Athlete Rhys shares what he’s learnt about training with axial spondyloarthritis

09 May 2024
Smiling Rhys at starting line on race track

Rhys, who lives in Newport, was diagnosed with axial spondyloarthritis (AxSpA) when he was 18.  

Now 21 years old, Rhys is training to be a sprinter specialising in the 100 and 200 meters. From opening up about his condition to stretching more, Rhys tells us what he has learnt so far. 

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Being diagnosed with AxSpA  

Rhys looking contemplative in a park wearing a red-ish jumperAxSpA is a type of autoimmune inflammatory arthritis where the immune system, which is the body’s natural self-defence system, attacks the spine and sometimes the joints causing stiffness, pain and in some cases damage.  

AxSpA was previously referred to as ankylosing spondylitis, and some people still call it this.  

Before Rhys was diagnosed with AxSpA, he didn’t feel many symptoms. He simply went to the GP thinking he had a strain on his back from exercising.  

“I was going to have an x-ray, but I was too young so I had an MRI,” says Rhys. “It was lucky it was spotted otherwise I still wouldn’t know.  

“I was shocked. I hadn’t really experienced the symptoms to a point where I’d think I had arthritis. But afterwards I started connecting the dots. I always had a sort of stiffness but I thought it was down to playing sports. There were times in school where I’d be limping for no apparent reason.” 

Rhys’s first flare up 

The most common symptom of AxSpA is pain and stiffness in the back, particularly first thing in the morning, after resting, and during the night. Being woken by back pain during the night – especially the second half of the night – is an important symptom that should lead to investigation for AxSpA. 

People may also experience fatigue, joint pain, and pain or tightness in the chest. 

Rhys had experienced back pain and stiffness for a while, but only had his first flare up recently. He says it was “very painful.” 

“I couldn’t do the training I normally do or have the same range of movement,” Rhys says. “I was put on the emergency list for my back and went to the GP and got given some medicines to help manage it. I’ve been taking TNF inhibitor medicines for the last two years as well.” 

Adapting to life with AxSpA 

Rhys has been competing in sports from the age of three. He grew up in Spain and played basketball competitively. Now, he lives in Wales, and is both at university and training to become a sprinter.  

“My life right now is very much train, work, train, sleep, eat,” he says. “It’s not ideal but if I want to be an athlete and do sports, it’s what I have to do to be at that level.” 

Still, coming to terms with his condition wasn’t easy. Rhys took some time out of university to get his head around it all.    

“I didn’t fully know how to manage the pain, training, and how to balance it in addition to uni,” he says. “I wasn’t sleeping and didn’t have any energy. I didn’t know how to train with arthritis.  

“It was lucky that I was at university so I could take that time to work out how to live again.” 

Read our tips on going to university if you have arthritis


Learning to train with AxSpA 

Taking the time out of university helped Rhys to feel better in himself and learn how to train with his condition.  

“It was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I figured out very fast that I’d need full mobility because I have the arthritis in my spine and hip. The first step was to stretch a lot, and make sure my back, knees and ankles are strong enough to support me in case anything does happen, so my body is able to cope.  

Rhys also works on strengthening his muscles to support his running.  

“Training for sprinting now is working on my back and abs to make sure they support me,” he says. “It is imperative that I make sure I strengthen any muscle around the affected areas to be able to cope better. 

“Because I’m still relatively new to sprinting, the plan with my coach is to get ‘track fit’. I’m already fit, but for sprinting I need to increase my fitness and make sure my body can cope with going all out for the full distance of the sprint. 

“Basing my life around the fact I need to train and recover for sports goes hand in hand with taking care of my body with arthritis,” he says. “There’s a lot of crossovers with the two.” 

Opening up about his condition  

Rhys wearing red hoody sitting on park benchTalking about your health isn’t always easy. Until recently, Rhys has been hesitant to tell people about his condition – particularly when it comes to sports.  

“I’d always been scared of talking about it,” he says. “I didn’t want to tell my coach. If they figured out an athlete at my level has arthritis, would my training have to change, would I be treated differently?  

“I told him in front of the team. He was surprised as hell to be fair - I’m the most mobile out of the team! But he was fine with it.” 

Rhys was worried that talking about his condition might impact the way he was viewed as an athlete.  

“Whether accurate or not, you’ll be seen as very injury prone,” he says. “People think you’ll have to take time off training or won’t be able to take the same load as anyone else.  

“But it doesn’t have to be the end. If you manage your body properly and you prioritise your stretching, you should be able to do it. Of course, there will be some people who have it worse than me, but you have to judge it yourself.  

“I want to show people that you don’t have to stop if you don’t want to.”

Rhys, 21, who lives with axial spondyloarthritis

Exercising with AxSpA  

As an athlete, Rhys does a lot more than the average amount of physical activity, and this works for him. But the rest of us who aren’t quite so athletic can still benefit from moving more. This is particularly true if you have arthritis, such as AxSpA. 

Keeping active can really help manage the symptoms of AxSpA. Exercises such as daily stretching can improve spinal mobility, physical function and pain, and can also help boost your mood and confidence.  

Everyone is different, and the most important thing is to listen to your body. By starting slowly and building up, you’ll learn what’s right for you. If you’re not sure how to get started, you might want to ask for help from a physiotherapist or fitness professional.  

In becoming a successful athlete, Rhys hopes to raise awareness of arthritis and show that people with long-term conditions can still do amazing things.  

“There isn’t much mainstream media coverage for arthritis. People don’t really know what it is. I hope to try and change that."

Rhys, 21, who lives with axial spondyloarthritis

“[People with arthritis] may need to make some sacrifices, but it doesn’t have to stop us from doing what we want to do.” 

Connect with our services 

If you are a young person with arthritis, Versus Arthritis runs a Young People and Families (YPFS) service. It  provides information and support for people under 25 who have arthritis and their families, including putting on a range of events across the country.

Connect with other young people


Versus Arthritis offers a range of services to help people with arthritis to become more active. Try Let’s Move with Leon, join our Let’s Move Facebook group, or sign up to our free Let’s Move newsletter.