The Joys of Cycling with Exercise-Induced Asthma

I’ve now met several people who don’t like my calling this blog — and by extension, myself — “Slowpoke on a Bicycle.” For most it’s an issue of pride. They can’t understand how I would embrace the idea that I ride slowly, rather than feeling embarrassed and working hard to ride faster. Others are concerned that the name gives me permission to be lazy, instead of trying harder. They’re surprised when I tell them that a lot of thought went into the name. I’m a bicyclist. I’m slow by most people’s standards. And I’m (finally, mostly) glad to be who I am, doing what I can do.

rescue inhaler

My rescue inhaler gets me through the rough hills.

The “try harder” mentality is especially hard for me to swallow. See, I have exercise-induced asthma. It’s a fun little condition that constricts my airways and inflames my breathing passages, and makes it really difficult to breathe. Hills are especially difficult. I’ve climbed a few tough hills at 4 mph, a speed I did not even realize you could ride without falling over, and I’ve walked up more than a few when my lungs weren’t up to the task. On BRAG 2012, my motto was, “I’ve never met a hill I can’t walk up.” Walking up some hills is just a fact of life for me. No matter how hard I train, no matter how diligent I am about taking my maintenance meds, using my inhaler before riding and when I get wheezy, and warming up well, there are hills I just don’t have the air-power to conquer. I don’t like it, but I’m learning to be okay with it. It’s just a part of what my body is like.

But what bothers me is the attitude of some cyclists who ride past me as I walk up that hill. Most people are supportive and ask if I’m okay, but I’ve also received a whole variety of advice– that I just need to lose weight (probably true), that I’d have more lung power if I trained more (maybe, maybe not), and that “real cyclists don’t walk up hills.” Most of them mean well, but they just don’t get it. Because the disease I have is invisible, except when I’m doubled over my handlebars trying to catch my breath, most people don’t realize what a struggle hill climbing is for me. It’s not just a matter of trying harder, or training harder, or losing weight (although all of those are useful, to a point) — I have to manage the asthma, and learn to read my body.

Even on the best of days, hills and I are not usually friends. Nothing can set the lungs off more than a good — or even moderate — climb. Even if I’m feeling good and riding strong leading up to the hill, I usually start feeling the effects on my breathing within the first 8 or 10 pedal spins. Even in my lowest “granny” gear, it’s a chore. And because it’s a chore, and all too often I “fail” and have to walk, I usually get anxious approaching a hill. I know it’s not helpful, and probably brings on the asthma more quickly, but I can’t help it. That hill is associated with so much emotion that I tense up and expect it to be hard. What’s funny is that I’m surprised when I make it up without wheezing, coughing, or having to stop and walk up.

Some people have asked what riding with asthma feels like.  I’ve heard many different analogies, but the one that fits my experience best is the straw analogy. When my lungs get inflamed and my airways narrow, it feels like I’m taking every breath through a straw. No matter how hard I breathe, I can’t take in more air than that straw holds. On a mild day, the straw is pretty wide and I can cope. When the asthma is worse, it feels like I’m breathing through one of those little coffee stirrer with the tiny hole in the middle. No wonder it’s hard to climb a hill!

Over the past several years, my pulmonologist and I have tried a bunch of different combinations of maintenance medications to control the asthma. Two different lung inhalers. A combination nasal inhaler to help me breathe through my nose better. A double dose of Prilosec to keep the reflux from affecting my windpipe. Antihistamines. Pills. A rescue inhaler for riding. Each one helps — but only to a point. and we’re still working on the formula.

In the meantime, my biggest wish is to find a professional who can help me with the practical side of managing asthma while riding. I don’t need more medicines. I’m looking for someone who knows how to help me manage my breathing. Do I breathe harder, deeper, or more shallowly? When do I need another puff on the inhaler, and when has it stopped being effective? When should I keep going, or push a little harder? When should I stop, to avoid doing something dangerous that will set my riding back even further? I’ve asked around in the cycling community, the triathlon community, and the medical community — but so far I haven’t had any luck. And I’d love to find other cyclists who ride with asthma, because it would really help to share experiences and know I’m not alone. I don’t want to quit; I love riding more than I ever expected to. But I’m hoping the expert(s) I need will somehow show up in my life. My lungs and I could really use them!