I was diagnosed with asthma when I was 18 months old. My paternal grandmother has acute asthma so it was inevitable that one of her descendants would get it too. I won that lottery. Growing up I was a scrawny kid that was never too far away from her nebulizer. I was in and out of the hospital a lot as a child. Had at least a couple of near-death experiences before the age of 5, including once passing out on a dance floor at a wedding. They administered CPR and brought me back to life. Another time I passed out while playing and woke up in the emergency room. My asthma is exercise-induced and emotional and now that I’m older allergy-induced. Thankfully, as I got older, I got better at managing my asthma. I didn’t want to spend my whole life tied down to my albuterol inhaler or any of the other steroids they pumped me full of. When I was 12 years old, I finally got a pulmonologist that understood that shying away from exercise wasn’t the answer. He encouraged me to exercise and put me on a high protein diet. And did things finally start to improve! So if you’re an asthmatic here are my tips for training with asthma.
- Adjust Your Routine Depending on Your Respiration That Day – Maybe you assigned today as a cardio day and were planning on running on the treadmill but if you wake up that morning feeling a little wheezy don’t feel obligated to do the exercise you prescribed for yourself yesterday, instead adjust your routine for that day. If I’m feeling a little wheezy the morning of a cardio day instead of running, I’ll do something a little less intensive but that gets my heart rate up well into the 140s like cycling at a moderate pace. I’ll then pair that with some floor work to train the abdominals and call it a workout well done! Remember not to be hard on yourself when you make these adjustments, just showing up is pushing yourself on those wheezy days.
- Get a Heart Rate Monitor – I wear an Apple Watch and it’s been a game changer for me. It’s helped me learn what my maximum heart rate is before my lungs can’t keep up anymore. For me, after months of training, I can now sit in the upper 160s for about a minute before my lungs can’t get the air out fast enough to keep up. You can think of this maximum heart rate as hot coals, you should get comfortable walking across them but don’t just stand there for too long because you’ll burn your feet. You want to push yourself so you improve your lung function over time but make sure you learn when it’s time to slow down on the treadmill or take a break between box jumps.
- Drink Cold Water – I walk around the gym with a tall insulated water bottle that’s filled with ice cold water. Asthma is an inflammatory condition; the airways become inflamed which causes them to narrow and it becomes difficult for air to escape. Ice cold water helps to cool your chest wall down quickly thereby helping alleviate that inflammation just enough to get some air out when you’re feeling really blocked off. Whenever I’m having a difficult time breathing during a training session, I stop and I grab my water bottle and down some water. Additionally, cold water stimulates the vagus nerve which makes your heart rate slow down. So if your heart’s in that danger zone it’ll come down really quick. Plus you should be staying hydrated anyway.
- Do High-Intensity Interval Training – My cardio days consist of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), it’s just too hard for me to run for a prolonged period of time at a steady running pace, not to mention it’s a little boring to me. It’s not that asthmatics can’t train themselves to be great marathon runners it’s just a hard endeavor depending on the severity of your asthma that would require daily training in my opinion. HIIT is just better suited for my personal fitness goals. Previously, asthmatics were steered away from HIIT training because it was presumed to be “too intensive” for them but the high-intensity part is whatever you make it. You can decide what your max is on any given day. This study out of the University of Toledo shows just how efficacious HIIT can be to improve an asthmatic’s overall lung function. Since starting HIIT my pulse oximeter readings are routinely above 98. And when I ran that 5k last month (mostly ran) my VO2 measurement was 36.07 which for a 32-year-old woman puts me in the good range. Did I mention I didn’t die during that run?
- Lift Some Weights – Weight training may be associated with building muscle but it’s actually a really great cardiovascular exercise if you’re lifting a challenging amount of weight. If you’ve got your handy heart rate monitor you’ll see that lifting those 90lbs on that deadlift shoot your heart rate up into the 150s easily. Why? Because you’re asking your body to exert a great deal of force in a very short period of time so your heart has to fill your muscles with blood to get them all the oxygen they need to accomplish the feat. One way I keep the cardiovascular benefits high for me while I weight train is I do most of my lifting standing up, I very seldom sit down on a bench unless it’s absolutely necessary. Yesterday was a weight training day for me and my average heart rate was 137bpm.
- Avoid Group Fitness Classes – I don’t do group fitness classes, not because I don’t think they would be fun but more because I don’t know how I’m going to react to exercise from one day to the next. Most days now I feel great and can even make people who don’t have asthma look bad but I just never really know. With group classes, you’re forced to do a prescribed exercise at a certain time for a certain duration. It can be really discouraging to be the only person who has to take a break mid-Zumba class or mid-Crossfit WOD. I actually love a lot of the philosophy behind Crossfit and use a lot of it in my own training but I don’t belong to a Crossfit gym because I don’t want to feel obligated to do a certain set of exercises on a particular day when maybe I just can’t manage it. If you want a group fitness feeling, gather a couple of your friends and agree to go to the gym together. That way you can cheer each other on but because you’re pals you’ll be understanding and loving about the limitations you each have.
- Always Remember it’s Okay to Stop – My most important tip is that it’s okay to stop. You don’t need to impress anyone. Fitness is personal and therefore should be personalized. Some days you’re going to do feats that seem supernatural and then other days you’re going to barely be able to lift that dumbbell. It’s all okay. The most important thing is that you show up and try your best. When you feel that you can’t sprint any longer or you can’t take another jump. STOP. Let your heart rate go back down to a comfortable elevated rate and then start your next set. The more you do the better you’ll get. Listen to your body, it always knows what it needs. When we lose our connection to our bodies that’s when we run into problems.
- And of course, Keep Your Inhaler on You – You should always have your inhaler on you in case the above tips don’t work. I’m happy to say that I have not had to use my inhaler while at the gym in the last 4 months but you never know when those burpees might get the best of you.
Don’t be afraid to push yourself. Just because you have asthma does not mean you cannot be an amazing athlete. Get yourself a coach or personal trainer who understands that your training will need to be a little different. Find sports that can accommodate your abilities like football, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming sprint-syle. If Dennis Rodman could make it to the NBA (that’s right he has asthma) there’s nothing you can’t do.
Let me know in the comments if you have asthma. If you do, how did you adjust your training to make it easier for yourself? If you have any questions about something I didn’t cover about my own asthma journey ask me in the comments. Hope this helps some of you all out there. Remember to join the e-mail list so you never miss a post.
Love y’all! Keep lifting!!