Running and asthma would seem to be mutually exclusive, but look no further than marathon-world-record holder Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain, who was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma at the age of 14, to see that it’s possible for asthmatics to enjoy—and excel at—a cardio-intensive sport like running.
Bill Roberts, M.D., medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers these six tips for runners who, like him, suffer from asthma. Follow Roberts’ advice and you can hit the road and still breathe deeply.
If you have chronic asthma (that is, your symptoms aren’t triggered solely by physical exertion), you’ll probably need to be on a daily control medication, like an inhaled steroid, in addition to having a rescue inhaler.
If the pollen count is high even in the morning, do what Roberts does: Consider substituting an indoor activity for running, or doing something outdoors that doesn’t make you breathe as hard, such as kayaking, biking, or walking.
Roberts suggests covering your nose and mouth while running so the moist air you exhale will help humidify the air you inhale. Stay away from cotton bandanas, which can freeze against your face in cold temperatures. “Fleece balaclavas or neck gaiters are probably the best,” Roberts says. “They maintain a fair amount of warmth even when they’re wet, and they’ll stay thawed pretty easily.”
* Have a game plan. Confirm with your doctor the steps you should take if you have an asthma attack. Should you call the doctor’s office so they can determine the severity of the attack? Or should you see if you can get relief from your rescue inhaler? Create an action plan that both you and your doctor are comfortable with.
Roberts’ advice for when you get into trouble: “You want to clear this with your physician, but what I tell my patients to do is to take as many puffs of your inhaler as it requires to stop the attack, or until you start to shake so much [a side effect of the medication] that you can’t hold your inhaler. For some people, that’s four to six puffs every five minutes for several minutes. I start shaking after two puffs.”
* Consider wearing a medical alert tag. A bracelet or tag that indicates you have asthma can save first responders valuable time. “Giving the right medication quickly could be lifesaving,” says Roberts.
* Take extra precautions if you have severe asthma. If you’ve ever had what Roberts calls a “flash attack,” in which you quickly go from feeling good to being in severe distress, you should either run with a friend or carry your cell phone—or both.