The Perfect Conundrum

How ironic is it to be a runner and have asthma? Partaking in a sport that often leaves you breathless is certain to feel even worse when your lungs perform less than optimally right? Absolutely. But you’d be surprised how common it is to find asthmatics who choose to pursue running in spite of any potential hurdles. Two of our very own TCTC members (Marisa Browning and Nick Rose) have offered to share their experience of running with Asthma to benefit and encourage others out there who may be on the same journey.

What is your asthma like?

Marisa: “My asthma isn’t traditional like what most people might think of with the feeling of the airways actively closing and other common characteristics. For me, when I have a flare up it’s more of a pressure or heaviness in my chest like a very small child or pet sitting on it. I also will often describe feeling like I have a yawn stuck, that takes multiple attempts to release it. I have that oncoming yawn feeling and if I can’t fully get it to release, it takes multiple attempts. Which is really difficult to deal with as the more attempts it takes to relieve it, the more anxious I feel because I’m not getting that full range of oxygen in my system. The amount of pressure I feel and how uncomfortable it is varies a bit depending on what is causing the flare up and how long I’m having continuous flare ups. It doesn’t usually impact my running, but especially since moving, I’ve been learning how to tell when a flare up is impacting my running to some extent as it arises much more frequently.”

Nick: “My asthma was pretty severe when I was younger, but running has helped strengthen my lungs and it is much better now. I would describe an asthma attack for me as constricted airways in my lungs, and a deep wheezing cough. If I get worked up enough, it can be difficult to get enough oxygen in between the coughing fits and I will be doubled over. It is important for me to remain calm and upright if I know I am having an attack, as well as use my inhaler to open the airways up again.”

What kinds of things cause you to have a flare up or what causes them in general?

Marisa: “I have found so far that NC allergens, like ragweed, are a big factor. Humidity levels and what I refer to as temperature ping pong are other major factors. This is when temps change a lot in a short amount of time. Such as one day the high is 65 and the next is 42. I have started to learn what is affecting me at certain times but honestly it’s not foolproof, sometimes it feels like my lungs have a mind of their own and will just do their own thing if I’m having issues and none of the above are factors at play. Those are kind of the worst cases and it will often feel like my inhaler doesn’t help in that situation.” 

Nick: “When I was younger it was hard to determine a single factor that caused it since it was happening fairly frequently. I do notice that drastic weather pattern shifts in highs and lows, as well as super dry or super humid weather have an effect on my breathing. Things like shoveling snow in the cold and then coming inside to a warm house or the shower can also send me into a coughing fit. I don’t feel like seasonal allergies affect my asthma (certainly sinuses), but when I was younger, a dusty room, moldy basement, or a house with a lot of pets (especially cats, happy to mostly have grown out of that allergy) can trigger an attack. The sneezing from the allergens doesn’t help the restricted air and tight chest feeling, so I did my best to have a clean environment and be conscious of pets when going over to a friend’s house. In the past 5-10 years, the asthma flare ups have only been 1-2 times a year, typically in the springtime and coincide with getting sick. While also a small sample size, altitude can definitely cause accelerated chest tightness and prompt me to use my inhaler. I don’t have enough exposure to know at what elevation it starts to develop, but when I was on a trip in the Swiss Alps walking outside the visitor center in the mountains, I was absolutely winded and wheezing a bit after 1 or 2 flights of stairs. I was in the middle of summer varsity training, and yet it still kicked my butt. I hope this is something that I have outgrown a little bit, as well as actually acclimatizing to the altitude will help, since I would love to visit places out west at elevation.”

Have you always had it? If not, when did it develop?

Marisa: “It has been kind of a slow onset development. Around 7 years ago, I started to get URI’s (upper respiratory infections) during the Spring and Fall. I would get a cough that would last for weeks, I’d get several prescriptions including an inhaler. There was one time I went to see my family doctor rather than urgent care like usual and I was told I had asthma and needed to get tested. The tests haven’t given 100% confirmation of the issue being truly asthma, but I’ve been told by medical professionals that it doesn’t mean I don’t still have it. Asthma is a very broad issue that has a lot of levels of symptoms. The tests given in offices and hospitals are often testing the symptoms for more severe cases. My symptoms got worse when I moved to NC. It’s the worst in the Fall, closely followed by the Spring, when the allergens seem to be the worst in the area. In the Fall, it’s often so bad that it wakes me up in the middle of the night.” 

Nick: “I have had it roughly since birth. I had pneumonia as a small child so my parents were always conscious of my breathing and triggers. They are amazed that I am able to run and breathe the way I can now with how sick I was as a kid missing so much school. My asthma and allergist doctors were the same, so they were able to talk about the triggers and dosages for my regular allergy shots to keep the reactions minimal and not trigger an attack.”

How do you handle the symptoms?

Marisa: “This is something I’m still figuring out. It wasn’t something I had to deal with frequently before I moved. I’ve had so many times where I’ve felt fine all day long but when I go out for a group run or something, it hits hard all of a sudden and I didn’t take the inhaler nor have time to go get it. I just can’t always predict when I’m having a flare up. I do try to time it if I have a run planned, about an hour beforehand, to allow the medication to kick in and do its thing. As far as feeling the effects of the medication in time, it’s honestly hit or miss. Often it will still feel a bit heavy to breathe, but I can get through a workout without issue. Other times, I don’t feel much difference and just have to do the best I can for the run or workout. I may also have to just push through the discomfort until I can take the next dose.”

Nick: “The biggest thing for me is to try to remain calm and take deep breaths. If I take short, choppy breaths, then it spikes my heart rate even more when I go into a coughing fit. My inhaler was usually in my school bag so I would have it if an attack happened at school. Weirdly, I notice as long as I stay moving around, I feel okay. As soon as I stop, like in a break during volleyball, I would cough away. That part still baffles me, but if I wanted to be active and I didn’t feel symptoms, why not keep moving? And lastly, preventative measures of known triggers as best I can like dust, mold, and smoke help keep symptoms from starting. The weather is tough sometimes, but the more I am exposed to it, the better I adapt.”

Are you able to differentiate when a bad workout is due to asthma or other factors?

Marisa: “This is another thing that’s kind of hit or miss. It’s getting a bit better with me doing regular self reflections for my Strava posts, I’m able to think back about how I felt during it. So far I feel that it comes down to how I’m breathing during a workout. If I’m going at a fairly slow rate and I’m breathing way harder, feel more out of breath and it feels like my heart is working way harder than it should be, I’m certain it’s asthma. With me still getting used to the area such as the inclines, I’m still learning the way of those, but it’s getting easier to take note of pacing so narrowing down if it’s a flare up is getting easier.” 

Nick: “Sometimes I can notice a higher heart rate or more trouble breathing in the early hot summer days when the legs feel fine, but I’m not sure if that is directly related to my asthma or just harder on breathing in general and I am already a notch down on the lung capacity and functionality ladder. The part about remaining calm in workouts is huge here, as I can quickly lose control of my breathing in a race if I start freaking out or getting upset with how I am performing. For cases like drastic weather changes or events, I just try to give it the best I can without sending myself into an asthma attack.”

Does it stop you from running? 

Marisa: “So far, no. The most that’s happened is I feel a bit uncomfortable in my chest or back, I may have to take an extra breather during a workout, but that’s been it. I’m thankful to have a lot of members that care about me and will remind me to either take my inhaler or bring it with me to have on hand. Even so, I am usually able to push through enough to get something done, it’s not always the way I planned, but honestly running in general isn’t a perfect plan anyway so there’s times where you just have to go with the flow. This is usually about where I try to make a note because if the pace was really off, I’d like to know what caused it. I do not intend to let my flare ups stop me from running unless absolutely necessary. I take a similar mindset to training in the rain. You never know what conditions on race day are going to be like. I could have a flare up on race day just as easily as it could be raining. I feel like pushing myself to a reasonable extent is not going to hurt me. I have learned how to become pretty in tune with my body and when I can push through discomfort and realize there is a bigger issue at hand.”

Nick: “Besides the times I am sick with a respiratory infection or virus that is also causing coughing fits, no, it does not stop me from running. Running has tremendously helped my lung capacity and strength, so I see no reason to stop doing what I love to do. I just need to be aware of conditions to keep the triggers I can control to a minimum, but that is just how I grew up with it, not just specific to sports.”

Do you know a lot of runners with asthma? 

Marisa: “Since moving to NC, not really, but I’m also still trying to get to know the community. The more I get involved, the more I realize I haven’t even scratched the surface as to who’s in the community. However, there were quite a few kids on my cross country team in high school who had asthma. My team was pretty big, having over 80 kids. I knew of at least 10 kids throughout my 3 years of being on the team (didn’t do it freshman year) who had asthma ranging in levels of severity. You also wouldn’t want to underestimate them either, several of them were doing 25 min 5k’s or faster. My team had a large range of abilities from running under 20 min to running over 30. I knew of asthmatic kids throughout that range.” 

Nick: “There were a handful of high school teammates that also had asthma and would take their inhaler either before every run or just the hard interval/race days. The weather seemed to have a similar trigger for them as it did me and our coach was aware and trusted us to communicate our difficulties during workouts or races. For the most part, we were all able to perform at our best minus the lesser lung capacity and strength as long as you put in the work. There were always days where asthma would rear its head and your running would suffer, but that wasn’t the norm thankfully.”

Despite dealing with asthma and all that comes with it, Nick is a Boston Qualified marathoner and Marisa is an accomplished multisport athlete with aspirations to train for her first marathon in the near future. These are just two athletes in the much larger TCTC and running community who show that with a little grit, determination, and a good strategy for dealing with potential side effects, even asthma can’t stop you from achieving all your running goals!