Not Just Out Of Breath: My Adventures with Exercise-Induced Asthma

I’ve never been an athlete. In high school, I actively avoided physical fitness by getting excused from gym class and never playing sports. In my twenties, I’d occasionally try working out—trying a class, joining a gym—but I was always the person doing the least amount of work.  You know that person—the one reading a novel as they half-heartedly pedal on a stationary bike.

I avoided doing high impact exercises like jumping jacks or running because I’d get extremely out of breath quickly.  What did I expect? I was out of shape. That’s all I thought it was.

Then one frigid January day, I saw the Blue Line train approaching the station and decided to run down the platform to catch it. At less than a quarter of a mile, it was a short distance. However, as soon as we sat down in the train, something became very wrong. Instead of just being out of breath, my throat felt like it was closing up. As I sat there, it became harder and harder to breathe, the world went completely white and I started swinging in and out of consciousness. I thought I was dying and was panicked. I was also desperately trying to appear normal, hoping it would just get better. So much so, that I even got up and went to the doors as we approached our stop, despite the fact that I couldn’t breathe or see.

Something Was Very Wrong

The next bit has been related to me by my husband who, thankfully, was there with me at the time. As the train pulled into the station, I leaned forward with inertia, then slammed back against the partition wall before crumpling to the floor. It was at this point Joel realized there was something very wrong and he carried me out of the train onto the platform and sat me down against a column.

I remember thinking I wanted to appear ‘just fine’ and I was grossed out about sitting on a CTA platform, so I kept trying to stand up. Unfortunately, as soon as I would stand all the way up, I would pass out and fall over again. My poor husband, with the help of two Chicago police officers, finally convinced me to remain seated. They wanted to call me an ambulance. The horror of having to go to a hospital because I ran 2 blocks was starting to set in and breathing was starting to get just a little easier. I was able to decline medical treatment and we found our way home.

I hate doctors, I avoid them at all costs. But that Monday, I went and got tested at my husband’s insistence. (I figured I owed it to him after that little event). They told me I had something called ‘exercise-induced asthma,’ gave me a prescription for an inhaler, and sent me on my way. I thought it was ridiculous. It sounded like some sort of diagnosis for people who insist on being diagnosed when they are just overweight or out of shape.

So, I turned it into a wake up call. I’d get in shape and that would never happen again. On my very first session with my personal trainer who would go on to completely change my life, I was adamant, “I don’t run. Ever. Never, ever, ever. You will NOT get me to run.”

He got me running. Carefully, slowly, over several sessions of intervals, cross training, and careful monitoring, I ran my first mile ever. I ran many, many more after that with the treadmill up at a ridiculous incline and the speed faster than I ever thought possible. And I didn’t pass out.

Learning To Live With My Exercise-Induced Asthma

But all the exercise in the world didn’t make it go away. Not only was I regularly going to the gym to strength train, but I was also training for 5K, 10K, and half marathon runs. And sometimes, I’d have attacks. Here’s what I know causes them for me:

  • Extremely cold weather
  • High-impact exercises like running, jumping jacks, burpees, squat jumps, or jump rope
  • Taking two or more days off of working out

If I am really careful, I can catch myself before an attack happens. Inhalers seem to have no effect on me, so I am left with only behavioral-based treatment. Here are the strategies I’ve put in place:

  • If I feel even the slightest hint of my airway constricting, I stop what I’m doing and walk until I can breathe normally.
  • I do quick intervals to start my cardio-heavy workouts: 10 seconds on / 20 seconds off until I get past the initial few minutes. Most of my attacks happen within the first 5 minutes of high-intensity cardio.
  • Remain calm. If my airway constricts, panic will ensure a full attack

But sometimes, I misjudge and find myself wheezing, unable to breath, stumbling blind, and in a bit of a pickle.  While I have never gone unconscious in the last eight years,  more than once, I’ve had to grab a wall, a fence, or a person until an attack passes.

It’s been 8 years since I was diagnosed. Since then I’ve done 2 half marathons and many other races. I don’t avoid any high-impact cardio, although there are definitely some I like better than others (does anyone actually like doing burpees???)

It’s been a year since I’ve done heavy cardio, or really anything at the gym. As I’m starting to get in shape again, I’m doing a lot of intervals, choosing lower-impact cardio like swimming or the elliptical, and focusing on weight training more than heavy cardio. I know one day I’ll have another attack, but for now, I’m ok.

Please note: Everyone has their own way of approaching this. What I describe above has worked for me, but may not work for you. You may respond well to inhalers or may need to find other means of handling attacks. I am not a medical professional, nor have I received any advice from medical professionals that supports or discounts this approach.