Everyone has their pre-run rituals. A few stretches, get your watch set and then for me, a couple of puffs on my blue ventolin inhaler. That is because I am asthmatic runner.
Before I continue this post I need to be clear this is just about my journey and if you are wanting to run with asthma, you really should speak with your doctor first.
A Brief History of my Asthma
I’ve been running for almost as long as I can remember. What I do remember though is even as a youngster I would suffer with my breathing. I have distinct memories of doing a track race at the age of about 12 and barely being able to breath at the end. However, despite numerous trips to the doctor, we could never confirm what was wrong. I regularly did a peak flow diary but this showed that while my readings were a bit low, they didn’t show the distinction of asthma. This didn’t bother me too much though as I really didn’t want to have asthma. I had dreams of being a pilot and in my eyes, an asthma diagnosis could kill these dreams. The conditions were always worse in the summer so it was always put down to hayfever.
I then went off to university and took up the sport of rowing. In my first year I was training twice a day and putting a lot of pressure on my body. Then in my second year I was doing a 500m sprint on the ergometer. Halfway through I started to struggle to breath. The second half was completely anaerobic and how I didn’t pass out at the end I don’t know. As I stood outside fighting to breath, I knew it was time to see a doctor again. This time the doctor ran some different tests and the results came back with the diagnosis, Exercise Induced Asthma.
Exercise Induced Asthma (EIA), what is it?
I have to be honest, before I was diagnosed, I’d never heard of exercise induced asthma. Technically the condition is known as Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction as it causes the symptoms of asthma, not asthma itself. Like all other forms of asthma, you experience many of the same symptoms such as a shortness of breath. The main difference being that during a daily basis the symptoms are not as severe. However, when I exercise and I am breathing more quickly, the airways start to narrow and the symptoms of asthma kick in.
Bizarrely this condition is seen to be more prevalent among professional athletes. At the time this was a bit of a badge of honour for me as every amateur athlete surely wishes to be seen as a pro! This is thought to be due to the additional pressures put on the body by continuous exercise. In recent years there have been some criticism leveled at some athletes who have been using asthma medication when suffering from this condition. While I can’t speak for their individual cases, I can definitely vouch for EIA being real. Most articles that you read about EIA do highlight that sports such as distance running are not optimal. But whatever you do, don’t let this put you off as it can be managed.
It is true that running with asthma of any kind can be harder than even some other sports. This is primarily due to the fact that you are outside, breathing in deep breathes of colder, possibly polluted air. All the triggers one needs! However, you can manage it.
How do I run with Asthma?
When I first started running again I was very aware of my breathing. I knew I would need to make the most of every breath I could take. As I ran I would be concentrating on counting out my breathes almost as much as I was on where I was going.
This is not a bad idea at all.
The good news I have found is that as I have run more, this has moved more to my subconscious. Now I only find myself concentrating on my breathing pattern maybe during the last hard 1km. This is no different really to every other part of your running style. The key thing is I know now my body well enough to know if I need to ease off to catch breath or if really needed, stop for a puff on my inhaler. The other thing I do find is that I run along like a basking shark! Mouth wide open, drawing in as much air as I can. I barely ever get a nice picture where I don’t looked pained as a result! It’s also not ideal when running through clouds of flies if running near water!
Sometimes I do start to wonder if my asthma is easing off with all this training. However, all it takes is me chasing after my kids in the park and starting to struggle with my breathing to realise it is still very much there. It almost seems ridiculous that I can happily run a half marathon but then be out of breath after a 200m run after kids. It just shows that preparation is the key.
The serious bit
A couple of years ago, just before Christmas, my brother in law was feeling under the weather. Eventually he was admitted to hospital, primarily to get IV drugs to fight the bug the doctors thought he had.
The following morning I got a call from my Mum to say he was in intensive care and they weren’t sure he was going to pull through. Over night he had suffered a cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated by the doctors and nurses. All of a sudden my sister was at risk of becoming a widow, their young son losing his dad. My brother in law was fit, healthy and only 35 at the time, not an obvious candidate for a cardiac arrest.
Thankfully he pulled through. However, with tests run in his time in ICU, it transpires that he had undiagnosed asthma. His asthma had been made many times worse by the bug that he was suffering from. When he started to struggle to breath it sent him into cardiac arrest.
Every day 3 people die in the UK from asthma and my brother in law could quite easily have been one of those statistics. This episode has really brought home how important managing my own asthma is.
I guess the moral of this story is if you ever find yourself really short or breath and/or wheezing when running, please check it out with your doctor to make sure you don’t become a statistic.
It won’t hold me back though
The important thing though is I have not let my asthma hold me back. Since returning to the sport I have been able to improve my times again and again and I would never have thought I’d be running half marathons, let alone considering full marathons and maybe even ultras when I was struggling to do 3km. For me my condition is manageable and the massive mental health benefits outweigh everything. Getting out and clearing the day from my thoughts makes it all worth it.