My exercise life has taken a sudden upward turn since I started getting appropriate meds for asthma. I’m so excited about it I’m probably boring all of my friends. I think I have probably had some asthma my whole life, without knowing it. My mother had very severe asthma since childhood. That was back in the 50’s, before it was so common. She also smoked through her pregnancy with me, which in addition to genetics increased my risk for asthma. This was in the time before the dangers of smoking had been exposed. I think she believed it was beneficial in keeping her pregnancy weight gain down. Thanks, tobacco industry!
Mom’s asthma caused periodic loud wheezing and sometimes she would have to go to the hospital because she was having so much trouble breathing. I also remember an ad from years ago that compared asthma to trying to breathe through a straw. That all sounds terrible, and I was glad I never had an experience like that. However, I do remember crawling out of the pool after swimming 200 free and lying on the cold tile struggling for breath for a long time before I could stand up. But it was a personal best time and no one seemed to think it was unusual that I couldn’t breathe after my race. I was always absolute crap at sprints. Like shockingly bad even for my normal state of performance in other races. For example, I could swim a 1 minute 100, but never could do better than 30 seconds in a 50. That doesn’t actually make sense. It’s consistent with asthma, though. The longer the race, the more recovery time the lungs have, and you can make up time later after the constriction passes. My best events were the 200 and 500.
And I had a lot of disappointments in swimming with not reaching my personal goals in spite of training just as hard or harder than the other girls. I remember complaining about it one time to a coach. “Why does she swim so much faster than me, when I work harder than her?”
The coach, Mr. Edwards, leaned over and said, “You see what’s coming out of her ears?”
“What?” I said.
“Talent,” he answered.
And that is what I believed. I just wasn’t talented. And, paradoxically, that I wasn’t working hard enough.
It wasn’t until my sister talked me into running a 5k with her in September of this year that I took the idea seriously that I might have asthma. I wasn’t in shape to run a 5k, but I knew I could run part of it and walk the rest. I was surprised when I started running that after I got through my normal starting-to-run coughing fits (clue: this is a symptom of asthma), I realized I was struggling to breathe. I made it through the 5k, but it was very clear for the first time that I was having a really hard time breathing.
My sister, who is in medical school, told me I probably had exercise induced asthma. I called my doctor and got an albuterol inhaler to use before working out. As soon as I used it the first time, I noticed I felt a lot better. Instantly. Another doctor visit revealed that I have straight up regular asthma.
I now have two inhalers, one for instant relief, and one for long term control. And a strange thing has happened when I exercise. I am getting better, stronger, and faster each time, I am enjoying myself, and I am not ded of fatigue for a long period after.
As my asthma worsened over the past year (or two), I had unconsciously begun avoiding exercise. When I did work out, I blamed myself for my poor performance. I remember looking around a yoga class back in September, around the time of my 5k, and wondering why I was basically the worst student in the room. I was coming out of all the poses early, and taking tons of breaks. I had been practicing for six years? Why did I suck so much? I always assumed it was because I didn’t go frequently enough to improve, but that is true of a majority of other other students, also.
Now I go to yoga class and I’m a rock star. Each class I’m better than the last. I feel like I’m improving class over class–instantly. This is how it’s supposed to work. Running is the same. I actually have to discipline myself not to add distance too soon, because that increases the risk of injury. Each run is much better than the last. Again, this is how it’s supposed to work.
Concurrently, I had a cool thing happen with my back. I’ve had “tight hamstrings” for years, and consequently have never been able to get very far in any pose that involves forward bending while holding your foot. I figured out a couple years ago that the problem was really in my lower back. The tightness in my lower back and hips put strain on the hamstrings. Basically, it meant that all of the responsibility for “stretching” in the forward bend was on the hamstrings–they are overstretched, while my back stays tight. It increases risk of injuring a hamstring, and the pose looks awkwardly rounded. Instead of “folding in half,” you’re balling up like a roly poly bug.
At a yoga workshop, I got an awesome hands-on correction for one of my forward bends (standing separate leg stretching). As I worked on my improved pose in class, I heard the words “relax your lower back,” and FWUMP, the muscles in my lower back relaxed FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER and suddenly I was forward bending like a rock star.
I’m not sure if it was the correction or if it was finally just time, but it’s such a great breakthrough and so timely with the asthma diagnosis. I feel like my yoga practice is new again, and I really enjoy going running now.
I think, essentially, my restricted breathing was stopping me before I could reach my “edge.” And when you can’t get to the edge, you can’t improve. I’m so glad I found my edge again. It feels great. It’s a strange thing when a worsening health condition leads to quality of life improvement.
I’m still not 100 percent. I still feel a bit of burning and breathlessness in cool air. I am still having some nighttime coughing on days I work out. I have a followup visit scheduled with my doctor, and I’ll be talking to her about either more or different meds to get this completely under control. I’m feeling so empowered!
I have known a lot of people who say they “hate exercise” and feel miserable when they do it. I’ve never hated it, but I know now that feeling limited in your breathing is an intensely uncomfortable feeling and a strong disincentive to do anything that triggers that feeling. And I know you can be unaware of it. I think many people who hate exercise may actually have asthma and not know it.