I’ve had minor respiratory problems my whole life–I was born five or six weeks early and as a baby I fought more than the typical episodes of bronchitis. The doctors said I was borderline asthmatic. Cold weather seemed to exacerbate it, so when I was three, my family moved to a warmer climate. I had few problems until I was in my late 20s, when I was officially diagnosed with asthma and given a raft of medications to get my breathing and wheezing under control.
Since then, I’ve had a few flare-ups, mostly in wintertime, but it’s been manageable with just an albuterol inhaler. It generally doesn’t get in the way of running, although I tend to have that wheezy cough the first few cold-weather runs (and those in temps below freezing) although there was that one March 5K in which I started coughing a quarter-mile in, and I struggled to breathe the rest of the way.
But I’ve been running for 3.5 years, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to use my inhaler in warm weather. Until this week.
Tuesday’s hill workout was tough, and several times I had trouble catching my breath. But it never progressed to the wheezy cough, and I just figured it was a combination of intense exercise and vacation re-entry. On Wednesday afternoon, though, I recognized that telltale tightness in my chest.
I don’t know how to describe it to someone who’s not asthmatic, but it’s kind of a … constricted feeling. My breath is shallower, and filling up my lungs is no longer involuntary. Imagine the focused effort it takes to blow up a balloon. I can feel each breath deep in my chest, but it’s like trying to breathe through a straw. Or one of those tiny coffee stirrers. I feel like I need to cough as if to dislodge whatever is blocking my airway. But I don’t want to give in to that feeling, because once I cough, there’s no going back. It becomes a wheezy, barking struggle to catch my breath.
But using my inhaler has its own perils. Well, not perils exactly, but it’s not a magical solution. Albuterol makes me jumpy at first, and once my breathing settles down, the headache kicks in. Albuterol hangover is definitely a thing. I try to put off using it as long as I can, to see if I can get it under control without using the medication. The prescribed dose is two puffs, but I’ll try just one first, hoping that’s sufficient. The second one is a last resort.
Unfortunately, Wednesday evening the cough won. I had to go last-resort, and the subsequent headache (on which Advil has no effect) rendered me useless. Needless to say, I missed my run and went to bed early.
Thursday I knew I’d have a speed workout so I took it easy during the day, trying to give my lungs a chance to recover a bit. But in the car on the way to training, that cough hit again. It wasn’t as bad as the day before, but it still required the inhaler. So I arrived kind of jittery and definitely not 100%.
The workout was a progression run. After a 1.5ish mile warmup around the park, we ran 15 minutes in which every five minutes we increased our pace by about a minute per mile. My data was based on the Chuy’s race from early May (when I ran my second-fastest 5K) so perhaps it was a bit ambitious under the circumstances.
On the first leg, the path was shady and my pace felt pretty comfortable. The only problem I encountered came when the path crossed a driveway and a motorcycle blew past me, ignoring the crosswalk. The second interval got more difficult. I found myself looking at my watch more frequently, which wasn’t much consolation because it’s not like I would get to rest at the end of that interval! The third segment I didn’t quite hit my target pace, but I did run faster than the previous one.
But my lungs hurt. I must have sounded like a wild animal, thundering along the path and gasping for breath.
Finally, mercifully, I finished. I walked a bit, let my breathing settle down, and jogged back to the starting point. Fortunately, I didn’t need the inhaler again, and somehow I managed to avoid the headache too.
I suppose it’s a good thing that my legs are sore after my Tuesday and Thursday workouts. I’ll take that over an albuterol hangover any day.