Cycling and Asthma

Last winter I came home from a 4.5 hour hard ride on the trike in freezing conditions. I was cycling through hail and snow, and was pushing hard to get home before my feet froze off. I walked into the kitchen and as soon as I breathed in the warm air, my lungs just seized up. This was my first (and worst) experience of asthma on the bike and it scared the hell out of me. I had occasionally experienced a bit of a wheeze during the summer hayfever months but nothing like that. It took a couple of days to recover, but ever since then I have been prone to mild asthma when I do hard interval sessions in the garage or when I ride in very cold conditions.

Sometimes during a hard interval session, I start to wheeze a little, and I will end up with a tight feeling that may take a day or so to go afterwards. However by far the worst conditions I have encountered is going out in very cold weather and exercising hard in dry winter air. By cold I mean around or below 0 degrees C which may or may not be ‘quite mild’ to some of you depending on where you live. The air in winter becomes very dry here in Scotland – I used to keep a portable humidifier in my acoustic guitar case because you could visibly see the wood expanding and shrinking with the changing humidity throughout the seasons.

I have learned a few defensive measures that have dramatically reduced the problems I have and allow me to continue riding hard. I thought I would share these in case anybody is new to this and is looking for some quick pointers. These are based on the assumption that you have seen a doctor and know your limits, what to avoid and so forth. Always do what your doctor recommends.

  1. If you have an inhaler, taking a couple of puffs half an hour before a hard session can reduce or eliminate any symptoms before they start.
  2. Always do a proper warm up before a hard ride. I start every trainer workout I ever do with the British Cycling 20 Minute Warm Up. This is a fantastic warm up that really gets things moving, and has the added benefit of some fast pedalling which forces you to focus on good technique. On outdoor rides, I do a 15 minute warm up gradually increasing intensity from zone 1 up to the top end of zone 2. I have seen a lot of different warm ups advocated by different training programs and coaches, but I still think the British Cycling 20 Minute warm up is by far the best and I use it every indoor ride I do.
  3. Always do a full and proper cool down after a hard ride. I have a rule that I never break – after every ride, but particularly after an intense workout session, I do not stop pedalling or get off the bike until my heart rate is under 100 BPM. This can be a challenge after a very intense session, but I am religious about this now. It can take me 10 minutes pedalling at 50W to get my heart rate that low if I’ve done a very intense session, but I don’t stop until I see a 99 appear on my Garmin. This has been the single most important thing I have changed that has stopped post-exercise asthma attacks from occurring.
  4. If you ride outside in the cold, cover your mouth with a buff. This is also crucial for me. If I breathe in very dry cold air, I am just asking for asthma to return when I go back indoors. I keep a buff over my mouth when I ride outside in the winter. You need to find one that is perforated enough to breathe through easily. I have tried a few and this is the best one I could find. I also use it to keep the sun off my face in summer (another topic – recumbent cyclists need to be careful about sunburn as you are essentially ‘sunbathing’ as you ride). When you ride hard it can be difficult to stop the buff being pulled into your mouth a little as you breathe hard, but I’ve learned the hard way that it is better to put up with that than to have an asthma attack later.
  5. Always carry your inhaler when you ride. Shouldn’t really need saying, but I sometimes forget!

I hope these pointers might be useful to you if you’re new to cycling with asthma. Once again please ensure you visit your doctor first and do whatever your doctor recommends.

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