When Running’s a Wheeze: Chronic Bronchitis

imageAs I ran and breathed in the crisp cold air, an unwelcome and familiar grip squeezed my chest. In seconds, breathing became harder and more labored, forcing me to stop and try to reclaim my breath. Asthma, my dear enemy, was back, and I knew its companion bronchitis would potentially follow right on its heels.

Unlike acute bronchitis, the chronic version is a lifelong condition; I should know, as I’ve had it since I was a baby. It is not contagious and is not caused by bacteria or a virus. It does, however, damage the lungs by permanently scarring them. My lungs are in such poor shape that doctors who don’t know me accuse me of lying when I tell them that I was never a smoker.

The battle usually begins with an environmental allergy, the reaction to which appears as asthma symptoms that quickly deepen. Once bronchitis sets in, I have a deep and persistent cough that lasts for two to three months. And nothing can coax bronchitis to leave until it feels like leaving. 

Having lived with chronic bronchitis for most of my life, I have developed strategies to control and manage my asthma so it doesn’t get between me and my running.

Me & my best buddy, Tea. No, not Burrell, the hot beverage.
Me & my best buddy, tea.
No, not Tea, the hot beverage.

First, the disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, and the following is what works for me and how asthma/bronchitis develops in me. If you have, or think you have, the same symptoms, you should see a licensed health care practitioner.

Avoid triggers.

I know what I’m allergic to and I do my best to avoid them as much as possible. I went to an allergist and got tested. Test results revealed that I was allergic to nature and unfortunately for me, I kinda like being outdoors. Out of all the triggers, the two main culprits were pollen and dust. During high pollen count, I avoid exercising outdoors and being outside any more than strictly necessary. I head to the treadmill on those days.

Take medication when necessary and as soon possible.

When I can’t avoid the allergens (such as when I go camping), I make sure to take my medication (inhaler and anti-histamines) as soon as I feel an allergic reaction. I’ve discovered that if I’m vigilant, I can prevent bronchitis from appearing in the first place. The old adage is true here: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Breathe warm, moist air.

When I do have bronchitis, the best thing I can do is breathe warm, moist air. Winter’s cold, dry air is the worst. Again, I avoid exercising outdoors when the air is too cold because it’s not good for my lungs. My previous gym had a sauna, which was a big help in the winter. The warm air relaxed my bronchial tubes and for several precious minutes, I could breathe freely, easily, and without coughing. Now that I no longer have a sauna at a gym, I boil a pot of water, stand over the stove and breathe in the steam. Not quite as relaxing as being in a sauna, but cheaper and just as effective.

Use a humidifier.

It’s not quite as good as the sauna either, but using a humidifier to add moisture to the air makes my home environment much healthier for me.

Modify training plans. 

As long as I don’t feel any other symptoms of being ill, such as body aches, I still run, but I don’t train. Hard, fast runs or long runs cause my bronchial tubes to constrict to the point at which I feel like I’m suffocating.  As long as I feel up to it, I run a few easy miles. As soon as I wheeze, I slow down or stop. My first priority is getting better, not faster, while I have bronchitis.

Do pursed lip breathing.

If I do experience an attack while running, I slow down my breathing by using the pursed lip breathing technique. It helps in relaxing my chest muscles and allowing me to breathe in more deeply and thereby getting more oxygen into my lungs.

Drink warm/lukewarm drinks.

It’s important to keep hydrated with bronchitis. Your body naturally produces thick mucus in your lungs and getting rid of that mucus is why your body coughs. Drinking helps to thin out the mucus and thus makes it easier to expel out of the lungs. I avoid drinking cold drinks because the cold temperature aggravates my coughing. Warm drinks relax my chest muscles and ease coughing.

Do you have asthma or chronic bronchitis? How do you manage it alongside running?

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM (achieved on 10/1/17). Now what?

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  1. Ugh, sorry to hear about your struggles. Good tips, though! I had a bought of it earlier this winter and it was the worst it had been in years. Hope you continue to get better!

  2. I am a bit like you with asthma and scarred lungs. I get an exacerbation and I have to start at the beginning again. My tip is to always keep up some sort of exercise so it’s not too far to come back.