Thanks to the continuous physical exertion it requires, and being a largely outdoor activity – thus exposing asthmatics to environmental triggers – running is, alas, a particularly strong asthma trigger. Charity Asthma UK report that over three-quarters of their correspondents have reported exercise such as running as a trigger. But it needn’t be the end of the road: famously, Paula Radcliffe was diagnosed with asthma at 14, and 25% of the London 2012 Team GB athletics squad had it. It doesn’t have to hold you back and there are ways around it.
Where you run
Although air pollution levels in the UK overall are relatively low, some major cities have levels high enough to cause concern, and traffic pollution is getting worse. In fact, pollution is just as bad for runners who suffer from hay fever, says Maureen Jenkins, clinical director of Allergy UK, as pollens cling to particulates from petrol and diesel fumes. She suggests: “Avoid running next to busy roads, or on areas where there are lots of grass or trees.”
This can be an incredibly difficult obstacle to overcome, particularly for runners in cities such as London (academics have claimed that London’s Oxford Street has the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution in the world). Dr Samantha Walker, director of research and policy at Asthma UK, says: “Two-thirds of people with asthma tell us that pollution makes their asthma worse. The combination of air pollution and exercise increases this further. This could be because you usually inhale more air and breathe it more deeply into your lungs during aerobic activity – often through your mouth instead of your nose, which would normally filter airborne pollution particles.”
When you run
Season and time of day can make a huge difference. Jenkins adds: “If you are allergic to pollens, running early in the morning and early evening is more likely to trigger symptoms, as there are more pollens in the air at this time of day.”
Try to plan ahead to avoid days when pollen is likely to be a problem all day long. Try running after rain showers, when pollen is dispersed, although high levels of mould spores released during damp weather can affect some asthmatics in similar ways to hay fever. Shower straight after you run to ensure all pollen is removed from your hair and clothes, and consider taking antihistamines as a preventative measure.
If you are concerned about pollution, smog and air quality are at their worst later in the day. If you live in a particularly busy city, an early morning run may be advisable.
Cold weather is a particularly strong trigger due to the lack of moisture in the air. When running, you breathe through your mouth, which doesn’t have the warming, humidifying, filtering effect that your nose does, thus making you more susceptible. To counteract this, a fleece scarf or neck warmer to cover your mouth could help – and drink warm water, rather than cold.
How you run
If you’re a runner who loves intervals then good news: well-utilised recovery sessions in between intervals can be perfect for avoiding exercise-induced asthma. The recovery aspect of intervals gives your lungs time to recover as well as your legs, especially if it is used to focus on deep, slower breathing and lowering your heart rate. Bursts of interval running also serve as a great warm-up to trigger minor respiratory muscle spasms and symptoms, thereby reducing the likelihood of serious spasms later on during a longer run.
However, if fast-paced running and the exertion it requires is clearly a severe trigger for your asthma, then it may be an idea to train for distance, rather than pace or time. Look at upping your distances and perhaps training long-distance – try training for a half-marathon or a marathon rather than sprints.
By adjusting your running schedule to your individual needs and avoiding running when there are low temperatures, high pollen or high pollution, there need be no reason why you should have to avoid running altogether. The exercise will do wonders for strengthening your respiratory muscles, and the health benefits of running will far outweigh the precautions you take to do it.