Jan 19, 2015

Running With Asthma (or something like it)

I don't have asthma.  Just to be clear.  What I do have is Exercise Induced Respiratory Ailment (EIRA), which I always thought sounded kind of bogus.

At some point in elementary school, we saw a doctor about my wheezing, and he told us about EIRA, which is better for insurance benefits than asthma, and gave me an inhaler.

I hated the inhaler.  And I thought my lung disorder was fake.  I mean, everyone wheezes when they're out of shape and try to run, right?  So I didn't use it and, for the most part, I was fine.  When I ran more frequently, my lungs improved, and when I stopped, they'd get bad again.

Flash forward to high school.  I was running on the treadmill and I was pushing myself.  Naturally, I was gasping and wheezing like I always do when I near the end of my capacity.  Sister2 was in the workout room with me, and she seemed concerned.  I forget what she said, but something like, "Don't push yourself too hard."

Too hard?  What does that even mean?  You run until you don't feel like it or your lungs close up and you can't breathe anymore.  There's no "too hard."

At some point we discussed it, and she said my breathing scared her.  I explained that after a certain point, my lungs don't fill all the way and I can't take a full breath until I cool down again.  I assumed she'd nod and agree that that's how lungs worked, but she didn't.  She didn't know what I was talking about.  That was the first time I realized EIRA is a real thing.

After a research project in high school on "asthma" I know a little bit more about it.  2 things can happen: either the muscles around the lungs tighten and constrict airflow, or the lung tissues swell, creating a smaller chamber for air to flow.

I don't know which mine do.  It doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that my lungs do it and I have to take that into account when I exercise.

Now, as far as EIRA vs asthma, I'm really lucky.  EIRA is only caused by physical activity (just cardio, really) and it's very predictable.  I don't need an inhaler to fix it, and it's perfectly manageable as long as I focus on taking deep breaths for as long as I can while running, and work my way up gradually.

Most of my adult life (thus far), I've pretty much ignored it.  I've been in shape (for me), out of shape, and varying degrees in between, and my lungs have done what I expected.  There were, however, a couple times that they failed me and it scared me a bit.

Lung Failure 1

The first one was the Reindeer Run last year.  It was pouring, and cold (obviously), and I pushed myself and finished with 11 minute miles.  When I stopped, I was still breathing pretty hard, trying to calm my body down until my lungs could function normally again.  They were still struggling when we entered the tent to get some soup and water.  As we inched through the crowd, and waves of steam and humidity rose over us, my lungs decided to close most of the way and I started to get light headed.

I was fine once I got out of the tent, but it was a little touch and go for a minute there.  I decided my lungs could not handle being pushed so hard, with that combination of humidity, and decided not to worry about it.

Lung Failure 2

Remember the 5 Miler?  I mentioned this briefly.  Basically, I had to push myself really hard to finish that thing, and when I stopped, all that adrenalin that had kept me going just pooped out, my lungs freaked out and I spent 5 minutes pacing back and forth desperately trying to inhale a full breath of air.  Sister2 explained this phenomenon to me, which is good, because I didn't know what was going on at the time (basically, sometimes while you're running the adrenaline is working to make it easier for you, but when you stop you feel worse for a few minutes because the adrenaline shuts off but your body is still working).

This one caught me completely off guard.  Sure, I pushed myself.  But I had trained!  I had gotten up to 5 miles before running it.  It wasn't even hot or humid!

While these experiences were unpleasant, I think it's shown me something important.  I can't just ignore that my lungs are terrible.  And I can't keep letting myself get out of shape and then expecting to just bounce back.  It takes time to work back up to my normal, and it takes even more time to move on up to the next level.

But it most certainly doesn't have to stop me.

And I'd like to extend this sentiment to everyone who thinks they "can't run" or "can't exercise."  Your lungs could be completely shitty, and I empathize.  You might have actual asthma and never know what will set it off.  But if you start off at your baseline, whether that be a slow jog, or even walking, and keep making small increases, you can improve your lungs and you can improve your overall health.

Lung issues suck.  There's no getting around that.  But you and me, we don't have to let it hold us back.

Not convinced?  Check out Amanda's Running Advice for Non-Runners.  I found it incredibly heartening that someone who now runs marathons started only being able to run 2 minutes.  And she makes really good points, though for us wheezers, I'd have to add the following:
  • Stop When You Have To: If your lungs are giving you trouble, stop or slow down.  There's nothing anywhere that says you have to keep going, and your lungs will improve as you keep at it.  No need to try to accomplish it all at once.
  • Don't Be Embarrassed to Use an Inhaler: Or by your size or for any other reason.  Some people are embarrassed to run because they think other people will judge or laugh at them.  I'd be impressed as anything if I saw someone exercising whip out an inhaler, because I know what you're working to overcome.
  • Don't Pressure Yourself: Maybe today's run was more of a jog.  Maybe your lungs aren't having it today.  Just getting out there and doing what you're doing will help you improve, even if it doesn't feel like it.
  • Distance and Speed Are NOT the Only Factors: I've been feeling like I'm not improving as much as I want lately.  I'm still struggling to get past 3 miles, despite having run it several times.  But I feel good (when not running - who am I kidding, running sucks) and I'm sleeping better!  So instead of feeling dejected when it seems like you're not improving, pay attention to the other changes in your body or mood.

Have you ever experienced lung issues?  What advice would you give to non-runners?

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  1. I have asthma and running kills my lungs. Kills them. So does cutting the grass up the really steep side hill at our house. But I agree with you....not pushing yourself too hard and stopping when you know you have to certainly help and keep you safe!

  2. My daughter has asthma. She hates the inhaler too. She's joked that she is getting a tattoo of an inhaler that says it aint easy being wheezy.


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