Neil Featherby: Running with asthma

Neil Featherby with his beloved dogs Picture: Mark Hewlett

Neil Featherby with his beloved dogs Picture: Mark Hewlett - Credit: Archant

I regularly get asked about running with asthma having been a sufferer for most of my life.  

Whilst I am sure most people have a good idea about this condition, for the benefit of anyone who may not, it is when the airways in your lungs narrow and swell resulting in breathing difficulties, wheezing and coughing. 

During my peak running years, despite repeatedly telling my doctors that I was sure I was suffering with this horrible and what can be a very scary ailment, at the time I was told there was no way I could run the way I did if I was asthmatic. 

Frustratingly, I used to point out that it wasn’t all the time, but when it did strike it was bad. 

I was still in my 20s back then when my lungs and body was much stronger. I can still recall even racing making horrible wheezing noises much to the horror of those who may have been running beside me. I always remember one very prominent coach jokingly saying to me after a 10 mile race that he could hear me when I was still three miles out from the finish. 

Even after having had some tests done at a private clinic where the results said there was some form of constriction in my lungs, I still could not get any medication. 

At one point, my sponsor at the time paid for me to go out to Lanzarote to see if a couple of weeks warm weather training would help and whilst it did, the main problem still never went away. 

Most Read

Then when into my late 30s, I had a bad attack and at long last it was confirmed. Since then I have been hospitalised twice, on one occasion for three days, and yes, I did manage to get a very short jog in each day albeit very slowly to keep my run streak going. 

Anyway, when being asked by others who suffer with this condition and worrying about whether running will help them or not, my personal opinion is yes, there are benefits despite being asthmatic.  

However, for any beginner it is important to seek advice from an asthma specialist and start out very carefully and cautiously whilst doing just very short periods of jogging mixed with walking. Take your inhaler with you too just in case. 

The only way I can describe a bad attack of asthma is like having someone or something very heavy sitting on your chest for which you really do struggle to breath in and out whilst repeatedly coughing and even feeling weak and lightheaded.  

Nevertheless, and here is the good news – many top class athletes and sports people suffer with this condition, which they have still hit the highest heights. Whilst at times it has brought me to an almost grinding halt, it still didn’t stop me running at a decent level too hence why I think exercise really can be a good thing for sufferers i.e. lung function, muscle tone and a strong cardiovascular system. 

It’s all about staying on top of your medication and getting the timings right when to take it.  

Also understanding how asthma affects you personally and what might be the trigger points.  

For me it is really cold and foggy weather and I am also affected by smoke/fumes. I also try to avoid people who have the cold virus as I know it will go straight to my chest if I catch it.  

For others it might be a number of differing things such as dust, heat, humidity and yes, exercise is high on the list too. If this is the case then warm up thoroughly for at least 10 minutes beforehand which includes a few short high intense intervals and try to avoid running at times or places when the air might be more polluted such as in the rush hour if in the city or when the pollen count is high.  

Try to plan ahead. I regular watch the weather forecast and as I have mentioned in my column before, I love running in the rain and particularly just after a downpour when the air is so much fresher. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about managing it. One huge example is Paula Radcliffe and look at what she achieved through a very long and successful career.