MS and running: Everything you need to know

Whether you are a running beginner, or are an experienced runner adapting to an MS diagnosis, here is a guide to get you out running, if that's your chosen form of exercise.

runners

Everyone knows that running can be a rewarding and effective form of exercise. You can do it from your own doorstep, wherever you live, it’s free (once you’ve invested in a sturdy pair of running shoes) and there’s nothing better than getting out in the open. It can do wonders for your mental and physical health and boost your vitamin D levels.

However, it’s often easier said than done. For many people, one tap of the snooze button or a morning shower of rain is enough to throw their best intentions off course, and before long, weeks have gone by without a run. Others just feel that they’re not built for it – they didn’t enjoy running laps around the field at school, so why would they put themselves through it now?

For those of us living with MS, there are extra hurdles to overcome. We all have our good days and bad days – the Overcoming MS community is here to support you through both – and on the bad days staying active is often the last thing on our minds. 

Everyone has a different experience of MS, and running might not be compatible with your MS symptoms or you may be unable to run due to mobility issues, but all forms of exercise can help you on the road to a more positive and fulfilling lifestyle. You don’t have to be running great distances either – any amount of running can make a real difference. Here’s why running is a great tool to equip you for your MS journey…

Running and your MS symptoms

There are certain symptoms of MS that can put you off running, and it can often be surprising how even a gentle physical exercise program can start to help improve these symptoms.

MS fatigue 

Some of the most common features of MS fatigue include heaviness in the limbs, and the feeling of being as tired in the morning as you are when you went to sleep. 

If you find that you are affected by MS fatigue, it is important to begin with short, gentle runs that combine jogging and walking, in order not to place too much strain on your muscles too quickly. You should also plan your running (and any exercise) around periods of the day when you feel you have more energy – even when these don’t seem like the most natural time to go running. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t do it the moment you’re out of bed!

MS spasticity

MS spasticity stems from damage to the nerves of the brain and spinal cord, and can affect any muscle in your body – making them feel heavy, stiff and difficult to move. Spasticity in the leg muscles is a clear obstacle to running and our bodies are so interconnected that any sort of muscle pain can be enough to put you off.

Running is possible if you have MS spasticity. It’s about knowing your symptoms and listening to your body when it tells you it can’t exercise today, but even on good days stretching thoroughly pre-run is especially important. Keeping your joints, muscles and ligaments flexible will both ease pain and help you feel able to exercise.

MS gait

Among the most common elements of the symptom known as MS gait are problems with balance and feeling hesitant, unsteady and prone to stumbling. On bad days this can make walking, let alone running, feel like an insurmountable challenge.

However, while your instinct might be to move less as a result of MS gait, staying active is a key way to manage the condition – and ensure that it doesn’t dictate your life. If you set yourself realistic, attainable running goals then there is no reason why a gentle jog shouldn’t make you feel great.

MS tingling and numbness

The feeling of ‘pins and needles’ can affect any part of your body with MS, but it is particularly common to feel this sensation in your arms and legs, which seems to put physical exercise out of the question when you’re experiencing the symptom.

A healthy and active lifestyle plays a role in managing symptoms of MS, and not only can walking help relieve tingling pains, but a gentle run at your own pace can help too.

MS heat intolerance

Many people find that heat can aggravate their MS symptoms, so make sure that in warm weather you plan your run for a cooler time of day. Use a cooling vest or cooling beads or, if you can’t get those, simply pouring water on yourself as you run can help you stay cool if you suffer in the heat.

We all get hot and sweaty when we run, but if you’re especially sensitive to heat then running on a treadmill indoors could help. If there’s air-con in your home then it’s easier to stay cool, and you can stop whenever you’ve had enough instead of having to get back home. Plus, you can watch TV in order to distract yourself while you’re running!

Aqua jogging is also a great way to stay cool while taking part in what can be a surprisingly intense workout, so ask your local swimming pool whether there are any classes running. It will get your heart rate up and your muscles working, without the impact that pounding the pavement can have on your body.

Why running can help with MS

For those of us with MS, running is as much a gateway to a healthy, happy life as it is for anyone else. It’s important not to feel that certain forms of physical exercise are out of reach, and you’ve only got to read an inspirational story like Brad’s or Elzina’s to see for yourself.

Exercise of any kind brings with it tangible benefits for your lifestyle and wellbeing, so you shouldn’t hesitate to start exploring different types to find what works for you – however much or little you take part in. If you enjoy running, whether it’s a jog around the park or a marathon, there is evidence which shows that it can:

  • Significantly improve function and fitness in people with mild MS

  • Maintain function in people experiencing moderate to severe MS symptoms

  • Improve muscle power and exercise tolerance 

  • Improve your mood and general wellbeing

  • Help boost the proteins that repair neurons

  • Prevent cognitive decline and brain shrinkage with age

  • Reduce depression and improve your quality of life

  • Modify the course of your MS through a neuroprotective effect 

  • Correct ongoing physical problems caused by MS

Running for an MS charity

Of course, running doesn’t only present an opportunity to stay on top of your MS symptoms and feel stronger, healthier and happier. You can also run for the MS community by taking part in a sponsored running event for an MS charity like Overcoming MS.

You don’t have to spend months or years training, as the events you can take part in range from short jogs to ultramarathons and everything in between. For example, you could sign up for:

  • A 5k run

  • A 10k run

  • A half marathon (13.1 miles)

  • A marathon (26.2 miles)

  • A mud or obstacle course

Raising money to help combat MS gives you the chance to meet other members of the MS community, support one another and feel great both physically and mentally as a result of taking positive action. However much cash you raise and whatever type of event you put your running shoes on for, you can be sure that you’re helping to make life more fulfilling and rewarding for people just like you. Get involved today and find out more.

Other exercises that can help with MS

Of course, it’s not all about running. If you’ve got mobility issues, if you don’t feel able to run or if you simply don’t enjoy it, there are plenty of exercises you can do at home or out and about. Use our guide to find the right level for you. 

More advice for getting motivated

You don’t have to feel like you’re tackling the challenge of running on your own. There are some great fitness apps like Couch to 5k, which can help you formulate a step-by-step plan for those all-important first few weeks of running.  

Joining a running club or taking part in local events like a Parkrun can make all the difference – these cater to all abilities and you won’t feel left behind if you’re struggling. Running with a friend is also a great way to stay in the habit – being accountable to somebody else means that you’re both more likely to make the effort, even on days when you don’t feel like it. 

Inspirational running stories

For an extra motivational boost, take a look at Roma’s journey from MS diagnosis to winning the Antarctic Ice Marathon. 

Alex’s story also details how running numerous marathons and an ultramarathon has helped him to overcome his MS diagnosis. You can listen to him talk about it here.