She has won six Olympic medals--three gold, one silver and two bronze. She has set the Olympic record in the heptathlon and American records in the long jump and the 50- and 60-meter hurdles--and she has asthma. Her name: Jackie Joyner-Kersee.According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), 12 percent to 15 percent of the U.S. population is considered asthmatic and suffer recurrent attacks of breathlessness. During an asthma attack, a person's bronchial tubes become inflamed and airways narrow, resulting in a restriction of airflow.
If you've recently been diagnosed with asthma, or if you have had asthma for years but have been afraid to run, keep in mind that with proper management you can have a normal, healthy lifestyle, which includes running and other exercise.
Why Running Can Trigger an Attack Although it's not exactly known how exercise triggers asthma, medical experts speculate that when people exercise they breathe faster and this makes it more difficult for the nose and upper airways to warm and add moisture to the air breathed in. As a result, air that is breathed in is drier and colder than usual. This dry, cold air in the airways triggers the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma (EIA). Common symptoms of EIA include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. According to the National Asthma Campaign, 80 percent of people with asthma have symptoms triggered by exercise.
Unfortunately, running tops the list of exercises that are particularly strong triggers of EIA. This may be due to the fact that most running is continuous in nature, without short breaks, and is usually outdoors where a runner is more susceptible to cold and to environmental triggers such as air pollution and pollen. This does not mean that a person with asthma cannot enjoy running. On the contrary, running and asthma can be a healthy combination if done properly and safely.
Proper Asthma Management First and foremost, it is extremely important to get approval from your healthcare provider before engaging in any exercise. Make sure you work closely with your doctor to educate yourself about your condition and that you understand how and when to use any medication or inhaled steroid treatments that have been prescribed. Also, your asthma must be well controlled before you embark on a running program. Once you learn to control your asthma, it will no longer control you.
Taking to the Roads It's best to run in warm, humid conditions. If you must run in cold weather, wear a facemask or scarf that covers your nose and mouth to help keep the cold air from irritating your airways. Also, running indoors on a treadmill is less likely to induce an asthma attack.
If you have other known asthma triggers, such as pollen or smog, you'll need to find out which time of day is best for you to run. Pollen counts are usually higher in the early morning, while smog is typically a problem later in the day. Try to be flexible with your schedule and select a time of day in which you'll be least susceptible. Likewise, avoid an environment that might trigger an attack, such as an urban setting where there is traffic or where trees or flowers are in bloom.
Before you start running, it is essential to take the extra time to warm up. The warmup, a walk or easy jog, will help your airways adjust to the increased demand. According to ACE, a prolonged period of low-level aerobic activity will help prepare your body for higher-intensity exercise later.
On the Run Start out slowly and don't overdo it. Rest when necessary and listen to your body. Judge the intensity of your running by using the "talk test"--if you can carry on a conversation while running, then you're probably okay. Sometimes, short bursts of running (such as intervals) followed by short rest periods are better than a long period of heavy exertion. Remember, don't push yourself. If you start to feel dizzy or faint, or if your breathing becomes restricted, stop and rest until your breathing has returned to normal.
Finally, don't rush through your cool down. To avoid sudden changes in the temperature in your airways, a cool-down period of a minimum of 10 minutes is recommended. An adequate cool down can help prevent an asthma attack that sometimes occurs immediately following an exercise session. A warm bath or shower immediately after your run may also help.
By properly managing your asthma and by taking the necessary precautions before, during and after your run, you can safely and successfully participate in this popular and wonderful sport. So lace up those shoes and run with it!
Make Friends with Your Asthma Having asthma doesn't have to be an obstacle to exercise, especially running. Keep in mind these tips on what makes a sport asthma friendly and what you can do to have a safe run. And always make sure you clear it with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.
Asthma-friendly sports should allow you to:
Control your breathing rate and depth.
Breathe through your nose.
Avoid coughing, air trapping or airway drying.
Rest and drink fluid when needed.
Combine a mixture of short, high-energy sprints with low energy endurance activities.
Include the participation of others for safety.
Be Safe on Your Run Along with your doctor's advice, these guidelines from the YMCA will help you have a safe workout:
Always have your bronchiodilating inhaler with you at all times and use it at the first sign of wheezing.
Exercise at a low intensity in the beginning and gradually build over a period of time.
Use your inhaler several minutes before exercise. It may reduce your chances of an EIA (exercise-induced asthma) attack.
Drink plenty of fluids before and during exercise.
Incorporate an extended warmup and cool-down period to any aerobic program.
If asthma symptoms occur, reduce your exercise intensity.
Be aware of environmental factors that can trigger an asthma attack, such as high or low temperatures, high pollen count or heavy air pollution.
A Note of Caution About Pain Relievers Because some pain relievers can trigger asthma symptoms, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider before using any over-the-counter pain reliever for common aches, pains and fever, according to the American Lung Association. The two major types of over-the-counter pain relievers are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)--including aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen sodium--and acetaminophen (the medicine in TYLENOL).
Asthma Information websites: American Lung Association American Council on Exercise.