Can you run with asthma? Yes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things to take in to considerations as exercise can make it worse for many people.
Running can IMPROVE lung function, but it usually doesn’t feel that way when we first start out.
Running does not increase the capacity of your lungs, that’s largely determined by body size. But it can help your lungs to perform better over time per a study by Harvard Health. That means more oxygen getting to the muscles and simply starting to feel easier.
Breathing better is much like running itself.
You start to get better at finding your easy pace, which means you start to regulate your breathing instead of panting or gasping.
So let’s talk about how to know what triggers asthma symptoms like pollution, allergies, or cold weather and some smart effective strategies for running safely with asthma.
Can You Run A Marathon with Asthma?
100% yes. World record holder Paula Radcliff proves this. And interestingly, 700 athletes that competed in the 2012 London Olympics had confirmed asthma and were surprisingly almost twice as likely to win a medal as their non-asthmatic peers.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. And of course the severity of your asthma is going to play a role. But don’t let this hold you back. Instead, treat it like anyone else would with an injury. Learn what you need to do to avoid major issues and stay consistent.
What Happens When You Run with Asthma?
Your body has a physical reaction, which results in the airways narrowing known as bronchoconstriction. The result of this is a feeling of tigthness in the chest, wheezing and shortness of breath as your oxygen levels drop.
In fact, up to 90% of people with asthma have exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
This can be very scary and isn’t something to take lightly whether you have exercise-induced asthma or it’s triggered by pollution. While the symptoms will normally go away once you stop running, it’s key to know your triggers and how to handle them. We’re going to talk about some tips for running with asthma below!
Because exercise is one of the most common triggers, you might feel like you need to hold back on intensity. However, the data says that’s not entirely true! Let’s talk more about how taking up running could help overall.
4 Benefits of Running with Asthma
Is running good for asthma? Yes! While this may surprise you, the data doesn’t lie. As a running coach, it’s my job to talk about the benefits of running for health, right?! But I’m not alone in this.
It’s been researched and studied and is now widely recommended by doctors. So let’s dig in to the why and then the how! Even those with EIB are going to see benefits.
Running Improves Lung Function
How do we not start with this?? A 2019 study, showed that in adults with mild or moderate asthma, high intensity activity improved lung function while slowing decline.
In fact, another went so far as to conclude “Low physical activity is independently associated with faster decline in lung function.”
Running Creates More Efficient Oxygen Uptake
Numerous studies, like this one from UC Daivs, have shown that running will improve the bodies ability to efficiently utilize oxygen. In fact, this is one reason you hear people talking about VO2 Max charts and tests.
The more efficiently we can use oxygen the faster and farther we can run before hitting the wall. This obviously helps those with asthma as well!
Exercise Increases Asthma Control
I love it when we can find data that talks not just about exercise, but specifically running!
This study looked specifically at having adults with mild asthma use endurance running for 5 weeks and as a result “endurance running training can improve the aerobic fitness of asthmatic adults, and may reduce the severity of exercise-induced asthma”.
They were running at self selected paces, which means this isn’t about certain speeds getting the benefit. They were able to lower their HR and blood lactate as the body became more efficient. This allowed them to control or reduce their attacks.
Exercise Decreases Airway Inflammation
Studies from 1998-2015 have all come to the same conclusion that exercise can reduce inflammation in the airways. The quality of life scores improve in as little as 12 weeks!
Asthma is characterized by chronic airway inflammation, so the fact that spending time getting sweaty can be part of the rehabilitation process is amazing.
15 Rules for How To Breathe While Running With Asthma
The basic goal of breathing is to take oxygen in to the body and then distribute it to all of our cells. We need that oxygen for our muscles to function and their best and then the exhale to clear out the CO2 build up that can make muscles burn.
Running can cause ANYONE to feel short of breath.
But exercise-induced asthma has a few additional symptoms which usually appear the longer you continue running. It may start 5 minutes in or not until 20+.
Symptoms of EIB:
- Chest tightness
If you feel like this is happening to you a lot, please start with a doctor. Get their specific advice.
If you’ve been there already and are looking for more tips and guidance, then onward!
Starting with the must follow rule always of LISTENING TO YOUR BODY. Pay attention and you’ll get to know when you need to back off and when it’s a good day to push.
Learn running by perceived effort and you’ll enjoy training a great deal more.
Great graphic from Asthma Inspiration
#1 Start With Your Doctor
As with any medical issue, get advice before starting a new program. You’ll need an official diagnosis to get an inhaler and you absolutely want to ensure that you run with it ALWAYS. Just toss it in your running belt.
Most doctors are going to encourage your exercise plan based on all the benefits we discuss. But they will best know what limitations you might need to be aware of or have additional tips based on their experience with other runners.
In fact, your doctor will help with your overall asthma action plan.
#2 Warm Up Before Every Workout
WARM UP!!! We talk about the warm up for muscles, but it has been shown to help with your breathing as well.
Spending time doing dynamic stretches and then walking before you start to run provides your lungs and airways time to dilate or open up to improve breathing.
#3 Have an Action Plan
Runners are kind of bullheaded sometimes. Right?
We just want to keep pushing through thinking that it always makes us tougher and stronger. But when your body is screaming stop, you can’t ignore it.
So to stay on the safe side always, work with your doctor to make a plan for how to handle your asthma.
The prevention strategies in this plan will be used to manage your EIB symptoms. For long-term treatment, your doctor may prescribe a daily inhaler. This may lessen your overall risk of flare-ups by soothing airway irritation.
Additionally, they could instruct you to take a rescue inhaler 15 minutes before a run. A quick-acting drug that opens the airways is included inside a rescue inhaler. Whenever symptoms appear when you are jogging, you certainly have the option to make use of your rescue inhaler.
Ask your doctor what to do if you get an asthma attack while running and are not carrying an inhaler. They will be able to explain the warning signs that you should look out for in the event that you need immediate assistance.
Breathing exercises are not likely to be helpful in this scenario; rather, they are more likely to be helpful if defective breathing or dysfunctional voice cords are the contributing factors to breathlessness.
We just want to keep pushing through thinking that it always makes us tougher and stronger. But when your body is screaming stop, you can’t ignore it.
4. Follow Your Plan
Your asthma action plan will only work for you if you stick to it and follow all the instructions.
- Ask questions while your doctor explains the plan so that you know exactly what it means and know your backup options
- Always carry your rescue inhaler (grab a hydration pack or running shorts with pockets).
- Take any necessary medications at least 30 minutes prior to running. Some runners have found success with a preventer inhaler prior to running
- Monitor your effort and keep a log to know what triggers you and listen to your body!
- And finally…get out of your head. I know there are nerves, so know that every new runner feels that.
Olympian Paula Radcliffe is one of the most recognized runners with Asthma. Here take is that it just makes her work harder!
“I take my peak flow readings regularly to make sure I’m always getting the right level of treatment. When training, I take my preventer inhaler first thing in the morning, and I always take my reliever inhaler before I start exercising.”
What if you have an asthma attack while running?
If you do have an attack while running, use your inhaler and try to remain calm. It may take 20-30 minutes for the symptoms to fully dissipate.
This is a great time to utilize that Uber app on your phone!
#5 Check the Air Quality
Unfortunately, due to air pollution levels and wildfires, many of us have become more familiar with the impact of poor air quality on running.
- Start with an app like AirNow.gov and see what the current air quality level is before starting your run.
- If it’s yellow, maybe do a short or very easy run.
- Anything orange or red, move your workout indoors to avoid asthma issues.
- Running after it rains is often a great way to get a good clean air run.
- Try running on trails to avoid any additional pollutants from cars.
- You can try running with a buff or a scarf to filter the air.
#6 Make Changes for Cold Weather Running
If you’ll be running in the cold or dry air (hello Colorado winter), this can make it harder to breathe while running.
- Check the weather for the week so you can plan to move around your big days if needed.
- Try wearing a buff or my favorite balaclava hoodie to keep your mouth covered which will help to warm up and moisten the air before it enters your lungs.
- Stick to easier runs on these days or move your intense effort indoors.
#7 Allergies and Running with Asthma
Very similar to air quality, we want to look at high pollen count and other potential triggers.
For me ragweed or trees sprouting results in crazy itchy eyes and a runny nose. So again if you have a journal you may be able to notice that certain allergens bother you while others don’t.
- Take allergy medications at least 4 hours prior to running. One study showed that taking them too close to running impaired breathing.
- Perhaps another good time to run with a buff to filter the air coming in to your lungs!
- Use a nasal spray pre and post run.
Here’s a good pollen chart from UK Asthma.org to give you ideas of what to track so you can see what bothers you.
#8 Head Out After It Rains
Light, consistent rain showers may wash away pollen, preventing it from drifting through the air. Additionally, the subsequent humidity keeps pollen levels low. Those who suffer from pollen allergies may find rain to be a welcome relief.
Overall, rain is beneficial if you suffer from pollen allergies. However, rain may aggravate allergies to grass, weeds, dust, and mold.
While it rains when grass and weed pollen levels are high, raindrops may fall to the ground and disperse pollen into smaller particles. They then disperse rapidly, generating a dramatic rise in allergic asthma and allergy symptoms during the rain shower. This occurs more often during unexpected, intense downpours.
So check to see how rain affects you and use it to your advantage.
#10 Shower After Running
Take a shower post-run to clean any of the particles out of your hair and off your clothes so you don’t continue inhaling them all day, which will make allergy asthma worse that day and the next.
You might find it helpful to leave your clothes in the laundry room and to also clean your shoes. After a long run, you may find that the warm, moist air that a shower delivers is helpful to your lungs.
#11 Quit Smoking
Smoking makes asthma worse and causes lung diseases. If you are a smoker, you should know that you will have less endurance and will be less able to handle the challenges of running. Smoking might make it more likely that you will get asthma episodes or fatigue when running.
#12 Practice Breathing Exercises
Since I’ve written a detailed post about breathing techniques from pursed lip breathing to box breathing, I won’t rehash it all here.
The goal is to help you learn to breathe through the diaphragm so you are getting a full deep breath and not a shallow one. This can help with perceived exertion, which will help prevent an attack.
✅Learn how to breathe while running >>
12. Pay attention to your body
While running, it’s great to get into the zone. But if you have asthma, it’s important to stay in tune with your body throughout the run.
It’s really important to understand how to differentiate between the normal and healthy signs of running such as sweating, feeling warm, faster and deeper breathing, as well as flushed skin, as opposed to symptoms of EIB or an asthma attack.
I’ve mentioned the symptoms above, but it’s important to reiterate them. Symptoms of an asthma attack include coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest, and breathing that doesn’t seem to slow down.
13. Adjust Your Running
Start slowly for about 10 minutes to warm up your body, and then gradually speed up. Slowly increase your speed as your body warms up and gets used to running.
It’s perfectly alright to take regular breaks during runs. Long-distance running requires prolonged, deep breathing, which may trigger asthma attacks.
Run shorter distances and take breaks as needed. This will make it simpler for you to run on a regular basis, which will help you expand your lung capacity over time.
When you’re getting ready to stop, slow down for about 10 minutes to let your body cool down.
It’s especially important to warm up and cool down before entering or leaving an air-conditioned or heated room because sudden changes in temperature can cause symptoms.
14. Take Extra Precautions
Whenever possible, run with a buddy. Inform them of what they should do if you start experiencing any symptoms of asthma.
Always remember to have your phone with you, and try to steer clear of running in isolated areas. This makes it possible for someone else to get help for you if you need medical attention.
15. Monitor Your Asthma
If your asthma gets worse, you might need to stop running until you can get it under better control by changing your medications or doing other things. Speak with your doctor about your symptoms and ask them to help you adjust your asthma action plan.
People with asthma can absolutely exercise. Most doctors encourage physical activity to help improve all kinds of things from stamina to healthy weight to that incredible runner’s high!
Just know that when you start running it’s going to be tough because it’s tough for all of use.
Don’t be afraid to walk, to build in more days of lighter cardio workouts and keep building up your stamina slowly to prevent frustration.
Whether you want to get out for volleyball, baseball, hiking, running or shoot doing some back flips to show of your gymnastic skills, go for it. Don’t let the fear or difficulty hold you back. Stay focused on those exercising with asthma benefits to know that it will get better.
More tips for getting started:
- Couch to 5K Plan
- How to increase running endurance
- Tips for running with allergies
- Benefits of long distance running
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