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Working Out with Asthma: 718 Athletes Speak Up

By Jenessa Connor

If you want an excuse not to exercise, it’s easy enough to find one. Work is busy, money is tight, you’re too tired… So it’s always impressive when an athlete with a legitimate medical condition still finds a way to prioritize fitness, even if it means working harder than the rest of the team.

A number of 718 athletes deal with asthma, a respiratory condition that causes the airways to swell and produce excess mucus. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness, and the severity of those symptoms can vary significantly from one person to the next. There’s no cure for asthma, but it can be managed with medication and lifestyle choices. And while exercise is good for an asthmatic person’s overall health, it can exacerbate symptoms of asthma.

So what’s a CrossFitter with asthma to do? We asked Anne Smanik and Monica Caban, two members of our community, for their input and advice.

What are some of the challenges of doing CrossFit with asthma?

Anne: My main challenge is a lack of endurance. Long workouts – 20-minute EMOMs and such – are not my strong suit.  And running any distance beyond sprints, especially in the cold or high winds.

Monica: METCONs, AMRAPs, anything with cardio involved (which is pretty much everything) takes a lot out of me. I fatigue so much faster because I’m not getting enough oxygen throughout my system and having to “catch my breath” during every exercise that doesn’t include a good two- to three-minute rest time.

How do you manage those challenges?

Anne: I manage my challenges by knowing my body and what it’s trying to tell me and reacting appropriately.  That may mean substituting rowing for running if it’s particularly windy out, or slowing down my pace during a 30-minute AMRAP.  My inhaler is always with me, and I do use it when I need it, but I’m trying to get better at reacting to signals earlier.

Monica: To start, I have my albuterol pump with me everywhere I go at the box.  There are days that I have to use it multiple times throughout the WOD, but I have also had days when I didn’t even use it once (those are really good days ). I try my best to pace myself, and as the months have gone by with being at CF718, I have learned when my body can and cannot handle an exercise. For example, during the summer, I know that the humidity is one of the worst things for asthmatics, so I will make sure to get to the box in the morning or when the humidity level isn’t at its peak. Some summer days I know that I won’t be able to handle anything intense because it’s too hot or just way too humid. On those days, I take a day off from the box.

Because we have such amazing coaches at our box, they are beyond understanding and are always checking up on me during the WOD.  And if I can’t get through it all, IT’S OK. They keep me encouraged and remind me that tomorrow is a new day, or I can just modify it!

What advice would you give to someone who has asthma and is struggling to work out?

Anne: It is a serious medical condition made worse by exercise, but if you’re smart and tuned in to your body, you’ll find your safe output level and pace.  I haven’t always had asthma. I’ve only had it for about five or six years.  I’ve always been a very active person – high school athlete, semi-serious dancer, and avid rock climber.  Asthma took a lot of getting used to for sure, but I’ve never seen it as an excuse to not do something altogether.  Try it, find the way to make it work for you.  And make sure you’re clear with your doctor about increased athletic activities!  I’ve gotten a lot of flak from doctors, but I let them know I’d rather huff and puff running my blazing slow mile every once in a while than sit on my butt and get sicker.

Monica: My number one piece of advice is DO NOT GIVE UP. And if you are struggling some days more than others, IT’S OK! Modify and do what you can! You will eventually, with time, persistence, and patience, have better “breathing days” and accomplish things that you never thought you could!  The worst thing an asthmatic can do is have a sedentary lifestyle; your breathing will deteriorate. CrossFit has helped me tremendously with my asthma, making my lungs stronger and helping my lung capacity expand.