Interview: Helgi Olafson, Triathlete with Ankylosing Spondylitis (Part 2)

Despite being diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (AS) when he was 19, Helgi Olafson has become a ranking triathlete and founder of Helgi Olafson Foundation to promote awareness and support for those with AS.

In part 1 of our interview with Helgi, he discussed his progression in lifestyle and attitude from diagnosis to where he is today at age 32. Here in part 2, he shares about his philosophy for coping with AS and his upcoming projects.

Helgi Running
Helgi runs in the first of two swim-bike-run legs in the Captain Cook Challenge, in which
he ended up placing 4th with a time of 3 hours and 1 second. Photo courtesy of Vegard Floki Fyrileiv.

You promote a mantra of "exercise as medicine." Can you share why and how you developed this philosophy?

I realized that there are many varying stories of diagnosis and different levels of progression associated with ankylosing spondylitis, and it is important to be sensitive to others when promoting fitness-focused remedies. Number one: I am not a doctor or rheumatologist. Patients should always consult them first. I get emails and messages from people on a weekly basis from all over the world asking me advice on how to manage their AS. It’s important for people to know that what may work for me may not work for others. Just because we are diagnosed with the same condition doesn’t mean we all have the same road to travel.

Listen to your body and give it what it needs. Immerse yourself in medical literature, and get connected with others to learn more about your condition and things will start to click. Read the research.

I would say that one of the things that really put things in perspective for me was learning about the experiences that others have had with AS. An excellent resource for this is The Faces of Ankylosing Spondylitis. This is a site that shares people’s stories of diagnosis. It was created by Cookie Hopper, who also has AS and is very active in the AS social media community. My story can be found under “Face 461.”

I promote a mantra of using “exercise as medicine” for treatment of arthritis because I truly believe it is the most important thing that has been proven to work for so many arthritis patients throughout the world. People should test their limits when exercising and back off if needed. The human body will send a message—listen to it! Gradually increasing your exercise level and intensity is way more successful than just going hard from the beginning. Be smart about it!

An arthritis patient’s joints are not the same as a person’s joints without arthritis. Be nice to them. Running on an elliptical vs. pavement or treadmill can be a good start to getting cardio time in. For people with arthritis, low impact exercises such as calisthenics, resistance training, swimming, and cycling are usually very beneficial.

It’s also important to incorporate a stretching routine that can be modified to each patient’s needs to help relieve any tension that could build up. This routine should be done on a daily basis, regardless of whether or not the person is exercising.

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Can you share some information about your upcoming projects?

2015 is a great year for Helgi Olafson Foundation. I have taken on some great physical challenges that double as global awareness projects for arthritis, giving people the opportunity to get involved along the way.

With the help of Derek Belisle, marketing director of Arthritis National Research Foundation and creator of Racing for a Cure, Helgi Olafson Foundation (HOF) is producing a 2016 calendar that will showcase athletes from around the world who have autoimmune arthritis.

In my travels, I have found that I am definitely not the only athlete with autoimmune arthritis, and I wanted to create a platform for others to get involved. I feel we will inspire “exercise as medicine” more effectively as a team. This is a great way to show the world that having an autoimmune arthritis should not hold people back from achieving their goals and dreams. The calendar will be available for purchase soon. Please visit the HOF website for more information or to support the project.

Another big project for HOF—and possibly my biggest awareness project to date—is my motivational speaking tour in the UK and Europe. I will cycle 5,000 miles through Europe, starting in Edinburgh, Scotland in June and finishing in September. Experienced cyclists can register to join me for multiple legs of my journey. Along the way, I will also be racing in three half-iron distance triathlons and a 61 km ultra trail race in the Swiss Alps.

HOF has partnered with National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society in the UK and 3Mamjy Się Razem in Poland for this project. This project/fundraiser will benefit these organizations, but it will only be successful with the help of volunteers, participants, and sponsors.

If you’d like to join our Racing for a Cure team a little closer to home, we are going to be racing in Challenge Florida in Venice Beach, Florida, on November 8. This is a perfect team to join for your first race, as they offer the option of competing as an individual, aquabike, or as a relay team for the Olympic or 70.3 distance.

There are even races for the kids. I have done this race in the past and it’s a great atmosphere. We have coaching available, as well as some great deals from HOF sponsors and even a team barbecue at the beach. Plus, I will be racing alongside you. On our Racing for a Cure page, you can join our team or find out more information.

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

Post written by Carrie DeVries