Imagine you have a thick milkshake and it comes with of those huge, 7-11 type slurpee straws. You know, the kind with the little spoon on the end? That's normal breathing. Now imagine you have that same thick milkshake and you have to drink it through a skinny cocktail straw or a coffee stirrer. That's what breathing with asthma feels like.
Running is obviously a huge part of my life, and asthma is always there trying to prevent me from doing it. Kind of like your RA in college, just hanging out outside your freshman dorm room door, waiting to pounce as soon as you crack open a beer.
I was diagnosed with allergy and exercise induced asthma in Spring 2012 while training for my second road marathon, the New Jersey Marathon. I remember being on a 14 mile training run at Valley Forge National Park, and the hills felt exceptionally hard. I don't hate hills as much as some people. In fact, I weirdly enjoy running hills. But on this day, I found myself gasping for air at the top of each hill, and not in the normal "hills are hard" kind of way. I literally could not get enough oxygen to my lungs. I finished the run, scared to death, mixed with walk breaks and cry breaks, and I immediately scheduled an appointment with an allergist.
Though all of my immediate family members have dealt with asthma at some point in their lives, I always thought I was the lucky one who got off scot-free. Turns out, you CAN develop asthma at 24. My allergies have worsened considerably since my early twenties, and eventually hit a tipping point that triggered allergy-induced asthma. Combined with prolonged periods of exercise and POOF, I have asthma!
So now I am consistently on a variety of meds, including, but not limited to, Allegra, Nasonex, Singulair, Symbicort, and ProAir. Yikes. But sometimes this litany of meds is still not enough to prevent asthma attacks, so here are a few tips for running successfully with rebellious lungs:
- TAKE YOUR MEDS. I tried for several months to beat the system and avoid taking a lot of my medicine. This crap is expensive! But after many tearful and frustrating runs, I finally bit the bullet. Now I don't miss a day and things are much better. Consistency is key with a lot of allergy/asthma meds, so if you skip days here and there it can have negative consequences over time.
- CHECK THE WEATHER. 99% of the time, my asthma is triggered by exercising in heat and/or humidity. Combine the two and it's definitely going to be a tough run. If possible, schedule your rest days for those 100 degree summer days, or head inside on the treadmill. Likewise, if you are triggered by cold weather, like many asthmatics, run inside during the winter. I know treadmills suck, but asthma attacks are worse.
- GET OUT EARLY. Obviously, in the summer it is cooler in the morning before the sun is high. I hate early runs, but during the summer I try to get out very early when the temps are low and I can breathe. Also, the lower temperatures help you stay hydrated (see next step...)
- STAY HYDRATED. According to a University of Buffalo study, dehydration makes exercise-induced asthma worse. It makes sense. The more dehydrated you are, the drier your throat and lungs are. In turn, an asthmatic's breathing becomes much more difficult. I always try to hydrate a lot more in the summer prior to a run, and if it's above 85 degrees I will definitely carry a handheld water bottle with me, even if it's a short run.
- WARM UP. This is one tip I'm guilty of not practicing often. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and a British study, a proper warm-up of 6-10 minutes prior to vigorous activity should reduce the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma. I usually get out there and run the same pace, so I usually tend to skip a warm-up. However, this type of warm-up would be very helpful before a tempo run, speed workouts, or hill repeats.
- CARRY YOUR RESCUE INHALER. The few times I've gone out on runs without my rescue inhaler are usually the times that I've needed it most. Even if you feel great at the beginning of a run, you never know when an asthma attack might strike. It's better to be safe than sorry, so always tuck your inhaler in your pocket before you leave.
- DO SOMETHING TO HELP. There are plenty of causes and charities out there working to clean up our air and help asthma sufferers. I recently participated in a stair climbing race called the "Fight for Air Climb" (click here for my recap) which was a major fundraiser for the American Lung Association. Find a climbing event in your community by clicking here. If climbing is not your thing, American Lung Association also holds walks, runs, and galas to fight for clean air. Find out more here.
It is possible to run with asthma as long as you know your risks and are well-prepared. If you have any questions about running long distances with asthma, or want to share your asthma story, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .