What it is actually like to run with asthma

Since I have asthma, running was difficult when I first started.  I started by using running/walking intervals to slowly build up my endurance.  I know I have to push myself if I’m going to get stronger.  The difficult part is knowing how far I can push myself to keep improving without triggering an asthma attack.  I don’t mind being out of breath every once in a while but I prefer to avoid triggering my asthma.

Regular shortness of breath: If you start working out harder than your fitness level can handle, you are going to get out of breath.  Your body needs you to breath deeper and faster to meet the higher oxygen demands for whatever your activity is.  If you took a break, you would be able to quickly catch your breath.

Asthma attack:  When you have an asthma attack, you may feel like you are short of breath but there is more going on.  During an asthma attack, it actually becomes physically harder to breath.  The bronchioles bringing the air from your mouth to where the oxygen is absorbed become inflamed and thickened and mucus starts building up.  Air gets trapped in the alveoli, which are basically air pockets where oxygen is transferred from the air into the body’s cells. If you take a break from activity during an asthma attack, you won’t be able to quickly catch your breath.  You are going to need a rescue inhaler to relax the smooth muscles of the bronchioles to make it easier to breath.

What the bronchioles look like with and without asthma.  Imagine how much more air you can get through the one on the left compared to the one on the right.

What the bronchioles look like with and without asthma. Imagine how much more air you can get through the one on the left compared to the one on the right.

Having asthma my whole life, I have learned how the sensations of the experiences are different.  I can’t quite put it into words but asthma from allergies feels different to me than asthma from exercising.  Both of those feel different from the point in running where I need to focus on my breathing.  Knowing the subtle differences had been helpful in keeping me safe while I exercise.

While I run, I pay special attention to not push myself over what I like to call “the edge.”  It’s a feeling that I get when I am running harder where I know that if I don’t back off I will have an asthma attack.  I start to get a sense of overall tightness in my chest, sometimes with a more acute feeling.  For me, this usually happens when I sprint or run uphill.  Once I cross over “the edge,” the only thing that will make me breath normal again is my rescue inhaler.

This is probably why I haven’t liked running with anyone yet.  My pace is pretty slow and anyone I have run with (ok, there have only been two people so far) has tried to push me to go faster without understanding the delicate balance I have to maintain.  I would rather run slower and finish than try to run faster and have to stop immediately.

When I first started running, I used interval training to alternate between a steady run and walking.  I gradually increased the running time while decreasing the walking time.  With that base level of fitness, I am now able to go out and just run.  The half marathon training plan I am following doesn’t include intervals for speed work.  I am fine with that now because I think the distance challenge is enough for me.  I am able to go at a steady pace that feels comfortable on my lungs for all of my runs.

In the long run, I know I am going to have to face hills and speed work head on if I want to keep improving my respiratory health.  I might through a few sprints into my easy runs while I keep training.  Once the race is over (and I let myself relax for a while) I am going to switch it up by trying to bring down my 5k time.  As tough as it will be, I think it will be so worth the challenge.

What health challenges do you face while running or exercising?  How do you adjust your workouts around that?

5 thoughts on “What it is actually like to run with asthma

  1. That’s a tough spot to be in right there – most of us don’t require an intimate relationship with our doctor to exercise, let alone having to keep such a constant vigil on how we breathe! Our disconnect lies in the fact that if we want to run faster, we have to push harder – you can’t do that without triggering an attack, and I guarantee you that most people will think that if you just push that edge more, or if you “train like us”, you’re going to increase your resistance to triggering the attack.

    Keep it up and stay safe.

    • The two people I have run with (my boyfriend and my sister) are both really athletic, without asthma, and didn’t understand when I said go slow, like really SLOW! I’m just running by myself for now until I can find a running buddy more my level!
      I’ve been reading about a lot of people with injuries or just recovering from them that know they need to take it slower while they recover. I’ve also read some where they push harder than they are supposed and end up hurt again. Thankfully, asthma stops me right in my tracks before I get going too hard but still lets me go out again the next day 🙂
      Thank you!

  2. I also run with asthma and while it’s pretty well controlled right now, it hasn’t always been. Two years ago I began running after a two year hiatus. That summer I was training with my then-husband and I remember him specifically saying, after watching me struggle with asthma, that he would never wish it upon his worst enemy. If it’s controlled, it’s barely noticeable, but that summer I was switching preventative medications, which actually caused my asthma to get worse – I would routinely spend 3 hours every morning coughing before I could clear my lungs enough to run. It’s hard to put into words the feeling (both physical and emotional) what it’s like to have to deal with that – thank you for doing just that.

    • I’m cringing because I can only imagine the frustration you felt at the time. That is so awesome that you still did what you had to do to run. I wish I would have started sooner! And I’m so glad your asthma is well controlled now!
      My sister got home from her run this afternoon and told me again that I just have to “push myself.” UGHH! Add that to the emotional side of it!

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