Asthma – What it’s like, both in life & in sport

Well this lengthy update is about a different kind of obstacle and one that I’ve that I’ve faced all my life – Asthma. It’s a challenge that I have triumphed over in places but in others I’ve really struggled with. I guess this update is about that struggle.

Over the last 14 months Asthma has come back into my life in a big way, seriously impacting some of my results and also my training. I’ve written this blog update about 10 times in that year, reading them back some of those were very negative, others pessimistic or angry. I’ve been through a big period of reflection with my situation over the recent months and I hope now that this update might be of some more positive value to others in my situation, or just to help understanding of Asthma in general. I have to stress that this update is my own personal opinion, and description of Asthma in the way that I understand it – sufferers should always seek qualified medical advice.

So why do a blog update? Well it comes down to 3 parts really – firstly when things have been going well with my breathing in the past I’ve actually wanted to help the community out a little, maybe doing some work with young Asthma sufferers to tell them things will be ok and that you can go on to do athletic things in adult life. Second I think I’m writing this to try to shed some light onto what it’s like to have Asthma for a non-Asthma sufferer. Part of my issue when I was young and even in recent years is the views of Asthma (often quite judgemental) and misunderstandings which can be very frustrating and isolating. But lastly I guess I’m now mainly writing this update for me, as there is a lot of psychology linked to Asthma and it’s healthy to get it all out, Blog-Therapy I guess!

The story starts in my childhood. I’ve had chronic Asthma from a young age but in the last year have also developed EIA / EIB (to explain, Asthma is split in two divides, Chronic Asthma for those that have full Asthma – all the time, with numerous triggers and then there is EIA or Exercise Induced Asthma also known as EIB Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction) The later only has an impact during exercise, its primarily driven by our need to breathe through our mouth when under high CV load. The body doesn’t have chance to warm the air properly in the nasal passage and this can bring on Asthma symptoms during exercise.

Having a childhood illness can be a confusing thing. My parents did a brilliant job at always explaining things to me, and actually as a child you are used to being told what to do – where to go and what needs to be done. So all the trips & stays in hospitals and searches for an answer were probably more stressful on my Mum and Dad – I always saw the fun side. In fact I have very fond memories of needing to come to the homeopath centre in London as it meant a trip on the train, and visits to the science or history museums afterwards which I just loved. In all honesty being an inquisitive child I also enjoyed the appointments themselves. The specialists where always great with me and I was interested to learn and ask questions!

I didn’t understand the triggers as a child, and an asthma attack is a very scary thing – for anyone. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I can only assume it’s what a CS gas attack must feel like – or akin to being trapped underwater or in a smoke filled room. As humans we are so used to our breathing happening automatically, but when it doesn’t you really only have a few seconds to react and it quickly becomes serious. I guess another simulation is if you were to put your head under the covers in bed for ten minutes – after a while it becomes very hard to breath. That’s akin to how asthma feels for me.

The connotations with asthma are panicky ‘unfit’ people appearing to hyperventilate to get out of sport! Often people think the answer is to try to get them to calm down, which is true – but that hyperventilation in my experience happens because in the preceding minute the person could not get their breath, and this escalation often happens quite rapidly.

As a child I never felt that restricted by my asthma. I was bullied about it sure, but I never really got too upset by bullies. I was highly allergic, especially to artificial ingredients – I knew I had limitations but that more meant I couldn’t eat chocolate or drink Coke on school trips. Again over time this wasn’t something I felt I missed out on. In some instances I would be given ‘treats’ at parties or my friends mums who felt sorry for me or thought my Mum was too strict – these would then set me off and I quickly learnt that actions have consequences and nothing tastes as good as breathing feels I can assure you! So I did miss out on E numbers but not really anything else.

I talked earlier about judgement, and this is because as an Asthma sufferer it’s very hard to get your point across to those that don’t have it. It can be frustrating and people have these ideas of what Asthma is, which are often wholly wrong. Well there is something I need to admit now, I too was judgemental as a child. Let me explain.

My Mum and Dad threw themselves into finding a solution for my problems. I had Asthma but also Eczema and this put them onto a quest to work out why. My mum, in the mid 80’s started to look into organic products and washing powders that didn’t contain detergents that set me off. She started talking about avoiding E numbers – colourings, flavourings and preservatives. She tried me without dairy, without sugar, and supplemented my clean diet with Vitamins and Minerals – Mum and Dad actually shifted their entire careers into working for a firm that sold products that were ecological and better for me. To be honest they were so ahead of their time everyone thought they were mad and actually cruel for what I was / was not allowed. If they had been taking the same steps around 2000-2005 I reckon they would have ended up millionaires by now. The world gets it all now – but back in the 80’s Asthma was rare and understanding the impact from Nutrition and external factors was low. (Mum – I’d like to take the time to thank you both at this point, I know I must have been a huge worry and I do appreciate everything you did for me!)

I’m grateful as it really started my knowledge of nutrition at a young age – something that I went on to study at college and am fascinated by to this day!

So back to my point around my own judgemental views – Those that know my mum know how social she is, and in her quest to get to the bottom of my asthma she made a lot of friends in new circles. Many of these also had children with Asthma who became my friends, and in all honesty I just never felt as ill as them. I was – in a lot of cases I was worse, but most of them seemed to be severely limited by Asthma to a point where it was a disability. I guess my judgement was that in a way they were taking it all too seriously and were too protected and that in fact through will power should be able to do more, it was like they hid behind it to not do things. So in my own way I judged someone else and how they were effected.

As I grew my management of asthma became better through diet, avoidance of triggers (E numbers, dust mites, cats, some pollen, chemicals, perfumes etc) homeopathy and use of the correct inhalers. Inhalers is a topic I’ll quickly touch on. As a child I didn’t have a lot of time for the preventer style inhalers. To explain there are several types of inhalers for Asthma. The most common is the Blue inhaler which is the core reliever. This is the first step for most sufferers and as you feel Asthma kick in you can take it to widen the airways, really for all of us this is the ‘Magic’ bullet, and it’s nearly immediate. The next inhaler you end up on is the preventer style, which when I was a child was a capsule / powder style then went onto cream / brown inhalers. These are inhaled Corticosteroids are hormones that are produced naturally by the adrenal glands. They have many important functions, including control of inflammatory responses. Beclometasone is a synthetic corticosteroid and is used to decrease inflammation in the lungs. (NB. Corticosteroids are often simply called steroids, but it should be noted that they are very different from another group of steroids, called anabolic steroids, which have gained notoriety because of their abuse by some athletes and body builders.) Anyway this type of inhaler is taken daily but actually doesn’t help you to feel any better – but you must take it to build up the levels which should help prevent asthma flaring up but as a child I could rarely see the point! The last and more modern option are combination inhalers – these contain long acting reliever drugs (like the blue one but last up to 12 hours) and the steroid. So it limits the number of inhalers you need to carry.

The instant gratification of the blue inhaler to relieve symptoms makes it the Asthma sufferer’s best friend – and it can actually generate quite a panic if you can’t find your inhaler.

So as I grew up I became less dependent on the reliever, and slowly managed to stop using the preventer’s. So really from my early teens right through to 2014 I was virtually asthma clear – I always had the blue inhaler nearby but only needed to use it rarely and in particular situations. I also found when I lived in the Alps that I had virtually no need for it at all.

Well that situation changed for me last year. For the last 3 years I’ve been training pretty heavily, and have needed the blue inhaler on occasion during sessions. I also have my races. To start with I was ok at races, but always carried the inhaler with me. I rarely needed it mid race but on occasion did and just had to time it when I wasn’t too badly out of breath! Last year it became a very different situation.

On top of my step change in Asthma,  2014 was a chronic year for hay fever and allergy sufferers in general. I understand it was due to a late start in some pollens which meant everything came at once – meaning a very intense season that ran on. I have known 5-6 people diagnosed with Asthma who have never had it before. And I know many non-Asthma sufferers who struggled with pollen etc.

Well for me the timing could not have been worse. I spent 2013 into 2014 focused on improving my fitness levels & pace – I increased the tempo at which I was training and I felt at my peak all-round fitness level, ready to race. The early races in the year were extreme cold endurance events and they went by without any huge problems as they are more about survival, but early February I had a faster paced race that I struggled at. Again I raced in March and I seriously struggled. I had my inhaler but trying to inhale enough of it at pace was hard – and it just didn’t seem to have a big enough effect. This theme plagued me through the whole 2014 race season and into 2015.

This is another area I want to explain. The impact. A full asthma attack can stop you in your tracks. Coughing / wheezing – it’s terrible. And I haven’t had that in adult life. My asthma is more of a raised restriction. Where I go through day to day life with what feels like a 10-15% restriction to my breathing in a race this can go up to 30-40%. I’m ok to continue but breathing becomes difficult and the impact is a huge loss of energy. In short you are not getting enough oxygen. It would be like the average population running with a training mask or wet scarf over their mouth. You can breathe but as the steps continue your every step becomes laboured. I’ve found the blue inhaler less effective at the same time – my Asthma has had an acute attack meaning that the inflammation in my lungs has got really bad, temporary damage has been done or maybe other complications.

Now I know people don’t always understand if I mention it, as I get comments – “but you finished the race” And I did. “You have had some good results this year” and I did – however I know I’m capable of more. And it’s that feeling that has driven my frustration to the maximum. I want to finish a race with my legs on fire, exhausted and collapse over the finish line – But instead I finish the race feeling suffocated and laboured. Then at rest within 5-10 minutes my energy returns with normal breathing and I feel I could do the distance again as my pace was not pushed physically. Likewise the last person on earth I want to be at the finish line is the guy making excuses.

Alongside this performance frustration is the frustration of treatment. For the last 14 months I have chased, hounded and pushed my treatment forward but with no solution in view. My personal experience of Doctors is that they have a pathway to follow that has no real individual adaption for the patients they see. One of my initial responses from a GP was “well if it only impacts you when you run hard, just don’t run” I mean? Yes for most illnesses avoidance is a great answer, however to say that to an athlete (by that term I don’t in any way want to make myself sounds like a Pro or someone at the top of their game, merely a term to describe myself as someone that undertakes regular competitive athletic sport) is so unhelpful. I’ve tried everything the GP’s suggested, with no improvement. Additionally I undertook a series of private tests with Brunel University which were incredibly helpful and yet to get a solution from the NHS on those results or to even have them fully interpreted has been a real battle.

I’m not intending to damn the NHS here, but I’m talking about frustrations or a lack of empathy to someone’s individual situation and the time taken to progress. And here is my real concern for others – I’m motivated to resolve my Asthma, I’m a driven person – I chase, push, escalate, I don’t care who I speak to or how to get something resolved, I will knock down barriers to get to what I want – and yet in 14 months I’ve had no progress. So who I worry about is the less driven people. The people or even worse, children & teenagers who try sport and struggle to breathe so hate it – and who may never again return to sport in their life because of the unaddressed breathing problems. It really could shape someone’s life at an early age if not corrected, and that I worry about. The correlation between weight and breathing difficulties is known, but history of both for the individual could give us a root cause perhaps?

I’ve been through some tough times mentally, over the last 6 months especially but I am starting to keep things in balance. I will find a solution to this, and am working with a new Consultant who is very interested in my case. Frankly I just want to know what’s going on, good or bad – so I can adapt and overcome. I have some races to win, and if it’s not in OCR then there will be an athletic sport out there for me.

I hope in part this update helps people understand what it’s like to experience Asthma and the frustration that can go with it. It’s meant to be positive or at the very least informative – That’s my reason for finally pulling this together, and combined with the fact its World Asthma Day it seemed the right time.

Feel free to get in touch via Comments below, or Social Media if you want to discuss this or any of my updates.

Luke

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About Luke Lawrence

@SpartanRace, Obstacle Course Racer, adventurer, extreme sports enthusiast supported by @biosynergy http://www.bio-synergy.co.uk #makeithappen
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10 Responses to Asthma – What it’s like, both in life & in sport

  1. Emma Briscoe says:

    A really interesting article. My daughter is a 15 year old table tennis player who has had controlled asthma for years until last October when it became unstable and resulting in a rubbish 8 months with little progress in getting it under control. She has struggled through some competitions and missed many others, battling on is so tiring both physically and mentally. She never feels at her best and is glued to her blue inhaler as it is literally her lifeline. Luckily she loves her sport and hadn’t given up but it would be so easy for her to do so. The better weather brings new challenges such as pollen but hopefully things are settling now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Emma, thanks for the comment. I’m really sorry to hear that about your daughter, I think we just have to keep pushing, keep going. Once we start to stop doing things early or let artificial barriers stop us achieving or doing the things we want – well that’s really the road to ruin & personal shut down. Of course there are limitations in this world, we have to be realistic, but I think that’s the frustrating thing with Asthma as the solution often feels within reach or just out of! I hope she gets sorted and my personal advice is keep pushing, GP’s / retests / different preventers etc to get as close as you can. All the best for you both, Luke.

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  2. Jen says:

    Hi,

    Thanks so much for this post. I was diagnosed as an asthmatic about 6 years ago as a result of taking my level of sport to a higher intensity (& also had a very strong family history).

    You have articulated how I often feel when doing higher intensity training. I find it very restrictive when rowing in crew boats and having to say to 7 other athletes that I need to stop. I would be interested to find out more about your testing at Brunel and whether it’s produced any further insight into training thresholds in certain weather / pollen / pollution conditions.

    I agree also with the negative vibes that you sometimes get when asking a medical professional about doing sport with asthma. I work in the nhs and find these quite defeatist. I tend to use a healthy measure of common sense and knowledge of my body (& peak flow readings, though I find they often don’t simulate the feelings of a tight band around my chest) but obviously this is a personal coping mechanism and not medical advice!!

    Thanks again.

    Jen

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jen, thanks for the comment, sorry to hear you also have troubles. I hoped that writing this would help others and I think already I’ve heard from several people in a similar situation so we’re not alone. I think private / independent testing can certainly help you to understand what’s going on, that data can help GP’s or respiratory consultants as well. For me it was seeing the addition of EIB (EIA) to my normal Chronic asthma, having that confirmed and then tricks that I could do to avoid or lessen the EIB element (for me its a good warm up, way longer than I would normally, even if it brings EIB on I then have time to use the inhaler, recover for the start of an event, my lungs then seem to have a period where EIB is less prevalent following an initial tightening. I hope that’s clear? As for NHS, I understand that they need a blanket approach / pathway but the empathy for athletes almost needs a different path, my fear is people being put off sport. Its important for us to keep fit for many reasons, but actually directly for us working the lungs in a safe way is vital to ongoing lung health . As an example my actual lung volume / capacity is well up from the norm (20% up from what mine should be), because of my training (and I understand that can be common for asthmatics, I guess we push the lung harder? not sure on exact science) but regardless that puts me in a better position going forward as even with reduced lung function I have less function of a bigger capacity, so its better that I have / do train. Lastly, peak flows are a great gauge but I personally struggle to be consistent, I’ve also done some work with a pulse monitor, as when the asthma is bad I’ve seen my pulse rate get really high, in that instances its that strain I feel as well as the breathing. In short I find that Asthma makes us appear less fit than we really are so say an effort where I should see 160 bpm, if breathing is laboured I may see 180bpm – however I’ll know i’m not at that output level. I’ll drop you a message directly on the Brunel side. Main thing is to not give up, keeping doing what we can, and try to understand and mitigate where we can.

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  3. Andrew Stahly says:

    A good read, I felt like I could have wrote this. I’m 25yo and have had asthma from a very young age. I am also very into sport (football, running and cycling) and I get so frustrated when I start to feel my chest tighten during training as the rest of my body feels fine, it feels like I have to put in twice the effort as other players just to keep up. Interesting that you mentioned about diet, I’ve never thought that E numbers etc could cause triggers!

    Like

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comment. I’ve had a few messages now & to be honest i’m happier that I made the post eventually. I think the feeling, especially the frustration of not doing all that we want to / can do – can be quite isolating, and in a small way us all understanding we’re not alone, may in a way help. For certain Asthma can almost falsify fitness levels but I think its important not to stop, but to try to find a way, adapt – just keep focus as sport and CV training will only help us long term. Re the food, for me as a young child they were the big triggers for sure. I still eat pretty clean now but for other reasons, training / weight loss. but I know a few asthmatics that seem better away from certain food groups. its not consistent so seems individual.

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  4. Sara says:

    Hi Luke
    Spookily 5 mins before this was posted on Facebook by Brocket Gear, I had posted asking for advice from asthma sufferers as asthma is really affecting my running.
    I’m the same, gasping fro breath but 5 mins later recovered and feeling like I could go again.
    Have you tried Power Breathe? I’ve seen a couple of hints about it, my asthma nurse had never heard of it, no surprise, but I’m interested to know if anyone has and what it’s like

    Like

    • Hi Sara, crazy timing! Its surprising how many people I’ve spoken to in the OCR community recently that have started to struggle. I wondered if it was the nature of our sport, but actually its probably more likely i’m just exposed to more people in sport through OCR so the percentage game goes up. Did you have Asthma as a child or is this new? And do you have symptoms away from sport? Understand the differences between EIA and Asthma can help you prepare.

      I bought a Power Lung (similar concept) via Sports Pursuit when it was discounted. I have used it however did not see a huge gain, however my circumstances are a little complex. The first steps however are getting asthma under control / managed. In essence Asthma sufferers often end up with a large lung capacity than people without, as we are in affect forcing against the asthma so in a way have our own kind o power lung / breath. My lung capacity is 120%, that’s huge, but my lung function is 60% which is pretty bad. I’ve also been diagnosed with COPD – i’m going to do a further bog update on this. But very happy to discuss this topic, I saw you post on FB so i’ll respond on there also if that’s easier.

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  5. Absoluty took the words out of head. Very inspirational. I have had asthma all my life but managed to maintain a very active life style and sport plays a major part of my life. I currently compete in A LOT of OCR’s and always finish in the top 5% even with asthma and beeing 39. I will be showing this to all my friends that suffer with asthma, as I too feel so passionately about finding natural remedies and would like one day to live a normal life with having to looking for my blue inhaler

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    • Hi Mark, its great to hear you are driving forward. Interestingly Asthmatics can do well in sport, my lung capacity is 120% which is huge, and I’ve been told that’s common in asthmatics potentially from forcing our breathing. However my lung function is 60% which is the issue. So like you I always feel if we can get it sorted things can be good. Annoyingly I now also have COPD so its a step up, i’m writing a further piece on this. but yes feel free to share, its only my personal opinion but I wrote it to help others if it can. Good luck with the journey and feel free to stay in touch.

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