Running with Asthma 101


As you can tell, I'm an asthmatic runner. In fact I've been struggling with asthma since I was two, and I've picked up a few tips and tricks along the way. I started blogging partly because I was so frustrated with the lack of useful information when it came to working out with (and specifically running with) asthma and I wanted to fix that. You should always talk to your doctor when you're struggling, but here's my personal (ie take it with a grain of salt) Running with Asthma 101:

How to Prevent and Survive the Wheeze:
Here are some of the basic tips I've got for running with asthma.

  • Wear a medical ID. This is seriously important. As you know, when you have an attack, you can't always speak clearly. It's important to always have important information on you, so that if something goes wrong you can get the help you need. 
  • Tell a friend. Whenever you leave for a run, tell a friend where you are going to be running, how long you expect to be gone. I always estimate how long I'll be there and say "If I don't call you by _______, call me. If I don't answer, come looking and call for help."
  • Be aware of your triggers and avoid them. For example, pollen is a huge trigger for me, so I move my workout indoors if the pollen count is high. 
  • Take care of your body. Asthma causes fatigue and fatigue can cause asthma. Get plenty of sleep and if you have a serious attack, take a break from working out to recover. If you don't give your body the rest it needs, you will end up causing more asthma, which causes more fatigue, which...you get the idea.
  • Be careful after races. If you run long distances, be extremely cautious after the race. In my experience, for about 24-48 hours after a race my asthma is a lot more "fragile" and I'm more likely to have an attack, so I try to be aware of that and make sure to avoid triggers. 
  • Avoid cold beverages. Cold drinks are so bad for asthmatics. If you can drink lukewarm to hot water or drinks. When I'm on the verge of an attack, especially if it involves a cough, I can sometimes prevent it with a glass or two of hot water. 
  • Drink plenty of Gatorade. Every asthmatic athlete I know seems to be more prone to muscle cramps and charlie horses. I get them really bad in my hands and feet, and even while running. For me large quantities of gatorade are the only thing that has helped me with that. And after races I noticed, its even more important to get in those electrolytes. 

How to Breathe:
People always ask if there are special techniques you should use to breathe while running with asthma. My best advice is to focus on breathing deep in your stomach. The most effective breathing comes from your diaphragm, not your chest. One good way to try this out, is to pay attention to how you breathe right before you fall asleep. Your shoulders don't raise up when you take a deep breath, your stomach pushes out. This is ideally how you should breathe when you're running too. It's really geeky, but I sometimes even put my hand on my stomach when I'm struggling to breathe correctly because it helps me to focus. Another thing to try is pursed lip breathing. My mom is a nurse and she gave me a great tip: exhale through pursed lips like you're blowing out a candle. This is called pursed-lip breathing. When you inhale try to do so through your nose. I know most asthmatics have allergies, and often clogged noses, so it's ok if you can't. Inhaling through your nose acts as a humidifier and makes the air less irritable to the air passageways. When you exhale, purse your lips like you're blowing up a balloon. It will help regulate your breathing and keep you from chest pains. 


How to Run:
This is the second most asked question I get: "Do you have a specific technique/plan you follow when running?". Why yes I do! I'm a STRONG believer in the Galloway method of running. If you haven't read about it, you should. His plans are great for anyone, but are perfect for asthmatics. The basic idea is that you run/walk intervals. I wrote a post on it before, so I won't bore you with too many details, but I will say it's well worth it. I've met him personally at an expo, and talked to dozens of runners, asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike, that have told me how much his method of running has changed their life for the better. For asthmatics following this plan, my biggest tip is to use your walk intervals to really walk. No speed walking! This gives your lungs a little time to recover so that you can push more in your run intervals. I promise your average pace will be faster if you are actually recovering during those times. 


How to Avoid Head Games:
I think the hardest part of asthma is the head games we play with ourselves. Some of that comes from your body naturally reacting to a lack of oxygen, but it also comes from the emotional (non-chemically-induced) stress that asthma creates. Here are a few tips to avoid the stress.

  • Train for distance NOT pace or Time. Distance is a goal any asthmatic can reach, somedays faster than others. Some asthmatics may be able to be 1st place finishers when they have their asthma under control, but for others, like me speed is a goal that is unrealistic and unhealthy. If you base your progress off of a variable that is unreliable and changes with the weather (speed) rather than one that better reflects your hard work (distance) you are bound to get discouraged. Pick a goal distance and shoot for it, rather than a time goal to avoid frustration. 
  • Set easy to reach goals and follow through with them. Goals are helpful for anyone, but I feel like when you have something extra to discourage you (like asthma) goals become even more important.
  • Congratulate yourself often. You rock! Just getting out there and trying is worth a major pat on the back. When you feel yourself getting down, take a minute to step back and realize how far you've come and how hard you've worked. It's easy to get caught up in the "right now" when things aren't going well, but if you step back and think about the positive it isn't so bad. 
  • Flaunt your wheeze. Constantly trying to cover up how you're feeling during a workout only makes things harder. Be yourself. Wheeze if you need to, complain if you want to. Most runners and athletes will really embrace you for trying to overcome your health problems anyways. Don't worry what others think because if they care they aren't the kind of people you want to be around anyways. This may be a little extreme and geeky for others, but I even have a shirt that says "asthmatic runner" on it and I swear when I wear it I feel so much better because everyone comes up to me and asks about it. Instead of feeling self-conscious about something, it's like I turn it into something to be proud of. 
  • Run for you. Don't run for anyone but yourself and your health. If you stay in that mindset that you are running to improve your health and well-being, the rest seems insignificant. 
  • Race for a cause. Whenever I'm getting really pouty and throwing myself a pity party, I think about whatever cause I'm racing/training to race for. Most races are for charity, and when you're running for amputees that can't afford proper prosthetics, it's really hard to feel sorry for yourself because you can't PR. Look at the big picture. 
How to Help a Friend with Asthma:
You may not have asthma, but your friend/daughter/son/loved one does and you'd like to help out, but have no clue what to do. Here's what really helps us wheezers:
  • Quit smoking! The number one thing you can do to help out asthmatics is not to smoke. Studies now show even third-hand smoke (ie if you smoke in another room then interact with them without changing your clothes) can cause serious breathing problems. Please please please don't smoke. 
  • Be supportive. Like I said before, asthma is so hard mostly because of the stress it causes. Try to be understanding of the issues they are struggling with like: being self conscious of their illness, struggling with their limitations, struggling to learn where/what their limitations are, being tired and worn out, fear about their health, fear about looking dumb/slow/lazy, physical pain, and a lot more. A little encouragement goes a long way.
  • Be aware. Asthma isn't just wheezing. It can cause chest pain, back pain, neck pain, coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, weakness, fatigue, emotional distress, anxiety, paleness, and blue coloring especially in hands fingernails and lips. In addition to that, most asthmatics I know, myself included, experience frequent muscle cramps and charlie horses. Then, there is also the issue of the anxiety from an attack causing the person to hyperventilate and a whole new list of symptoms becomes a problem. Be aware of these symptoms, and try to help ease them as much as possible. 
  • Know what to do during an attack. Everyone is different and depending on the age of your friend/loved one they may want you to do different things. Talk to your friend/loved one about what they would like you to do if an attack happens. Here's my general advice for handling attacks:
    • Call help if they need it. 911 or family are usually who they want depending on the severity of the attack. 
    • Stay calm. It is incredibly easy to panic during an attack; so, if you are panicking, you are making things worse. Relax and take a deep breath with your friend. Try to help them breath slowly, because asthmatics have a tendency to hyperventilate during attacks (it's a natural reaction to not being able to breath) and cause further complications. 
    • Make them comfortable. Attacks are hard work. After running half marathons, I can honestly say an attack wipes me out more than running 13 miles. You're entire body is sore and tired. Don't lay them down as that often makes it harder to breathe, but put them in a comfortable chair or in a bed propped up. 
Cool Stuff for Wheezers:
  • RoadID Medical ID Bracelets - These things are awesome for running and help keep you safe. I never run without mine. 
    • My Shirts - I made these mainly to wear myself at expo, but then got into making more designs. Check them out and flaunt your wheeze!
    • iFitness Belts - These are running belts to carry stuff with you while you run, like your inhaler. Some of them even have pockets specifically for inhalers. These are great and don't bounce at all.