I worked hard last night, finishing a tough 5 by 400 meter speed workout in our lovely FL summer heat. I was doing well, despite the less-than-ideal weather, cranking out the first 4 laps relatively easily. Sure, I was winded by the end of each repeat, but I walked slowly for a few minutes after, caught by breath, and was ready for the next 400. Until that last one. Halfway through my final 400, my elephant returned and I was instantly transported to the spring of my sixth grade year, when we were made to run the 600-yard run for the Presidential Physical Fitness Tests…
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I’ll never, in all of my days, forget walking the last couple hundred yards that day, gasping, wheezing, searching desperately for oxygen to fill my lungs and finding nothing. I remember clearly my vision reduced to a tunnel, the sound in my ears muffled, my chest compressed as if an elephant sat upon it, as my PE teacher shook her head in dismay, saying, as she recorded my piss-poor performance, “You need to try harder.”
I did try. I tried hard! I was known by then as a sprinter. I couldn’t hit a baseball much past third base, but I could outrun the throw of it to first base every time. I was always selected as either the lead or the anchor for sprint relays on Field Day. I was training hard for the ballet at the time, taking classes every weekday, hours-long intensive workshops on Saturdays. Really, I was among the fittest of my classmates. And yet… I finished dead last, far behind the pudgy kid who sat out nearly every PE class, in that stupid 600-yard run. And spent the rest of the day trying to catch my breath.
The trend continued. In high school, I played varsity soccer: I did fine on the field, where I could catch my breath between runs, but the elephant appeared every time we were tasked with running a straight mile or so to warm-up. When I met and married a triathlete, I tried swimming laps with him and my elephant showed up with alarming haste. We tried running on the beach… elephants everywhere. We took up swing dancing, a fast-paced, highly aerobic activity – and I quickly found that I had to sit every third song out to avoid the elephant.
One day, when I was finally employed in a position that offered health insurance, I mentioned the elephant to my doctor. She asked detailed questions about how the elephant felt – heavy, compressive, like no matter how hard my lungs expand or contract, I can’t fill them up with air – when it appeared – any time I moved really fast over a sustained period of time – and if I’d had any serious lung infections – a bout of flu, that became pneumonia, that resulted in a year of chronic bronchitis in high school, a repeat of the same several years later, more bouts of acute bronchitis than I could count. And then my doctor gave me the explanation that had eluded me since sixth grade: what I had was a condition called Exercise-Induced Asthma. And, while there was no cure for it, there were things I could do to mitigate its accompanying elephants.
Exercise-induced asthma isn’t really asthma at all, but its symptoms mimic those of an asthma attack: tightness of the lungs, wheezing, inability to draw a full breath. Some folks with regular asthma will also suffer exercise-induced asthma, but others may not. Some folks, like me, who have no other occurrences of asthma, suffer the exercise-induced variety. We who battle the elephants don’t just get winded with aerobic activity. We reach a point where our bronchial passages become so constricted, we truly aren’t receiving adequate oxygen. Without adequate oxygen, our bodies begin to shut down functions. It’s dangerous, scary stuff.
So what can we do to keep the elephant at bay? We can avoid aerobic activity, of course, but what fun is that?! We can, however, avoid doing it in conditions that worsen symptoms: cold and/or dry air, times of high pollen counts, any time our lungs are already compromised by allergies/cold/flu. For the rest of the time, we can use an inhaler of albuterol, which is typically considered a rescue inhaler for asthmatics. For the sufferer of exercise-induced asthma, however, the inhaler is a proactive lifeline: taking two puffs 15-20 minutes before I exercise reduces the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma significantly.
Note that I did not say using an inhaler eliminates the symptoms. It doesn’t sadly. It does work well enough, especially when combined with using run-walk intervals, to banish all chest-sitting elephants from my runs at paces ranging from easy to tempo, but speed workouts? They’re another story. But the good news is that combining the inhaler with increasingly difficult speed work does, eventually, result in aerobic adaptations, and I have been able to increase my speed and pace over time through small upticks in exertion.
The truth is that I may never be able to run distance without taking walk breaks, no matter how strong my legs may be; I’ll likely always need those walk breaks to avoid a run-ending asthma attack. I have no fantasies about winning my age group or setting any records, so that’s fine; taking the walk breaks means finishing what I start, and that’s what matters most to me.
As for yesterday’s speed workout, I may have ended that final repeat a few meters shy of 400, but the important thing was that I pushed a little further than I have before (my previous attempt being 4 by 400 meters). I made my body work a little harder, forcing adaptations, without pushing it to a point of danger. And I finished my workout strong, running an easy ¾ of a mile with no elephants to be seen.
Do you struggle with chest-sitting elephants when you run? If you do, and haven’t seen a doctor about it, please do! This is a condition that can be easily treated and does not need to mean the end fo anyone’s running fun.