It is now wintertime, and with the cold weather comes an aggravation of the asthma suffered by many cyclists, myself included. I’ve seen the subject mentioned many times on various internet forums. I thought that I would write about my own experience here.
I have the asthma triple whammy. Mine is exercise-induced, allergy-induced, and chronic. Chronic asthma refers to a reduced lung capacity even when not having an “attack.” For cyclists, we are primarily concerned with the exercise-induced variety, but allergies and chronic asthma can affect any ride.
While some experience the classic wheezing when having an attack, I often simply found myself out of breath. This was especially true when I used to race. For some time, I simply assumed that I was getting spit off the back of the pack because the other racers were simply better prepared. However, after one race, I found that I couldn’t catch my breath even after thirty minutes of recovery.
My doctor advised a gradual warm-up before a race or other hard effort. This proved to be a problem at races, though. I would be able to go through a proper warm-up and get my heart rate up, but I would invariably have to wait at the start line long enough for my heart rate to fall. The massive sprint that inevitably occurred at the start would then trigger an attack.
My doctor also advised a preventative dose of an inhaler like Albuterol before exercise. I still do that today if I plan anything beyond a light workout. I also carry an inhaler on every ride in case an attack hits me on the road. My need for a gradual warm-up means that I often can’t ride with groups that go hard from the start of a ride. I frequently need thirty to forty minutes before I can ride at tempo. If I go too hard too fast, I can trigger an attack.
I’ve also followed advice from the book Reversing Asthma by Richard N. Firshein, D.O. He suggests that most drug treatments for asthma merely address the symptom while aggravating the underlying cause. This results in a spiral of larger doses and additional medications. Instead, he recommends a change in diet and exercise that can reduce or eliminate the need for medication. He also suggests magnesium as a supplement. In fact, intravenous magnesium is often given to treat severe attacks. I have begun taking this recently after my neurologist suggested it to help prevent migraine headaches. So far, it has helped with both problems.
Back to the cold weather. The cold, dry air of wintertime often aggravates asthma for many cyclists. When I ride in winter, I make my warm-up even longer than normal. During the coldest times, I wear a balaclava that I can use to both keep my face warm and warm air that I am breathing in. The lower part of the balaclava can be adjusted during the ride as needed. During the coldest weather, it can be worn all the way up over the nose, full-ninja style. This allows exhaled breath through the nose and mouth to warm the fabric and, in turn, the inhaled air. As things warm up, the balaclava can be slipped down from the nose so that it only covers the mouth.
Once I am warmed up sufficiently that breathing in cold air will not trigger an attack, the balaclava can be lowered again to expose the mouth. If warm enough, the chin can also be exposed. Used in this manner, I found the balaclava to be one of the more useful bits of winter riding gear. While it is not always necessary simply to maintain body temperature, it can always be used to regulate the temperature of inhaled air.
I have talked to enough asthmatics to know that what works for one will not necessarily work for all. However, I hope that everyone can find a way to keep riding through these colder months. If anyone has other suggestions, please forward them.