A little known fact about me … I have Exercise Induced Asthma or EIA, so running hard and fast and not being able to catch my breath at the end is a pretty scary prospect, this is why I constantly find myself “plodding”. I don’t run, I don’t jog, I plod.
Does EIA mean I shouldn’t exercise? Er… no, it doesn’t #SorryNotSorry
Lungs are muscles too don’t you know, and the more you exercise them, the stronger they get but having EIA means that there are certain things that I need to take into account if I want to live to tell the tale at the end of my runs.
So what is EIA?
The official name for Exercise Induced Asthma is Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction ….. but I think EIA sounds waaaay cooler. When us EIA’ers exercise the airways in our lungs narrow and this brings on a whole host of symptoms and noises that wouldn’t be out of place as part of a soundtrack to a horror movie or one of those random heavy breathing calls we all get (No? It’s just me? .. I’ll get my coat!). We’re talking wheezing and coughing and gasping for breath. Some EIA’ers will experience chest tightness or pain, they’ll feel tired during exercise and even if they’re in good physical shape they’ll feel unfit.
There are some triggers that may increase the risk of EIA when you’re exercising, you might be affected by all of them, some of them or something not on this list but as a starter for 10 some of the triggers may include:
- Running in the cold
- Dry air
- Air pollution or high pollen counts
- An infection or a cold
- Extended periods of deep breathing such as long-distance running (that’s my “oh shit” moment right there!)
How to manage EIA
EIA shouldn’t stop you exercising (although a wise move would be to check with your GP and don’t just take my word for it!). Let’s look at some of our most famous asthmatic sports men and women … Paula Radcliffe is a good one to start with … marathon runner and Olympic athlete extraordinaire, David Beckham, phwoarh (oh! Did I type that out loud!!) was papped using his inhaler back in 2009. If you like swimming (my 2nd passion after running) then it’s good to see that even the likes of Peter Vanderkaay, who has lived with EIA since he was 10, still managed to bag himself a gold medal alongside Michael Phelps in the 2008 Beijing Games. So you see! It’s not all doom and gloom.
Everyone is different so you’ll need to find a way of managing your EIA that suits you but there are some pretty common things that can be done to reduce the risk of having an EIA Attack.
- Take a couple of puffs of your Ventolin (aka “the blue one”) about 10-15 minutes before you exercise
- If it’s cold outside, wrap a scarf loosely around your mouth and nose to help warm the air up before it reaches your lungs
- If Pollen is your trigger and the pollen count is high, it may be better to swap your run for some core or strengthening work indoors
- If you have an infection or a cold – rest and recover! Rest should be part of your training plan too!
- If you’re heading out on a long run, make sure you’ve done the training and have the base level of fitness required. Don’t forget to take your inhaler with you and if you don’t have one, you might want to think about getting yourself a Talisman necklace or bracelet or even a medical ID band so that a random passer-by can help if the worst came to the worst.
For me, the first thing my GP helped me with was to understand my “normal” peak flow (yes folks … there is something about me that is apparently normal). Your peak flow usually depends on your age, height and gender, so for me … female, 5ft 7, wrong side of 40 (not selling myself here am I!)… my ‘normal’ peak flow currently sits at around 400 which has massively improved since I started running. Before running it sat at around 350 so I’ll take that!! This little activity will help you understand what your “normal” is and if it’s constantly low, your asthma may not be under as much control as you thought.
Understanding your trigger is also key to managing your EIA. My triggers are running long distances in cold weather. Before each run or race you may see me taking 2 puffs of my Ventolin inhaler about 10-15 minutes before I set off. If it’s really cold out then I’ll run with a scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose. Sadly, this doesn’t stop me talking, whinging or moaning but what it does do is warm up the air before it hits my lungs. If you don’t have a scarf then another option is to breathe through your nose and out through your mouth. I’ll be honest – I struggle to do this. When I’m cold my nose leaks … and I mean it constantly streams from my nose, sometimes into my mouth, down my chin and onto my t-shirt … and I’m not one of these people who can just “blow it out” my nose as I’m running for fear of it landing on the leg or trainer of the person running passed me (gross I know). I’m sure with practice I could master this technique but until then … it’s a scarf for me!.
My EIA starts with a nagging cough and fully exposes itself in the shape of a really rather sharp pain, which starts in my shoulder and down my back and depending on which side it’s on depends on how quickly it’s going to clear up. My left side is my weak lung so we’re talking a minimum of 3 days, my right side is slightly stronger so a minimum of 1 day. It manifests itself quite quickly after a long run so before the full on pain hits, I chow down on a couple of paracetamol and whilst this does nothing for the EIA, it enables the pain to subside long enough for me to take some proper deep puffs of my inhaler. This is my way of coping with EIA and will not work for everyone (or anyone, given that we’re all so different!)
What to do if you’re a bystander
Having an asthma attack is scary enough for the person who can’t actually breathe, but it can also be pretty scary for the bystander if they don’t know what they need to do to help, so I’ve put together a little list of “to-do’s” below. For anyone who finds me gasping for breath during or after a race here are my top tips on how to “fix” me.
- Pull up a chair and let me sit down ….. For god sake don’t try and make me lay down … what are you trying to do? Kill me? Laying someone down or bending them over (oh-er missus) during an asthma attack is more likely to constrict their breathing further.
- Long, slow and deep … I’m talking breathing here people! Try and get me to take some long, deep breaths. Repeat after me “Smell the Roses, blow out the candles”. Get me to really focus on breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. This will help me slow down my breathing and prevent me hyperventilating.
- Stay calm, it’s only Oxygen – Somehow, get me to stay calm … sing me a song, tell me a joke, rub my forearms or back, ask me to look at 5 things around me, talk to me calmly. Whatever it takes to get me to calm down – JFDI!! Keeping me calm may prevent further tightening of the muscles and make breathing easier.
- Black Americano, Extra Shot …. No seriously, this is not just me asking for a free coffee .. a hot caffeinated drink can actually help open up the airways a little which may offer some relief until I can get my inhaler
- Call The A Team – If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them ….. er yeah … just call in the professionals if none of the above seems to be working. You’ll know it’s serious when I can no longer swear at you, whinge, cry or moan then it’s time to call in the professionals for some proper medical attention.
- Stop the race! or at least stop my Garmin … no seriously people, if I’m in the middle of a race and my Garmin is still ticking I will be getting stressed, so just hit the goddam pause button won’t you!
- Frisk me – yes, you read that correctly! Somewhere on my person, there will be a Talisman. Inside that Talisman you will find the name and number of my emergency contact. Do me a favour …. call them, they’ll know what to do!.
So there you have it! It’s not “easy being wheezy” …. but it’s also not impossible.
Until next time