Competitive Lifting with Crohn’s Disease

By Rachel Zipsie

Everyone has to start somewhere.  For most people, you don’t wake up one morning and say “Hey, I’m going to go to the gym and start powerlifting today!”  My lifting started with nearly dying multiple times due complications associated with Crohn’s disease and abusing my body for 20 plus years. So yes, I didn’t wake up one morning and start powerlifting. 

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s in September of 1997 as I was being rushed into emergency surgery to remove a mass that had ruptured my small intestine.  I’ll age myself here a bit, but I spent the next 15 years trying to figure out how to deal with and adapt to this illness.  I did this while getting many different suggestions from doctors on how to deal with my state of being sick a lot, multiple blood transfusions, multiple surgeries, malnutrition, long term prednisone use, infections and more.  In 2013, all of that changed when I decided I had tried everything that I could do medically and I began to lift weights, change my diet and lose weight. 

First, I had to get medically cleared to exercise and lift weights.  I had a full range of tests and my heart checked before I really got started.  My health had deteriorated so badly that walking up a flight of stairs caused chest pains, so I played it safe and got checked out.  Once I was given the all clear, I found someone to help me out and get me on the right path. Once I did this, I found that competitive powerlifting was something I wanted to do and knew I had to adapt my lifting and my training to coincide with the challenges that comes with Crohn’s. Most notably the complications from medications and surgeries. 

What’s it like training and competiting with Crohn’s? For me, I try not to let it get in the way of anything.  It’s just part of me and I work around it adapting to my surroundings and the situation.  There are a few things that I’ve learned through trial and error that I think are pretty important. 

Nutrition is key.  This goes without saying as Crohn’s is an immune disease that impacts the entire digestive track, so of course nutrition is going to be important.  I can’t over stress the importance of really understanding your individual needs when it comes to nutrition.  There is so much written about nutrition and various plans and concepts related to weight loss, or gain.  When I started powerlifting, I shifted my focus from loss, or gaining weight to eating for the best performance and providing the best possible nutrition I could given my body’s response to various foods.  Keeping a journal, writing down everything I ate and what the impact was to my energy, my strength, my running to the bathroom, etc. was really important and has paid dividends with keeping me healthy.  The weight goes up and down, according to how well I dial everything in and if I am sticking to what works and making sure my body is handling the food I ingest.  I will say this about nutrition – unless you have done the work studying and documenting how your body responds, you are going to be playing roulette with your training and meet day.  The day before a meet and on meet day, I play it very safe with foods that I know will work for me and my gut.  I try not to divert too far from my daily diet. 

Rachel wearing Inzer Gripper Knee Wraps

Once I had my diet working in my favor, I had to learn to work around prior surgeries and make other considerations related to my health.  I’m going to preface the next part by saying that I did go against medical advice and tested my body a little at a time to see if heavy lifting was going to be a viable option for me.  This is an incredibly personal choice and one that I didn’t take lightly.  I have had 5 abdominal surgeries and had some medical issues that I needed to consider.  Once I decided I was going to test it out and see how things went, I took it very slow and I did inform my doctor of the progress.  He’s since become a big fan of my lifts, even though he was very concerned for my well being to start.  I focused a lot of my work on the McGill Big 3 and other work that allows me to be very focused on checking in with my body, and recovering.

10/20/Life is the absolute perfect type of training process for me.  It allows me to really care for my body, focus on weaknesses and do what I’m capable of instead of over extending myself.  For example, if I am not taking care of myself properly, an RPE of 7 is going to look very different than when I am eating right symptom free.  Additionally, the deload weeks are a huge component to dialing in form and addressing all my rehab  work to make sure things are still in line and I’m not causing more issues for myself. 

The other really important aspect to competing with Crohn’s is attitude. It’s very easy to get frustrated and depressed with any chronic illness.  Sometimes its 10 steps forward and 20 steps back and not really ever knowing if tomorrow I might wake up with new symptoms, or new challenges due to the disease.  This is something very real that I face daily.  I think it’s easy to use the disease as an excuse for not giving 100%, or giving up a little when I knew I could’ve pushed more.  I know I went through this phase of my life during the 15 years dealing with the disease prior to powerlifting.  At some point, I had to flip the switch and make a decision to live like I don’t have the disease and then I had to flip the switch and decide to live my life like a competitive athlete.  I work with purpose and determination and I don’t give the disease any power.  I put all of the energy I have into doing things that help me take more steps forward instead of backward.  Being accountable, owning my health and the treatment I chose to work with rests upon the actions I take each day.  At some point, you must chose not to be a victim of a chronic illness, live each day as it comes and give it 100%. 

Inzer Leviathan Ultra Pro and Single Prong Forever Belt

The results for me have been pretty amazing.  If someone were to tell me I would be a competitive equipped powerlifter back in 2011, I would have laughed out loud and kicked them out of my hospital room. While my experience is not unique, as there are many people out there battling their own issues, I hope that by sharing what it’s like to compete with Crohn’s can help a few people out there get out, compete and live. 

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Rachel Zipsie

Rachel Zipsie

Rachel has been coaching and mentoring for over 20 years in business and sports. In 2014 she met Brian Carroll and began being coached by him shortly thereafter. After competing internationally at the WPC World Championships Portugal in 2015, she decided it was time to convert to equipped lifting. During this time Rachel has become certified in sports nutrition and serves as the resident nutrition coach for Catalyst Training Center, in Grand Rapids, MI where she trains with the Catalyst Power Team.
Rachel Zipsie

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