Running with asthma … in COVID times

By Tracy Shouldice, Otto’s Ottawa Power Crew member

Hey there runners and friends, a good friend suggested that I pen something about running with asthma. Given that we are living in COVID times, that asthmatics are particularly vulnerable to COVID, and that it’s spring race season, I felt the timing was good.

I am an asthmatic. And I’m also a runner. And, if I do say so myself, a fairly competitive one. I tend to place in the top 10-12% of finishers in races. In a few, I’ve been top-3 for my age group, which I’m pretty happy about.

In some ways, I’m fortunate. Most of my asthma (diagnosed when I was five years old) is triggered by environmental stuff: fur, dander, feathers, dust, moulds and pollens – the usual suspects. That said, if I try to exert myself on a really cold day (and Ottawa has many of those) I can end up quite short of breath until I take my rescue inhaler.

That said, asthma does affect my running, even if there are no allergens present. The reason is reduced lung capacity. At any given time, my lungs simply cannot ingest the same amount of air & oxygen as a pair of normal, healthy lungs. I’ve scored poorly on pretty much every pulmonary test I’ve taken in my life. My poor lungs just can’t do it. It’s a physical reality I’ve learned to live with (more on coping with asthma later).

If you’re not asthmatic: imagine plugging your nose and then duct-taping your pursed mouth around a small straw. Then, run your race. You can’t take the tape off, and you can’t unplug your nose. That straw is all you’ve got. That’s the best description I can come up with to describe what it’s like to run as an asthmatic.

I cannot tell you how many times after a race, a first responder has approached me to ask, “Sir, are you all right?” because they think I’m about to bonk, hard. Especially in 5k and 10k races, where you pretty much go full-throttle the whole distance. I can hardly breathe when I’m done and even talking is difficult. I just wave off the well-meaning first-aid people, I’ve never needed them, thank goodness – but it’s good to know they are close by and paying attention!

After my interval workouts, people have been known to observe that I breathe unusually hard. For quite a while after we stop.

And most of my race pictures look like this … it’s not pretty:

Mouth-Breathers Anonymous – Founding Member

However – there are several things I do to mitigate and/or prevent undesirable outcomes:

  • I warm up before a race or interval workout, so that I don’t jump out of the gate “cold.” It makes a big difference in terms of the strain on the heart & lungs, especially in the first 2-3 kilometres.
  • On really cold days, I’ll be sure to go outside for a few minutes before running – and I’ll start relatively easy so as not to overload my system.
  • I bring my Ventolin (rescue inhaler) with me if I know I’m going to be running super hard or if it’s unusually cold out.
  • If I’m not feeling “great” from a cardiopulmonary perspective before a run, I have a sober chat with myself: “is THIS [training run, fun run or interval workout] the hill I want to die on?” Sometimes, it’s best just to enjoy the journey instead of stressing over the destination.
  • I wear a RoadID wrist band so that if for some reason I do collapse or pass out, someone will know who to contact. It states that I’m asthmatic. While it has never had to be used, it is well worth the modest investment for the peace of mind it brings me and my family when I’m out on a solo run.
  • I never, EVER wear someone else’s bib in a race. Why? If I pass out and I’m wearing someone else’s bib, bad things can happen. Like, REALLY bad things.
  • And finally – I do all the preventative stuff that I can – including taking a steroid-based preventative inhaler every day, and antihistamines when the environmental factors complicate things. This is just life when you are asthmatic.

This year, I got an extra surprise: COVID paid me a visit on March 23, just four days before the Around the Bay 30k race – a race I originally had signed up for in 2020, and which had been deferred several times since. There was no way THAT was happening. So – I’ll have to wait one more year to meet the Grim Reaper in the Hammer.

What I wasn’t ready for, was the “long tail” of recovery from COVID. Based on this CBC article, I’m not alone on that front as a runner. Even healthy, active runners are struggling to get back on the bus, including Yours Truly. I’m now 22 days past day zero and am still coughing a bit, and generally congested and fatigued. And did I mention that I’m training for the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon on May 29? COVID has thrown my training into a bit of chaos: the last few weeks I was supposed to run 50-60k per week; I ran ZERO kilometres in the first 10 days of COVID, and have logged only about half of my prescribed training volume since.

So – what’s an asthmatic runner to do? As the CBC article says, shift your expectations. Listen to your body. Go out there, but try something easy at first. Maybe a slow (and I mean, SLOW) 1k or 2K run/walk. If that works, try an easy 7k next. Then maybe try something a bit up-tempo – but only a few kilometres to start because you’ve dialed up the pace. You have to play the long game when it’s your lungs and heart doing the work. It’s simply not worth the price you’ll pay otherwise.

I’m pleased to say that I ran a pretty good interval workout recently and feel that I’m getting close to being back on my training regimen. But if this COVID thing persists and I can’t get out there enough between now and May 29 to do as well as I wanted to in the marathon (sub-4:00), I’m not going to sweat it. Instead, I’ll shift my expectations. I’ll make a conscious decision in the starting corral to enjoy the journey, not the destination. I’ll high-five some kids; I’ll thank the people with clever signs, and whoop up the crowd, and hug any friends I see along the way. I might even walk through a few water stations. If that’s the worst outcome I face, I’m good with that.

Tracy is a 2019 Team Awesome Alumni, has been a Run Ottawa member since 2010, and has run in every Race Weekend since. This year he’ll log his fifth marathon (and fourth Ottawa Marathon). Tracy runs to raise awareness and funding for worthwhile causes; since 2017, he has run for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. When not running, Tracy is often found pairing his favourite carbs with coffee (the stronger the better) or beer (again, the stronger the better). He also plays drums and piano for fun. He looks forward to seeing everyone at Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend 2022! You can read more entries from Tracy’s blog here.