Interview: Helgi Olafson, Triathlete with Ankylosing Spondylitis (Part 1)

Helgi Olafson was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS), a type of inflammatory arthritis that mostly affects the spine, when he was just 19.

But despite this potentially debilitating condition, he has gone on to become a top-ranking triathlete and form the Helgi Olafson Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate people about AS and provide support and inspiration for those with the condition.

Helgi on Podium
Helgi (right) takes the podium at the 2015 Lavaman Waikoloa Triatholon after winning
his age bracket (30-34) with a time of 2:16:43. Photo courtesy of Mikey Brown.

Helgi shared with us about his journey and his life, which we're sharing in a 2-part interview. Here is part 1. You can read about his upcoming projects in part 2 as well.

What was your greatest concern when you were first diagnosed? How have your goals or concerns changed since then?

I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) in 2002. My greatest concern when I was first diagnosed was whether or not I would be able to live a normal life, and for how long.

I was clueless about the condition. All I knew was that it really hurt. Part of me wanted to cry and wallow in my tears, while another part of me wanted to push the envelope and see what I would be capable of in my lifetime. However, there was a third part of me that was probably the most prevalent the first 8 years after my diagnosis: The part was of me that needed to just live a normal life, work, pay bills, have fun, and survive!

Article continues below
Advertisement

Now, what I used to consider large roadblocks are just tiny hurdles that can pass with some dedication and creativity on my part. I feel that being diagnosed with AS has actually helped me take life a little more seriously—I realize that I am the only one accountable for making my dreams coming true. In 2008, my father passed from type 2 diabetes. This major life event was a catalyst, and helped me realize that I really needed to start taking control of my health in order to have a long and fulfilling life.

It wasn’t until I got into endurance sports and triathlons in 2011 that I started taking my mission to inspire others more seriously—especially after I realized what my body was capable of, even with this debilitating autoimmune condition.

I created Helgi Olafson Foundation in August 2012 as a platform to share my message. With this 501(c)(3), nonprofit platform, and through social media and other networking efforts, I have been able to reach out to find more answers about life with AS. I have discovered a plethora of valuable information through published research from doctors and rheumatologists, as well as hearing about the experiences other patients have had with AS and arthritis.

I finally feel like I truly have the upper hand in this ongoing battle with the “invisible” illness that will be a major part of the rest of my life. I am very grateful and proud to be in the skin that I’m in.

How is your training regimen affected by having days when you need to rest or can't push yourself as hard?

My training regimen is affected mostly when I take my medication. Fatigue can be a major issue for people with autoimmune diseases, especially when the patient takes a TNF blocker like Enbrel, which suppresses the body’s natural defense system.

For competitive athletes, the training can’t stop or race results will suffer, so it’s important to make sure that the body gets what it needs to perform. Of course, listening to your body is always number one. Sometimes I just have to take it easy for a few days and take some time off. When I take my Enbrel shot once a month, I try to stay away from training for a few days.

For athletes of any level, the proper way to train for endurance sports is with periodization, which is gradually increasing distance and time spent training by alternating longer, lower sustained heart rate days and with shorter, higher heart rate days. And because there are three different sports in triathlon, this system means that one sport can offer relief from the others. Tapering down before major races is also very important.

But most important of all is giving your body what it needs to perform, including ample rest and proper nutrition. Personally, I supplement my immune system by fueling my body before, during, and after exercise. I keep a focus on recovery as much as possible and not over-training.

Performance nutrition supplements can be very expensive, but it is important to keep myself fueled with all-natural nutrition that I can feel safe putting into my body. On a nightly basis, I take digestive enzymes and a bone and joint support formula. Electrolytes are also very important to keep muscles from cramping, which can be devastating to an entire season of racing. Trust me, it’s happened to me before, and will probably happen again.

Watch for part 2 of Helgi’s interview soon, in which he discusses his “exercise as medicine” philosophy and upcoming projects.

You can find Helgi Olafson on Facebook and Twitter, or visit the Helgi Olafson Foundation website.

Post written by Carrie DeVries