronic conditions act up sporadically
Fiona was inspired by her husband’s completion of a charity event and decided to take up cycling several years ago. Despite having fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue, she has now completed the 175-mile event twice and has joined a local cycling club. Still, she explained how challenging it can be when her condition acts up without warning. “In my head, I can do anything I put my mind to. I’m determined and I don’t give up easily! Sometimes, however, my body is telling me something different, it doesn’t have the energy, it is hurt or tired and that can be very frustrating.”
One of the biggest challenges to overcome when accepting a chronic condition is setting new expectations regarding what the body is capable of on any given day. As Fiona has learned, her body doesn’t always do what she wants it to. Some days, she said, “the energy is not there, and there really is nothing I can do about it. Unfortunately, it’s not a case of having a rest and everything is fine, it can go on for days or weeks. There is no rhyme or reason to it and that’s the worst part.”
The importance of cultivating other sources of self-confidence
When facing these physical limitations, it is important to discover new ways of tapping into the same positive feeling that cycling provides—even when you can’t get on your bike. This has been a big part of the challenge for Lucy. Having been active in mountain biking and snowboarding since youth, in 2014 she discovered that she was unwell with a viral infection that ultimately leads to a neurological condition. In the face of this new challenge, she had to look elsewhere to cultivate self-worth. Lucy explained: “I equated a lot of my self-esteem with how much I could ‘do’ so, at first, I became pretty depressed and felt like I had no purpose if I couldn’t work, study or ride my bike. At my worst, I was mostly bedbound and would stare endlessly at the ceiling wondering if I would ever ride a bike again.”
These moments can be frightening but it is all about working through them and using the opportunity to cultivate new passions. For Fiona, that has meant focusing on activities that use less energy when she’s not feeling well. “I love to read books and I crochet, these both keep my mind off the pain and make me feel good because I’m still achieving something.”
Celebrate cycling for how it can help
On the other hand, when the body is able to handle more vigorous activity, cycling and other forms of exercise can have an incredibly positive impact. Cycling has helped Lucy keep her body healthy and mitigate many of the side effects associated with her medication. She explained: “By maintaining a baseline level of fitness, cycling enables me to recover from flare-ups and infections much faster. I also find cycling helps minimise some of the side-effects such as fluctuations in weight, mood swings and lethargy. It also serves as a great distraction from pain, unpleasant symptoms and alerted sensations.”
An adaptable routine is crucial for long-term success
The key to making progress over time is having a flexible routine that accounts for the changes in energy and ability that can creep out of nowhere. For Fiona, her turbo trainer has become an indispensable part of her training. “If I can’t get out to ride, it’s always there as a backup. My balance is affected if I’m tired, so the turbo trainer is a great option because I don’t have to be concerned about falling. Also, if I have to stop, I can. I’m not miles away from home, so I don’t have to worry about energy to get back.”
Staying positive takes work—but it is possible
Having a solid support system is critical to overcoming any obstacle and chronic illness is no exception. But in addition to supportive friends and family, it is about discovering the little things that help you feel better. For Fiona, this is engaging with positive content online. She explained: “When I’m feeling fed up, I love to read about where other women have been cycling and what their next challenge is. I remind myself how lucky I am and that there are a lot of people out there with issues way worse than my own. There are people who aren’t able to ride a bike at all, and I’m very grateful I can.”
Many people suffer from chronic illness and no one needs to do it alone
Online communities provide an invaluable resource for many suffering from chronic illness. Some of Lucy’s favourite Instagram accounts to look to for inspiration and support include, @activelyautoimmune, @butyoudontlooksick, and @thechronicills. She told us how affirming it is to know that you’re not going through hard times alone. She explained: “In my case, one of the most powerful and liberating moments wasn’t getting a diagnosis, it was going to a support group and meeting others like me.”
It is about learning to make the most of the good days
Ultimately, coping with a chronic illness means cultivating a healthy attitude and embracing the good days when they come. For Fiona, this means being brave and taking chances, “don’t decide not to do something because it may cause you pain—try to work through it. You’ll never know if something could help you unless you give it a shot. Life is too short, make the most of every day.”
In a similar vein, Lucy wants to remind those with chronic illness to go easy on themselves. “Don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself. And you are not your illness. You live alongside the illness,” she advises.
Both points serve as a good reminder of how important it is to take one day at a time and remember to show yourself the same kindness and compassion you would show to others. As Lucy and Fiona’s stories actively demonstrate, chronic illness doesn’t have to be the end of your progress with cycling. It is just another opportunity to rise to the occasion and prove how strong you really are.
A big thank you to Lucy and Fiona for sharing their insight on this important topic. Whether you or a loved one suffers from chronic illness or you’re just interested in educating yourself, take advantage of the many resources available, reach out to others, and know that you are not alone.