Men Running on Track

There are people who go for a jog now and then, and then there are extreme runners – the folks that dare to compete in races longer than the standard 26-mile marathon. We all know that exercise is essential to good health – so these people have got to be invincible, right?

Wrong. Despite their herculean exercise regimes, extreme runners are people just like you and me, flaws and all.  According to a new study from the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Davis, this elite group of athletes is more prone to allergies and asthma compared to most Americans (on the bright side, they also have lower-than-average rates of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes).

The findings are some of the first to come out of the ongoing study, which has accrued more than 1,200 participants since it started over two years ago. Researchers will continue to monitor the athletes for the next 20 years, giving them – and us – an unparalleled look at what happens when we push our bodies to the limit, day after day.

When it comes to respiratory woes, about a quarter of the runners report having troublesome respiratory allergies (often referred to as “hay fever”), while 13 percent suffer from exercise-induced asthma. By contrast, only 7.8% of Americans have been diagnosed with hay fever, and only 10-15% demonstrate exercise-induced asthma. Scientists point to the runners’ repeated, sustained exposure to outdoor allergens, such as pollen and grass, as a possible cause for their increased rates of respiratory illness.

So what’s an extreme endorphin junkie to do? Whether you’re going for a 50-meter sprint, a 2-mile walk or a 50-kilometer marathon, here are some tips for preventing exercise-induced asthma.

  • Warm up, warm up, warm up. – This is the most important step you can take, hands down. Study after study has shown that by taking 10 minutes to stretch, walk, and adjust your lungs to exercise, you can significantly reduce your risk of experiencing symptoms. Just make sure to cool down when you’re finished with your workout!
  • Consider triggers before exercising outside. – High pollen counts, cold air, and smog are three of the biggest enemies to your lungs, and it’s important that you not underestimate their ferocity. When there’s a greater chance of encountering your triggers, it might be best to stick to the treadmill.
  • Control your breathing. - The New York Times published a great article a few years ago outlining a deep-breathing exercise that works wonders when you’re short of breath. The basic idea is to breathe slowly and shallowly through your nose, rather than breathing rapidly through your mouth. It sounds counterintuitive, but many athletes find it useful.
  • Keep medications handy. - No matter how well you may feel, you should bring your rescue inhaler along with you wherever you plan on exercising. Even if you barely use it, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you take medications, remember to stick with them and stay on schedule – without them, you won’t be able to perform effectively.
  • Have a game plan in case of emergencies. Meet with your doctor to set up an asthma action plan outlining the steps you should take in case of an attack, as well as which medications to use (and when). That way, if symptoms strike, you’ll know exactly what to do, and you will be less prone to panic, which will only worsen an attack.

Hopefully, now you feel a little more prepared to hit the pavement. I’ll leave you with a quote from the one, the only, Oprah Winfrey: “Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it." Good luck!