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Running with Asthma

This blog is about running with asthma.  My first experience of asthma and running is probably like most people’s. Someone in their class at school had an asthma attack during a P.E. Lesson. They dropped out of the lesson, only to return to another lesson, maybe art, later in the day.  This is termed exercise induced asthma. And for those who don’t know about asthma, you may start to believe that people with asthma shouldn’t exercise, and certainly shouldn’t run.  Not true.  Read on to learn more.

What is asthma?

According to Asthma UK, Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the tubes carrying air in and out of your lungs.

In the UK, around 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for asthma. That’s one in every 12 adults and one in every 11 children. Asthma affects more boys than girls. Asthma in adults is more common in women than men.

I was diagnosed with asthma about 5 years ago. It was a bit of a shock, although there was a family history.  I sought medical help because each night when I’d go to bed and lie down to sleep I’d start coughing and struggle to breath, so it was really affecting my sleep.  My trigger was probably dust mites in my pillow that hadn’t been replaced for quite some time.

As a runner, I use my lungs quite a lot, so this was pretty shocking, but then I didn’t feel that I had any problems for the vast majority of the time.  Just rarely, when I had an attack, or an exacerbation, as the medics call it, I would struggle to run the next day as my airways were sore from the inflammation.  We discussed the possibility of exercise induced asthma, and other than when I had pushed really hard in a 2km erg test on the rowing machine, I didn’t recall any time when exercise and asthma-like symptoms were linked.  Phew!

Getting diagnosed

The process of diagnosis is very scientific.  When I described symptoms that sounded like asthma, I was given  2 prescriptions – one of a drug in a blue inhaler, known as a reliever, that I was to take in case I had an attack, and one of a peak flow meter, which is a plastic device used to measure my lung capacity.

Over the course of 30 days, I was to measure my peak flow reading in the morning and in the evening, and if I felt an attack, I was to take my reliever inhaler.  If there was more than a 10% variation in lung capacity, then I would be diagnosed with asthma.

The next step was to determine how severe.  As I needed to take the blue reliever inhaler more than twice in a week, it was determined I would need other medication to control my symptoms.  For this, I was given a brown inhaler that I would take morning and evening, alongside brushing my teeth.  For me, this was the scariest part.  An all round healthy person having to go onto long term medication.  I really struggled to come to terms with this, and asked lots of questions, but ultimately the medication would give me the best quality of life. The risks of the medication are far far outweighed by the risks of having constantly inflamed airways –If your asthma is poorly managed, you could start to get scar tissue buildup in your lungs, reducing their capacity.  

Running with Asthma? Is it safe?

When I tell friends and family I have asthma, and they know me as someone who runs marathons all the time they’re surprised, but, as Local GP Dr. Stuart Rudge says, “The aim of asthma treatment is to have no symptoms”.

As a runner with asthma, how can we fulfil this aim?  We tend to run year round in different climates and environments, so there can be all sorts of triggers for our asthma if we’re not careful.  What can we do so that none of these triggers turn into an attack, especially when out running.

Jacqueline Rudge, who is an asthma nurse says that she always encourages exercise – good news for us runners.  “Asthma shouldn’t stop you from doing anything you want to”, but she also warns not to run if the asthma isn’t under control.  Paula Radcliffe and David Beckham are just a couple of elite athletes who have the condition.  There really is no reason to let it stop you.  But, there are times when it can, so here are some tips to help reduce that likelihood:

  1. If your asthma is exercise induced then preempt the risk by taking your reliever in advance of exercise, as directed by your asthma nurse.
  2. The same goes if you are going into situations where you know you’re at risk – for example if you’re visiting someone with pets who always trigger your asthma – take a reliever in advance.
  3. Always take your preventer medications as directed by your healthcare professionals, and also make sure the prescriptions are up to date. You may wish to try an app like Echo to set reminders for when you need refills.
  4. If you are triggered by pollen in the summer, it may be best to check the pollen count and choose to run at times when the pollen count is lower, OR, if you can, find a nice air conditioned gym to run in.  Jacqueline Rudge says you may want to add on another medication as well, such as an antihistamine.
  5. In the winter, breathing in the cold air can be a trigger – if you wear a facemask, the air inhaled has a chance to warm up a bit before it hits your airways – I use a buff over my nose and mouth when running in winter.  This may help. Or again, choose to run when the conditions aren’t quite so extreme.
  6. Always carry your reliever inhaler with you, and consider wearing a medical alert bracelet as well.
  7. If you have an attack, work with your healthcare professional to try to understand why. Are you taking your medications? Are you taking them correctly? Is the dosage appropriate? Is there a way of limiting your exposure to whatever is the trigger.

The sign of a good asthma management plan is that you aren’t aware of any limitations because of your asthma. When asthma is well managed, you don’t need to change your lifestyle because of it.

Thank you to Jacqueline Rudge, my asthma nurse, and Dr. Stuart Rudge who is a GP for their contribution to this article.  If this has brought up questions for you about your asthma, or whether you might have asthma, please make an appointment with your local GP surgery.

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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