From the October 2012 issue of Runner’s World
A runner’s guide to managing asthma
By Selene Yeager
In February 2010, 37-year-old Jen Stagner – a runner for 23 years – caught a severe respiratory infection that left her with exercise-induced asthma. “Initially, my doctor hoped it would clear up in six months,” she says. “I felt a significant improvement during that summer, so I decided to run a marathon.” In the final weeks before her marathon, the seasons changed, and Stagner experienced head colds, allergies, and congestion. On race morning, she took a couple of puffs from her inhaler and then left it in the hotel. A kilometre into the race, she felt pain under her ribs. By kilometre 14, she was short of breath, and by kilometre 20 she began experiencing her most severe asthma attack to date. “I was seeing spots. I got tunnel vision. I was wheezing and dizzy and thought I might pass out.” She shuffled the remainder of the race and finished in 4:22.
WHAT WENT WRONG
AND HOW TO PREVENT IT:
Hard breathing introduces nasty invaders
Runners inhale a huge volume of dry, unfiltered air. A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests they are more susceptible to allergies than non-runners simply because they suck down more allergens.
Runners are also more likely to suffer from exercise-induced bronchospasm, (also called exercise-induced asthma). “More than 90 per cent of asthmatics suffer from EIB, but about 20 per cent of the general population have EIB and no symptoms of asthma,” says Jordan D. Metzl, M.D. “And your risk of EIB is higher if you have allergies.”
Exercising in cold, dry air can also induce an asthma attack. When you’re breathing through your mouth, cold air hits your lungs. This sudden change in temperature can cause the bronchial tubes to spasm, says Lewis G. Maharam, M.D., author of Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running. Whether it’s allergies or weather, the following steps can help you catch your breath – and prevent an attack.
1 See An Allergist
“If you suffer seasonal allergies – or suspect you do – an allergist can help you control allergens that spark asthma attacks,” says Dr. Maharam.
2 Adjust Your Calendar
Avoid racing during peak pollen months if you suffer allergies – or lower your expectations.
3 Warm It Up
On brisk days, hit the treadmill or gym. Heading outdoors? Breathe through your nose; if you must go hard, wear a face mask. It will warm the air before it hits your lungs.
4 Keep It Short
“An exercise-induced bronchospasm typically occurs about six minutes into vigorous exercise,” says Dr. Maharam. When you’re doing interval workouts, keep reps under six minutes.
5 Provoke It
This sounds dubious, but Dr. Maharam says you might try inducing a spasm, then getting on with your run. “After you have an asthma attack, you’re immune to another one for roughly two to three hours,” he says. Warm up, then run hard enough for at least six minutes to cause an attack. Treat it with an inhaler (or by taking a break), then continue with your workout or race.
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