Running out of breath?

Running out of breath?

It can happen to a highly-trained marathoner or a beginning runner, a high school soccer player or a college tennis player. He or she starts a workout or a game with no problems. But after five minutes or 15 minutes or more, the athlete feels a tightness in the chest and has shortness of breath. He begins wheezing or coughing and is forced to slow down or take a break from a game.Blog Photo

For Jim Doyle of Champaign, the impact of asthma is apparent as soon as he begins to run.

“The first mile is horrible. I can’t breathe. I just want to walk,” Doyle said. “If I gut out the first mile, things seem to get a little easier.”

Asthma doesn’t need to keep an athlete from his or her sport, but it needs to be well-controlled in order for he or she to perform at their best.

Asthma can be exercise-induced, meaning a person experiences symptoms only when exercising. Or it can be persistent, with symptoms present at any time.

Dr. Danish Thameem, a pulmonologist with Christie Clinic, said people often experience symptoms within five to 10 minutes after starting exercise.

“When we exercise, as we increase our air intake, the air that comes in is drier. As we increase the need for more volume of air, the body can’t moisten it,” Thameem said.

That’s why asthma symptoms appear frequently with aerobic forms of exercise, like running, soccer and tennis, but not weight training or non-aerobic forms of exercise.

Some athletes -- high school and college track runners during indoor track season, for instance -- have problems when they are competing indoors in the winter because of the dry air, Thameem said.

Those with asthma may find their symptoms worsen in certain seasons. Thameem said breathing can be more difficult in the spring and fall when there is a lot of pollen in the air and when farmers are in their fields planting or harvesting, creating more dust in the air. Changing weather, or even changes between indoor and outdoor temperatures, can also increase symptoms, he said.

People with asthma may be treated with a long-term medication to keep the asthma under control and reduce symptoms, and they may also have a “rescue inhaler” with a short-acting medication to immediately treat breathing problems.

Doyle, who is 61, got asthma as an adult. He takes a long-term medication by inhaler twice a day to control his asthma symptoms. He didn’t take the medication regularly until three years ago, when he was preparing for coronary bypass surgery. He’s used it regularly since then, and he also has a rescue inhaler.

“My doctor told me I should use the rescue inhaler before running, and during running if I feel like I need it,” Doyle said.

That’s the advice Thameem gives as well. He suggested people with asthma use a short-acting rescue inhaler seven to 15 minutes before they start to exercise, and carry it with them to use during exercise if they need it.

Thameem treats some marathoners who have asthma. He talks to them about their training schedules and symptoms, and in some cases he increases the dosage of their long-term medication during the time when their training volume increases, then reduces it again after their race.

He said if symptoms don’t improve or a person has an asthma attack, he or she should stop exercising. If the attack is drastic and the person has bronchial constriction, he or she should get someone to phone for help.

While Doyle uses the inhaler, he still isn’t breathing as well as he’d like to be, although he’s run three half marathons since his bypass surgery, the most recent one in early April. He doesn’t sprint in races -- “I don’t need any drama at the finish line.” And he can get winded climbing a flight of stairs, but has no problem going out and running six or eight miles at a steady pace. He knows running is a good investment in his health, particularly for his heart. And Thameem said exercising can help with asthma by improving a person’s conditioning and lung function, but it won’t prevent it.

There is one thing Doyle misses about running without asthma, though.

“On long runs, I used to be a storyteller. I would tell stories the whole way,” he said. “Now, I sure can’t talk while I’m running. That’s the asthma.”


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


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