Running with Asthma: Everything You Need to Know

Last Updated: 09/09/2020

Running with Asthma: The TL;DR Version

  • Roughly 15% of athletes are diagnosed with exercise induced asthma (EIA), but many people believe it’s a make-believe ailment.
  • You can still be a runner if you have exercise induced asthma, traditional asthma, or even exercise induced bronchospasms.
  • You need to train by altering training plans, allowing yourself more time. Because running with asthma is totally dangerous, you need to keep an inhaler handy, too.
  • If you’re looking for exercise induced asthma treatment, go see a doctor (obviously). But what works for me is keeping an inhaler that I can use about 15 minutes before I run.
  • It also helps not to compare yourself to athletes who don’t have asthma. It really boosts confidence in yourself that way. Believe me.
  • You will progress more slowly than other people and plans say you should, but you will progress.
  • Listen to your body. If it says you need to slow down or alter your training, slow down and alter your training.
  • If you feel short of breath, tightness in your chest, wheezing, and taste metal in your mouth…go to a doctor. Please.

Running is Hard

Starting to run…well, that’s even harder. Especially if you want to start running with asthma.

Which brings me to…me. Hi. /wave. I’m a runner. And I have asthma. Specifically, I have exercise-induced asthma. (Though, the older I get, the more non-exercise-related issues I have. But that’s a different post.)

In general, when you start to run, if you put in the time and effort, you’ll be wearing out the soles of your running shoes in no time. Just turn on something like Zombies 5k, and you’re just 8-9 short weeks away from being race-ready (and potentially willing).

Unless you have asthma.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You might be able to run a 5k in 8-9 weeks (from nothing) if you have asthma. It depends on the severity and a number of factors. But most likely, it will take you longer than any training program’s prescribed length.

Why? Well because if you’re running with asthma, what might be a difficult task for most people becomes exponentially worse for you.

Running with Asthma Is Not Impossible

Lucky for you and me, though, having asthma doesn’t mean you can’t be a runner. It doesn’t mean you can get fit, that you can’t lose weight. All running with asthma means is that you have to account for your asthma when you’re running.

That’s it.

I’m living proof of that. I have a pretty severe case of exercise-induced asthma, and my typical weekly mileage before my last race was between 20 and 30 miles a week. And then, I had only been running for about 5 months.

But during those 5 months, I learned a lot about running with asthma. And now, I’m okay with my condition.

Exercise-induced Asthma is Real

For some reason, people like to think that exercise-induced asthma doesn’t exist. Despite being diagnosed in roughly 15% of athletes, I’ve gotten a lot of flak from folks when I tell them I have exercise-induced asthma.

A lot of that comes from ignorance, so you can’t blame them.

For example, when I first started running, people would see a 310-lb man who runs for 15-30 seconds and then has to take a 5-minute break to catch his breath. Maybe I even had to stop and take a sit-down. In their eyes, they saw a fat guy trying to exercise and failing.

That’s not the case, though. Exercise-induced asthma affects way more than just obese folks.

Don’t let people shame you into not taking your health seriously. Running while overweight can be tough, and running with asthma, is not just harder. It can be dangerous. I get being self-conscious about it, but don’t let anyone mock you so that you don’t take the way you feel seriously.

If you think you may have asthma, see a doctor. If your chest feels tight and wheezy when you exert yourself, you get a metallic taste in your mouth,and you can’t quite catch your breath when you exercise, then see a doctor. Please.

If you do have exercise-induced asthma, you just have to train your body and strengthen your lungs. Just make sure to keep your inhaler nearby–I keep my albuterol inhaler nearby when working out, even when I haven’t had an attack in months.

You ARE Different. Train Like It.

A talk with my doctor really opened my eyes about how to approach running with asthma. I had been prescribed an albuterol inhaler and told only to use it when I had an attack. However, when I switched to a new doc, she told me that it was okay to take a dose before I ran, that she had a swimmer friend who did that. It had made all the difference.

So I tried it, and it worked. It was awesome. That first day, I ran longer and could breathe better than I ever had before.

The problem, though, was that I still couldn’t quite hit the intervals I wanted to. I came closer, but I still couldn’t progress as fast as some of the training programs wanted me to.

And again, after a while, I realized that was okay. If you have asthma, you aren’t the program’s target audience. You’re different. You have a medical condition.

In general, a good rule of thumb is doubling the length of an interval training program to account for asthma. If a program or app says it can get you into running a 5k in 9 weeks, then you’re probably safe to assume that it would take someone with asthma 18-20.

Don’t feel bad about that, either. You’ll get there.

It might take you longer to hit certain milestones than someone without asthma, but you’re overcoming a lot more than just leg aches, shin splints, and scheduling conflicts to get to the gym, you know?

If you look at it like that…you’re kind of a badass, ya know?

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

My wife and I started running at about the same time. Admittedly, she was in better shape than I was, but I wasn’t too far behind, having already lost right at 100 lbs. We both kept approximately the same running schedule, and by the time she was running a solid two miles, I was just breaking into my first nonstop mile.

And I have to admit that I was pretty bummed out about it. Here I was, in the best shape of my life, and my wife was progressing twice as fast as I was. It was disheartening. I probably got kind of pissy about it.

Until I finally wrapped my head around that she didn’t have asthma. Sure, she was running twice as much as I was, but how did that affect me?

Answer: It Didn’t. At All.

So I stopped comparing myself to her and started listening to my own body. I would alter my pace based on how tight my chest felt. Some days, my intervals were 5 minutes long. Other days, they were 10. Sometimes, I had to walk a full 6 minutes before being able to jog for 2.

But in the end, when I stopped thinking of myself as inferior, I was able to push through the asthma and become a runner. In fact, at our first race together, I ran a 27 minute 5k, while my wife did 31 minutes.

I won. (But her trophy is bigger.)

The trophy I won in my first 5k race, despite running with asthma

You Can Do This, Asthma Friend!

It is definitely possible to run with asthma. Even exercise-induced asthma. It’s not just a fallback excuse so fat people can get out of exercise. It’s a legitimate health condition. Having any kind of asthma is no reason not to run or to exercise in general. Sure, there’s something to deal with, but it’s not an immovable wall.

If you know how to train for it and take the right precautions, there’s no reason why you can’t become a runner if you’re got asthma.

You might train slower than some folks. You might have to slow down and do run-walk-run intervals instead of solidly running for miles upon miles. And you might have to keep your handy-dandy inhaler with you wherever you go.

Running with asthma–and learning to live with exercise-induced asthma–has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Dealing with it has made me stronger and more capable. I am in the best shape of my life, and I am doing something that I love despite having a major medical issue that many people think is inhibiting.

Asthma really isn’t. You just…kind of have to outrun it a bit.

What have your experiences been with asthma and running? Let me know in the comments or hit me up on Twitter!

B.J. Keeton

B.J. Keeton

B.J. is a geek, gamer, podcaster, and livestreamer. He has been the co-host of the Geek to Geek podcast since 2016, and he helped start the Geek to Geek Media Network. His biggest pet peeve is when someone spells Wookiee with only one E. One time, he told his friends he liked vegetables maybe more than he did Star Wars, and they made him put a dollar in the jar. That should tell you everything you need to know about him. Find him on Twitter as @professorbeej or on Discord as @professorbeej#1337.

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2 Comments

  1. Pam

    Thank you for the much needed inspiration! I have asthma and I am just starting to run, and I find it very discouraging. I googled running with asthma apps and there are none.
    Did you use an app or a program when you started out?

    Reply
    • Darlene Waters

      I personally am not aware of any app for this. Think of your lungs as a muscle group like any other that needs to be strengthened through exercise, but especially through high intensity workouts. I began with run walk intervals—because well, you’ll pass out if you don’t 😁

      If it means 20 or 30 seconds at a time of running, then 3-5 minutes of walking for 20-30 minutes for a week, two, or a month—do what it takes. Running is worth it and you can do it. It does get better, I’ve been there, too.

      Reply

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