Having asthma is kind of like winning the lottery, except it happens to more people and instead of money you win a chronic difficulty in breathing. I wouldn’t say I’m proud to be an asthmatic, but it’s not information I’m ashamed to share. In doing so, I often discover others who are similarly afflicted, and upon doing so we instantly go from being perfect strangers to perfect strangers who know something insignificant about each other.
My asthma attacks are experienced in a variety of forms, ranging in severity from a shortness of breath to “holy shit, I’m dying”. You can liken an attack to breathing through a straw with your nose plugged; depending on how bad the attack is, the straw keeps getting smaller, going from the wide one you get with a Big Gulp all the way down to those little ones you get with a coffee at a crappy diner. Cycling with asthma is like breathing through those straws while doing wind-sprints up a flight of stairs.
This straw-breathing effect is caused by the contraction of the airways leading to the lungs. The traditional treatment is to use an inhaler to suck in medication which dilates the passages and restores them to a size that allows for comfortable – if still sub-normal – breathing. There are newer, more effective treatments but many of them scare me because they cite side-effects like spontaneous death.
After 38 years, I’ve come to understand a bit about what causes my attacks. There is the cold-induced sort – which can be quite severe – but in my case will usually resolve itself throughout the first hour of riding to where it becomes a nuisance rather than an impediment. I also have acute attacks, which for about 32 years I believed were caused by an allergy to sawdust. These don’t resolve themselves and the condition gets worse until I intervene with an inhaler or a visit to the Emergency Room.
It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and started having more frequent severe attacks that my doctor here pointed out that it was “crazy” to suggest I’m allergic to sawdust and inquired as to what kind of quack I had been visiting in Minneapolis who would tell me such a thing. He pointed out, quite logically, that I was simply allergic to something that was aerosolized in sawdust. As it turns out, this same element is present in whatever pine trees give off from October to May. Thanks to the Pacific-Northwest’s monopoly on pine trees, I now carry a rescue inhaler with me whenever I go training during these months.
The thing about being a Cyclist with asthma is that Cycling, as an endurance sport, is quite dependent on the rider’s ability to breathe well. In fact, I’ve found that the single most important factor to how well I’m riding on any particular day, regardless of how fat or out of shape I am, is how well I’m able to manage my breathing. The exciting bit is that training with asthma is a lot like resistance training; you get used to a reduced ability to draw oxygen into your lungs, thereby restricting the supply that gets to your muscles. Its like reverse blood-doping. You get used to it and your body adjusts to the reduced supply of gun fuel. Then, on days when the air is clear and warm, you ride like you’re on EPO. I call this the “EPO-Effect”.
I read some time ago that 80% of Pro Cyclists are diagnosed asthmatics who hold a prescription for an inhaler. This makes for a remarkable attraction of gifted endurance athletes to the most breathing-dependent sport on the planet. Surely this is because the EPO-Effect makes asthmatics strong like bull, not for the dilating effect the medication has on the air passageways.