Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Breathe (Asthma and Aerobic Ability)

My two brothers and I were diagnosed with asthma when we were young.  I have a vivid memory of my younger brother sitting on the kitchen counter with a breathing mask on, fighting the panic of an asthma attack.  We have had blue inhalers, green inhalers, orange inhalers and red inhalers; inhalers that spin, inhalers that click, inhalers that whizz, and inhalers that puff; we have had peak-flow machines of all shapes and sizes, doctors appointments, and much encouragement though much allowance made of us because of our asthma.  Asthma was a big deal and it was very hard to shake the fear of a potential asthma attack that came from such an emphasis on our asthma while growing up.

I didn’t seem to have any problems at primary school, running 20 or more laps during a fund-raising run, but when I got a little older, for some reason I was all of a sudden unable to run without having to take a puff or ten on my inhaler.  

I think that most of my asthma was psychological.  It occurred to me one day that I had never really been taught how to breathe while exercising, so I set out to see if I could control my asthma (and fear of asthma) without having to resort to the inhaler.  I have successfully overcome any asthma that I may, or may not, have had.  Only the occasional shortness of breath is now an issue, which is more likely related to environmental aspects or a failure to properly warm up my cardiovascular system for aerobic activity.

Here’s how I beat my asthma and learned to breathe
It started with a couple of observations.  I noticed that I could have this shortness of breath and not die.  Even if I didn’t use my inhaler.  I also noticed that if I kept my pace low, I could get by without having to breathe too hard and this would not provoke any difficulty in breathing that I would associate with asthma.  One final thing I noticed was that most of the people who had asthma used it as a crutch to get out of doing physical activity or they had a strong fear of having an attack.  I wondered if such asthma was due more to mental issues than physical.

I set out to experiment on myself.  I ran, starting off with about 2-3km and I would hold my inhaler, but not take it.  I kept my inhaler with me for insurance but instead of using it I would slow my pace until I felt safe enough with my breathing.  I tried never to walk, and instead kept shuffling no matter what, even if it was up a big hill.  Over a couple of years I built up to a fairly slow paced 10 to 12km run without having to use an inhaler.  This simple method, of slowly building up the distance while reducing the pace if I got close to difficulty breathing, has worked wonders.  I stopped carrying my inhaler after about a year or two and I have never had to use an inhaler ever since.

Now, about 6 or 7 years down the track, and knowing a few more tips and ideas, I would’ve done a few things different if I was advising myself back then.  I would’ve included strength training to develop the efficiency of my muscles.  My aerobic fitness has skyrocketed from strength training (parkour) with little aerobic training.  I am able to run half marathon distances in pretty good time without doing any real cardio training.  I would’ve also included more emphasis on breathing, with an in-through-the-nose and out-through-the-mouth system regulating a whole breath over about 8 steps of less (depending on speed).

It is a counter-intuitive thing, but breathing too much is bad for you when exercising aerobically.  If you get too much oxygen, your body goes into a sort of panic mode (hyperventilating) and reduces in its ability to absorb the required oxygen.  Instead, it is better to maintain an even flow of oxygen through your lungs by breathing deeply and slowly.  In this way a consistent supply is achieved and your body learns to efficiently and consistently absorb from your lungs.  It takes practice, but you feel so wonderful for it when your body adapts.

Hopefully within this blog post you have found some ideas to combat your asthma, and to improve your aerobic performance during sports.  There is quite a lot of power in being able to breathe properly.  Top athletes and martial artists know this, and use it to get an edge over their competitors.  Why don’t you use the simple tip above to get you started?