Running with Asthma

Albuterol Inhaler for Exercise Induced Asthma

Update: There is now a podcast companion to this post. You can listen to it here: Geek Fitness Health Hacks – Episode 001.

Running can be hard. Starting to run can be even harder. Especially if you have asthma.

Howdy. /wave. I’m a runner. And I have asthma. Those two facts are not mutually exclusive.

In general, if you put in the time and effort, you’ll be wearing out those Asics in no time. Just turn on Spotify and Zombies 5k, and you’re just 9 short weeks away from being a certifiable beast.

Unless you have asthma. At which point, what might be a difficult task for most people–such as running–becomes exponentially worse for you.

Lucky for you and me, though, having asthma doesn’t mean you can’t be a runner. It doesn’t mean you can get fit, that you can’t lose weight, that you can’t be a beastly lifter at the gym. All having asthma means is that when exercising, you have to account for your asthma.

Nothing more, nothing less.

[tweet “All having asthma means is that when exercising, you have to account for your asthma. Nothing more.”]

I’m living proof of that. I have a pretty severe case of exercise-induced asthma (EIA), and my typical weekly mileage before my last race was 25-30 miles a week. And then, I had only been running for about 5 months.

But during those 5 months, I learned a lot about running with asthma. And now, I’m okay with my condition.

1. Exercise-induced Asthma is Real.

For some reason, people like to think that exercise-induced asthma doesn’t exist. Despite being diagnosed in roughly 15% of athletes, I’ve gotten a lot of flak from folks when I tell them I have exercise-induced asthma.

A lot of that comes from ignorance, so you can’t blame them. People might see a 310-lb man who runs for 15-30 seconds and then has to take a 5-minute break to catch his breath, and they see a fat guy trying to exercise. From their perspective, I was fat. Of course, I couldn’t run.

That’s not the case, though. EIA affects way more than just obese folks.

Don’t let people shame you into not taking your health seriously. Running while overweight can be tough, but if you have asthma, especially EIA, then it’s not just harder, it’s dangerous. I get being self-conscious about it, but don’t let anyone mock you so that you don’t take the way you feel seriously.

If you think you may have asthma, if your chest feels tight and wheezy when you exert yourself, and you can’t quite catch your breath when you exercise, then see a doctor. Please.

If you do have exercise-induced asthma, you just have to train your body and strengthen your lungs. Just make sure to keep your inhaler nearby–I keep my albuterol inhaler nearby when working out, even though I haven’t had an attack in months.

2. You ARE Different. Train Like It.

A recent talk with my doctor really opened my eyes about how to approach EIA. I had been prescribed an albuterol inhaler and told only to use it when I had an attack. However, when I swithced to a new doc, she told me that it was okay to take a dose before I ran, that she had a swimmer friend who did that, and it made all the difference for her.

So I tried it, and it worked. It was awesome. That first day, I ran longer and could breathe better than I ever had before.

The problem, though, was that I still couldn’t quite hit the intervals I wanted to. I came closer, but I still couldn’t progress as fast as some of the training programs wanted me to.

And again, after a little self-deprecation, I realized that was okay. I wasn’t the program’s target audience. I’m different. I have a medical condition.

In general, my rule of thumb is doubling the length of an interval training program to account for asthma. If a program or app says it can get you into running a 5k in 9 weeks, then you’re probably safe to assume that it would take an asthmatic 18-20.

Don’t feel bad about that, either. You’ll get there. I did.

It might take you longer to hit certain milestones than someone without asthma, but you’re overcoming a lot more than just leg aches, shin splints, and scheduling conflicts to get to the gym, you know?

3. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others.

My wife and I started running at about the same time. Admittedly, she was in better shape than I was, but I wasn’t too far behind, having already lost right at 100 lbs. We both kept approximately the same running schedule, and by the time she was running a solid 2-mile interval in 18-22 minutes, I was just breaking into my first nonstop mile.

And I have to admit that I was pretty bummed out about it. Here I was, in the best shape of my life, and my wife was progressing at double my pace. It was disheartening. I probably got kind of pissy about it.

Until I finally wrapped my head around that she didn’t have asthma. Sure, she was running twice as much as I was, but how did that affect me?

Answer: it didn’t.

So I stopped comparing myself to her and started listening to my own body. I would alter my pace based on how tight my chest felt. Some days, my intervals were 5 minutes long. Other days, they were 10. Sometimes, I had to walk a full 6 minutes before being able to jog for 2.

But in the end, when I stopped thinking of myself as inferior, I was able to push through the asthma and become a runner. In fact, at our first race together, I ran a 27 minute 5k, while my wife did 31 minutes.

I won. (But her trophy is bigger.)

UCP 2012 5K Trophies

You Can Do It. #TheWaterboyVoice

It is definitely possible to be a runner if you have asthma, especially exercise-induced asthma. It’s not just a fallback excuse so fat people can get out of exercise. It’s a legitimate health condition.

If you know how to train for it and take the right precautions, there’s no reason why you can’t become a runner. Sure, you might train slower than some folks. Sure, you might have to slow down and take intervals instead of solidly running for hours. And sure, you might have to keep your handy-dandy inhaler with you wherever you go.

But beating EIA–or rather, learning to live with EIA–has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Dealing with it has made me stronger and more capable. I am in the best shape of my life and doing something I love despite having a major medical issue that many people think is unbeatable.

Asthma is not unbeatable. I promise.

Do you have asthma or exercise-induced asthma? Share your story in the comments!

And be sure not to miss the Geek Fitness Health Hacks Podcast! Click to listen to all the episodes now!

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