Running with Asthma: 3 Things You Should Know

Update: There is now a podcast companion to this post. You can listen to it here:

Running can be hard. Starting to run can be even harder. Especially if you want to start running with asthma.

Howdy. /wave. I’m a runner. And I have asthma, too! Which should tell you that those two facts are not mutually exclusive.

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

But if you’re running with asthma, what might be a difficult task for most people becomes exponentially worse for you.

Running with asthma, however, is not impossible.

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. All running with asthma means is that you have to account for your asthma.

That’s it.

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 between 20 and 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 and failing. 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, and running with asthma, especially EIA, is 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 switched 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. It had 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 twice as fast as I was. 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.)

The trophy I won in my first 5k race, despite running with asthma

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.

Running with asthma–and 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.

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  • I have allergy induced asthma and with my allergies it basically means it’s always affecting me. It definitely spikes when I exercise. I’m not overweight or terribly out of shape, I just don’t have the cardio endurance of a normal person.

    The thing that helped the most was learning to stop comparing myself to others. As soon as I started comparing myself to my past self I felt much better about running and exercising in general. I can’t run as far or as fast as other runners, but as long as I can do better today than I could yesterday I feel good about it.

    • You know as well as I do, that is the hardest lesson to learn. These days I pretty much just compete with myself and go for a PR or just a good run. I am really competitive, but the asthma makes it so that I can be. At least as much as comes naturally. On the flip side, though, it mean that I get a far greater sense of accomplishment.

  • badaza

    I have asthma too and it usually doesn’t affect my life… unless I go walking with my husband. Unconsciously, I try to keep up with him (he is fit, and hits the ground at my jogging speed). After 5 minutes, I’m wheezing and need 30 minutes of very slow walking to recuperate (without medication). If I consciously start at my own speed, after 5-10 minutes, I can accelerate to a good speed for him and I feel like I could walk for miles. So while I want to move and he would be a good motivator to get me out of the door, walking with him is not an option since walking at my speed makes him sigh and generally behave impatiently.

    • When my wife and I go out together, we end up starting a warm up as a pair and then doing our run separately, and then meeting up for a cool down later. We start and finish together but we understand that our actual run won’t be similar. At least in distance.

  • Your poor wife – you do realize that being male gives you a huge advantage over her because of female biomechanics? 😛 Assuming you’re the same age, your times are actually almost the same.

    If you want to compare times, you need to use something like to do it – takes into account age and gender. The male world record over that distance in that age group is 12:55 and the female is 14:48 – huge difference.

    • Ha ha, we do it jokingly. My wife is about 1 foot shorter than I am. So we know that there is no way we will ever be able to be 1:1. The whole winning thing is just am in-joke between the us.

      It worked super-early because I had never run a day in my life. But being as big as I am, and a guy, yeah, we know there’s no way we can see ourselves as exactly the same. It’s just fun to rib each other–I did it faster, but she got the bigger trophy. 😛

  • Great points and tips! It’s always important to remember that everyone has their own obstacles to overcome, especially with physical competitions. When I first started running, and was not yet diagnosed with EIA, I would go with a friend who had also just taken up running. She soon started training for her marathon and I thought I would be able to keep up with her. I could never get past running 2 miles! Within a little over a year of my diagnosis, I ran a marathon! I’m certainly not the fastest runner, but I am out there.

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  • Collene Blain

    Asthma makes breathing difficult for more than 34 million Americans. Asthma symptoms, which include coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness, are common in an asthma attack. Sometimes asthma is called bronchial asthma or reactive airway disease. Asthma in children is on the rise, but with proper treatment for symptoms of asthma, kids and adults can live well. ,..^’

    Our blog site

  • I have learned many lessons running with asthma. One of it is to also listen to my body, especially when I am sick. For most people, if it’s above the chest, the say you can run. I tried that with horrible consequences. Now I know that if I am sick with any respiratory ailment that I need to rest or I will be out way longer than I want to. It’s been a life changing journey, one filled with so much ups and downs.

    • That’s a really good point. I’ve heard the above-the-chest advice too and it doesn’t work for me. I tried that when I had mono earlier this year, and it was a terrible, terrible idea.

      But like you said, it’s a journey, and we have to learn what works for us. Sometimes that’s harder than it is for others, but so be it. 🙂

  • DJ Waters

    I’ve wanted to be a runner my entire life and finally, at 40’something, decided with my life change of becoming healthy and fit, dropping 22 lbs and still dropping (I’m 4’11” –from 152 lbs to 130 lbs currently), running was finally something I would pursue….until I ran a half block and my lungs reminded me I had EIA.

    I’d been walking almost 3 miles 3x a week and just over a mile every morning before work, doing strength training 4x a week, and hadn’t put anything in my body that wouldn’t benefit it. I felt like a machine. Silly me to forget I had asthma. After doing some reading online, I discovered all was not lost, saw my doctor, and was prescribed Abuterol. Problem solved, right?

    Wrong. I thought this meant I would be off and running like everyone else after my first two puffs, 15 minutes prior to running during my walk/warm-up period. As it stands now, I’m 2 full minutes of running, 1:30 walk. I’m frustrated beyond belief, to the point of tears and wonder if I’ll ever be the person who can make even one full mile without stopping. I should mention this has been over a near 9 week period.

    Thanks for listening and for posting your successes here. It’s been inspirational and will certainly help me continue to push forward.

    • Thanks for sharing your story! I struggle with the same thing every day, still. I huff and puff outside and I know the asthma still keeps me behind where I’d be otherwise. The Albuterol helps a lot, but it’s not a magic bullet.

      Just remember to keep it up because it will get easier. I’m still taking water breaks and slower walks while eating gels, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m still running. Same goes for you. You’ll eventually find yourself able to push through for longer distances. Just take it easy and don’t hurt yourself. 😀

    • Brian

      Four years ago I went to the gym after 15 years of no or very little exercise. I hopped on the treadmill and couldn’t make 2 minutes. I define myself as self motivated. It took me one year to run one mile I weighed about 265 lbs 5’11”. It took me 2 years to run 2 miles straight still very difficult running on average 3 days a week. I had heart to heart with runner who said if you don’t run 4 days a week u won’t see any gains. 4 years in I run 5 miles minimum 4 days a week. Put your head down and one foot in front of the other no matter how slow you’ll get there. Do same mileage 3-5 times then bump it up .1 miles for 3-5 times then bump it up .1 miles. You’ll get there I promise but it’s a journey.

  • DJ Waters

    Your encouragement came at just the right time and meant more than you know. Thanks so, so much. I’ll stick it out–I want it too much. My best to you.


  • Pam

    My doctor prescribed Symbicort inhaler to use about 15 minutes before I run or exercize. It works well for me (lots better than Albuterol). I started out super slow and used the c25k at first. I now still walk 100M or so when necessary in my two mile run if I can’t catch my breath. For me running in cold air is easier than in warm moist air. Running in the heat is misery for me so I try to do it early morning or late at night. Best run is in the rain!!

  • I have had chronic asthma since childhood, and nearly every time i run it stops in to say hello. But you are right, you simply have to be aware of it and deal with it accordingly. Nice post 🙂

  • Wendy

    I have asthma since I am a young child. Now I’m 36 and I can say I only have EIA. The rest of the time there is no problem. I use Symbicort twice a day and I have Salbutamol for the times I really need it (which is almost never).

    For years now I wanted to start running but I was to scared to do so (since I tried once and failed terribly because of my EIA). Last Saturday I started (here in the Netherlands) with a group and two trainers. I completed the training but my EIA was there again and made it really hard for me. Tomorrow will be my second “homework” training and I’ll have to admit I’m a little scared. I really want this to work so I hope I can learn to control my breathing.

    Tnx for your article!

  • Teja Bitra

    Hi there. Your story is inspiring. Thank you.
    I had a medical condition a few years before. I have (had) pleural empyema. I cannot run longer than ten seconds. Moreover,at the back of the mind I feel very self-conscious, which makes me to avoid public places. I have gained a lot of weight since then. I want to run again. Just tell me wether is it possible or not. Just want some ray of hope at the other end of the tunnel. Thanks a lot for inspiration though.

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