To get to (and out of) where I live, there is a nice rolling ‘down & up’ hill. Its not dramatic but it can bit taxing on a tired morning. The outbound journey will happily let you descend at 30+ mph before kicking up for a 500 meter rise. The incline is an average of 4% and maxes at around 8%. This morning was a taxing morning. Not just because I felt tired, but because I forgot my damn asthma inhaler. And it was only when the descent turned into an incline and the cool Autumn air hit my chest – that I remembered leaving it on the dining room table.
In the beginning
I first bought a road bike for cycling to work about 5 or 6 years ago. I’d quit smoking and decided to change my lifestyle. The years in a field sales job, spending 6 hours in the car and stopping for a roadside bacon sandwich, weak mug of coffee and a ciggy had taken its toll. The cycling bug quickly took hold and I decided to go beyond the daily commute and ride at the weekends. This started as the odd Sunday morning where I would load my bike in the car and drive to meet friends. We’d then ride for 10-15 miles before driving home again.
As my love (obsession) of cycling grew, my desire to ride faster and further also grew. But my stamina was always questionable. I put it down to the years of abusing my lungs as a smoker. Like many other cyclists I embraced the all addictive ‘ride-app’ and began chasing Strava segments and personal records. Although my cycling was improving, I had developed a post-ride cough. This was a chesty, wheezing cough that would take a while to subside. My family also noticed that if I had been cycling, I coughed more at night, in my sleep. It had been a few years since I had quit smoking, I put it down to fitness (or lack of).
A breathless moment
…..the more I tried hard to catch my breath, the more I panicked. I couldn’t understand what was going on and it scared the crap out of me.
My ever worrying wife convinced me to invested in a GPS with a heart rate monitor, so I could keep an eye on what I was doing and to make sure I wasn’t pushing too hard. I continued to push myself and improve my all-round riding in terms of distance and speed. But I still couldn’t shift my post-ride cough and instant shortness of breath on intense efforts.
In 2015, on a commute home I decided to chase a segment for a personal record. The wind was behind me, there was little traffic about and I felt pretty good. The segment was a straight piece of main road, a slight incline at 2% and 1.1km long, so I went for it – hard! But by the time I reached the top I struggled to breathe. Feeling lightheaded and dizzy I began to hyperventilate, so pulled over onto the path taking short sharp breaths. My chest felt tight and restricted – so unzipped my jersey, unclipped my HRM and removed my cycle helmet. I felt completely disorientated and the more I tried hard to catch my breath, the more I panicked. I couldn’t understand what was going on and it scared the crap out of me. Still straddling me bike, laid my head on my hands which were slumped over the handlebars and tried to calm down. There wasn’t many people around and the those that were paid little attention. After several minutes I managed to calm myself down and get myself together enough to ride home – very slowly.
I was finally convinced that I should go see the GP and get checked out. He ran through the usual list of questions relating to family medical history My dad’s losing battle to lung cancer the year before weighed heavily on my mind as he hadn’t smoked and been a keen runner. He asked me about my exercising routine and listened to my breathing before very definitely stating ‘you would appear to have exercise induced bronchoconstriction’! I was shocked, mainly because I didn’t have a clue what it was. But my Doctor explained it was known as exercise induced asthma. He said that when I was pushing myself to ride hard and panting like a greyhound, my airways were narrowing as a reaction to the intake of cold or dry air through my mouth. It then triggered an asthma attack.
My first reaction was ‘bloody hell – I’ll have to stop cycling’. I’d finally found an activity that I enjoyed doing and I was going to have to give it up. My Doctor reassured me that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case and he prescribed a reliever inhaler (the blue one). This is designed to quickly relax and open the airways and allow medicine to the lungs in the event of an asthma attack. I went home feeling deflated (excuse the pun). Knowing little about asthma – I visited the Asthma UK and the NHS websites for research. It didn’t have to be an issue but I knew it would be in the back of my mind on every ride.
Knowing when to slow down
I still push myself and chase Strava segments. The little PR badges or top 10 trophies on my account always give me a warm feeling post-ride. But I am under no illusion that I do have a limit and no amount of mental coaching is going to change that. I still cough and wheeze after my Sunday ride but it is quickly controlled now. I am glad I went to see the my doctor when I did as I am great at putting things off. Every now and then I push a little too hard and am given a reminder as to why I need to slow things down sometimes or stop. And why (should) I carry my inhaler with me on every ride. Most of all I’ve learnt that sometimes you just have to say “not today – today its all about the ride”.