Running with Asthma: An Asthmatic Runner’s Memoir, Update: Jan. 9, 2017
It's been two years since the publication of" Running with Asthma: An Asthmatic Runner's Memoir." I feel like an old baseball pitcher who no longer has that 98 mph fastball so he has to learn some new tricks like a change up, a curve, a slider etc. Hopefully I'm learning some new tricks that will keep me running. Learning has come when I get sick with an asthma attack after a run. That's usually two or three days after a hard run. For me a hard run is running as fast as I can for a distance of three quarters of a mile up to a 5K. I feel fine while I'm running these runs. Then the next day, my congestion increases. A day or two later I'm running a temperature, very congested and calling the doctor for an antibiotic and Prednisone. This has become a pattern in the fall, winter or spring. I'm trying to get this figured out.
I hate being sick and missing out on running for as much as a month!
In July of 2016 a friend introduced me to Dr. John Douillard’s book, "Body, Mind and Sport." In this wonderful book, Douillard maintains that nose breathing is a must for a runner at any speed. I’d been able to nose breathe while running slow, but not while running fast. Douillard claims that for himself and others, a year of nothing but nose breathing while running will significantly improve an athlete’s performance. Douillard also maintains that nose breathing promotes calmness while mouth breathing promotes a sense of fight or flight.
So in July on 2016 I began nose breathing while running fast. At first I could do it for only two-hundred meters. In a couple of weeks I could nose breathe while running hard for four-hundred meters. By October I was able to run a mile at a ten minute pace while nose breathing. A ten minute mile pace is a hard running pace for me. I felt proud of myself for this achievement.
On the same day that I’d run a mile hard while nose breathing, I had to face up to my limitations. I didn’t feel quite right after that run. Drinking a lot of Gatorade didn’t help.
Two days after that run I had one of the worst asthma attacks of my life. My peak flow went way down. I was running a fever. I had to go to the emergency room for a nebulizer treatment and I continued using the nebulizer for a week after that. I had not had to use a nebulizer for at least fifteen years. My chest congestion was thick and green looking.
After two rounds of prednisone, two different antibiotics, no exercise and a lot of rest and liquids, I was able to resume running a month later. My doctor said it was a mild case of pneumonia.
No running for a month for me meant slipping out of running shape. This was a time of constant reflection. Why did I run myself sick? I felt like I was repeating a pattern that I should know not to repeat. I made many mistakes that contributed to my asthma attack and pneumonia. First, the week before the asthma attack I’d run nine miles. The week before that I’d run three miles. That was a two-hundred percent increase. I know I should only increase my running mileage by five percent a week. But I thought I could get away with it. It turned out I could not.
Second, I’d been visiting my son-in-law during the week of running too much. He got a cold during the visit. So I knew I was being exposed to cold germs yet I ran a very hard run. I know, for me, a cold can easily turn to a severe asthma attack. Yet I ran hard anyway. I thought I could get away with it. I could not.
Third, the day after my hard run, I had to get up at 5 a. m. to get an airplane back home. It turned out I didn’t get much sleep that night. I knew I probably wouldn’t. So why did I schedule a hard run on Saturday, knowing that I would get less sleep than usual Saturday night? I thought I could get away with it. I could not.
Fourth, I know that fall and spring are my worst seasons. This is true for a lot of people. Dr. Jessica Nitya Eisenheim, a Naturopathic doctor, made this clear in a YMCA presentation I attended a few months ago.. I know I should not do much hard running during these seasons. I hardly ever get sick after a hard run in the summer. In the spring, winter and fall I have a pattern of getting sick after a hard run. So why did I do that hard run on that Saturday? I thought I could get away with it. I could not.
Fifth, I know from past experience that running outside in the highly polluted Washington, D.C. area air can bring on more congestion for me. And I did it anyway. Why? I thought I could get away with it. I could not.
I’ve learned the hard way, again, that I need to be more careful with my running, especially running hard in the spring, winter, and fall. I’m reminded of my struggle as a younger man between the urges of the Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus. As a man in my twenties I let Dionysus (god of wild urges) take over resulting in my smoking and not taking care of myself. As a man in my sixties I let Apollo (god of physical training among other things) take over, training too hard and not taking care of myself. So I’ve realized I need to overcome the urge of Apollo and limit the urge to train too hard.
The running system of Dr. John Douillard will help me do this. Douillard starts with about ten minutes of a yoga exercise called the Sun Salutation. (lifespa.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/yoga-sun-salutations.pdf) Then the running begins. Douillard breaks running into three phases. Phase one he calls the Resting phase. This involve five or ten minutes of light jogging. Phase two is the Listening phase where the runner becomes very aware of how he feels while running. When the pace seems too hard he slows down and after slowing down for a while resumes the hard pace for a while. This speeding up and slowing down can continue for twenty minutes. The third phase is called the Performance phase where the runner runs as hard as he can for a given distance.
The Sun Salutations, like the Peaceful Warrior Workout, p.18, Running with Asthma: An Asthmatic Runner’s Memoir (www.PeacefulWarrior.com), have improved my breathing. My strategy now is to emphasize the Resting and Listening phase in my running, especially in the spring, winter, and fall. I know that going into the Performance phase is a risk in all seasons but summer. Perhaps this is because the air where I live is dry and cold in all seasons but summer. In summer the air where I live in the mountains of New England is warm and moist. Warm moist air is optimum for my breathing.
I have to ask some important questions before going into the Performance phase. Is someone I’m living with sick right now? If yes, no hard running in the Performance phase. Did I get enough sleep before the hard run and will I get enough sleep after the hard run? If a good night’s sleep isn’t in the cards before or after the run, there will be no hard Performance run. I still need to follow the Immune System Daily Checklist (p. 43, Running with Asthma: An Asthmatic Runner’s Memoir. The six elements of this checklist are: took necessary meds, got a good night’s sleep, sufficient nutrition, handled stress well, didn’t increase running mileage more than 5%, and not feeling sick or tired today. If the answer is “no” to any of these elements, no running today.) I hoping I learned my lesson about not running too hard, resulting in running myself into an asthma attack.
I’ve often wondered where all this congestion comes from when I get an asthma attack. It actually comes from the intestines and goes up to the lungs. I learned this from a breathing expert, Carol Pedigree. Knowing this, a good probiotic is essential to hopefully lessen the amount of congestion produced. Carol Pedigree recommended that I use Jarro-Dophilus EPS. So far I’ve had good results from this probiotic.
I’ve come to realize that I have a condition that seems unique. I do not have exercise induced asthma (EIA). With EIA asthma symptoms occur immediately during exercise. With my condition, the asthma symptoms occur one or two days after hard exercise. This happens almost always in the spring, winter or fall after a hard run. John Douillard’s book The 3-Season Diet casts light on my situation. In the winter I need to be sure I’m eating warm soups and a high fat, high protein diet. Also, I’ve taken Benadryl to help me sleep. Benadryl has a drying effect on the system. Douillard says, “The extent to which you get dried out in winter because you did not eat a high-protein, high fat diet consisting of warm and oily foods is to the extent to which you will produce excess mucus in the spring. It may manifest as a spring cold, cough, allergy, asthma, or the proliferation of yeast in the intestines as the mucus membranes in the intestines will also produce excess mucus.” (The 3-Season Diet p. 56) So in the winter, I need to eat a lot of hot vegetable soups and high protein, high fat foods to help prevent asthma attacks in the spring.
Douillard says “…white refined sugar is toxic to the human body…” (The 3 Season Diet, p. 31) As of now, December, 2016 I need to cut down on white refined sugar. If someone offers me a piece of pie or cake, I’ll still take it. But I need to stop buying and eating cookies. Eating cookies before bed is a habit I need to break.
Douillard also says, “The foods we eat the most- bread, pasta, dairy products, and meat- are all highly mucus producing. This mucus gums up the workings of the intestines like tar in a dirty air filter, the body can not absorb the muck, and what nutrients do get through it into the bloodstream are somewhat tainted.” (The 3 Season Diet p.55) So I need to eat less pasta, bread and meat. I already avoid dairy. This is not pleasant news given how much I love pasta, bread and meat, but if I want better breathing and better health, I need to cut down on these foods. I can cut down on red meat. That’s a start.
My next goal is to run a 3k in the summer of 2017 in under 15 minutes. To do this I’ll be following Douillard’s plan which will mean starting a running workout by doing ten minutes worth of Sun Salutations. Then ten minutes of the Resting phase, very slow jogging while concentrating on breathing through the nose with space between each breath. Then ten minutes of the Listening phase where I run at a race pace breathing through the nose until I start to get tired. I’ll repeat this a few times. The last phase, the Performance phase of the workout is the one I have to be most careful with. I know running hard for a long period like a mile or a 5k is what kicks in an asthma attack for me. So I should not do Performance phase running often in the fall, winter or spring when the likelihood of an asthma attack is highest. Instead, in these season, I should only do a Performance phase run now and then, when all factors are in my favor. The factors I’m talking about are everything mentioned in the Immune System Daily Checklist plus the following. Am I around anyone who is sick? Will I get enough sleep both before and after the workout? Do I have a lot of physical or mental work that must be done right after the workout? Am I running somewhere where there is a lot of air pollution or cold air? Any of these factors are red flags, shouting “DO NOT DO A PERFORMANCE RUN TODAY!” The summer in my mountain home, far from polluted and cold air. That’s where my Performance runs should take place.
I see the immune system as a kind of protective shield against illness. I never used to eat a good breakfast first thing in the morning. Instead I would go for a run or other exercise. Often, by the time I got around to eating, it was in the late afternoon. Just about any health professional would agree that a good breakfast in the morning is important to good health. Well, now I see the need for that, too. So I’ll eat some breakfast now, and then go out for a run. With a little food in my stomach, it may be a bit harder to run, but a lot better for my immune system. When I consider that a hard run temporarily weakens the immune system, having some breakfast before the run seems like common sense.
On Dec. 28th of 2016 I was doing a run on my YMCA's treadmill. I was in the listening phase of the run. I ran a ten minute mile pace for three quarters of a mile. A ten minute mile pace is race pace for me for a 5k run. For the first two quarters I was breathing effectively through the nose, but I had to exhale through the mouth. I finished the run and felt ok. The next day I had a severe asthma attack. This phenomenon has happened twice! My theory is, once it is impossible for me to exhale through the nose on a listening phase run, it is time to slow down the run to a jog and really listen to my body instead of pushing harder.
I emailed John Douillard about my theory. He agreed with me. He recommended something he calls the "12 Minute Workout." The idea of this workout is that one minute sprints should be followed by one minute recovery jogs, all with mouth breathing. This workout also includes a warm up and warm down. I am going to start implementing this workout on Jan. 12, 2017. My hope is it will prevent the illnesses I've experienced after hard runs of three quarters of a mile
to a 5K in the fall, winter or spring. I suggest you go to http://lifespa.com/be-fit-thin-calm-in-12-minutes-a-day/#comments.
In conclusion, I’ve been running with asthma for six decades. Hopefully I’ve learned enough to be able to keep running a while longer. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that running a hard workout can sometimes be the worst thing I can do. A hard run, I think, can weaken my immune system and lead to illness, which leads to increased asthma, which can easily prevent me from running for a month or more. So I have to pick my spots regarding when I can run hard. Certainly not when I’m already under stress, when someone else in my house is sick, or when I haven’t had enough sleep or proper nutrition. Once I'm in the middle of a run, how do I know if I'm running too hard? When it becomes difficult to breathe through my nose on the exhale, that's too hard. Every day I need to access my situation to determine whether I should take the day off, run easy or run hard. If I can do that, hopefully I’ll be running with asthma for a long time.
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Thank you for your interest,
John Terry McConnell