Living and training with Asthma

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This is a topic close to my heart. As a fitness coach, I have lived with Asthma for as long as I can remember. As a kid I remember my brother teasing me whenever I would wheeze when breathing. Back then I thought everyone struggled to breathe. I thought it was normal. Asthma wasn’t as well medicated back in those days. We didn’t fully understand what caused it or exactly how much it impacted the lives of those that suffered from it. Thankfully asthma is taken much more seriously today and the varying types of medication on offer are so much more advanced, allowing asthmatics to live their lives with minimal to no shortness of breath.

In this article I want to discuss what Asthma is. What causes it. How to recognise it. And most importantly, how to manage it and help those around you should they have an attack.


Asthma is a long-term lung condition. People with asthma have sensitive airways in their lungs which react to ‘triggers’, causing a ‘flare-up’. In a flare-up, the muscles around the airway squeeze tight, the airways swell and become narrow. There’s usually an increase in mucus in the airways, which increases restriction of airflow. These things make it harder to breathe.


‘Triggers’ can include hayfever, a high sensitivity to allergens, mould, cold night air, a sudden change in temperature (e.g. jumping into a cold swimming pool), or a sudden increase in physical activity. (e.g. a fast run or intense training session without warming up).

Research suggests exposure to tobacco as a child and/or obesity increase the risk of developing asthma.

Fact…One in nine people in Australia have asthma. It affects people of all ages. Some get asthma when they are young; others when they are older. It cannot be cured, but for most people it can be well managed.


Symptoms include

  • Breathlessness
  • Wheezing
  • Tight chest
  • Continued coughing

How do you manage it?

This is a great question for those that may occasionally feel tight chested when breathing but then put themselves in the category of ‘I don’t have asthma’ or worse, ‘This happens all the time, it’s just who I am’.

WRONG!!!! It is not normal to struggle to breathe.

Consider this.
The body can go for approximately…

  • 21 days without food. (Mahatma Ghandi survived 21 days of complete starvation).
  • 100 hours without water. Less on a hot day.
  • 6 minutes without oxygen from when the heart stops. After 6 minutes without CPR, the brain begins to die.

When you start to think about the importance of oxygen to the human body, you get a sense of why Asthma is at the top of the food chain for being correctly medicated and managed.


For those that don’t suffer from asthma, it can be difficult to understand exactly what an ‘attack’ feels like. So allow me to try and create a visual.
Try taking a big deep breath. Now hold it… keep holding… now try and take another deep breath without exhaling the air you’ve been holding for the last few seconds. How much more air were you able to inhale? Another 5%, 10%? That little gasp of air is exactly what it feels like for an asthmatic. The only difference is, when an attack occurs, asthmatics don’t have the luxury of exhaling all that air you’ve just held. They can only inhale and exhale that 5 to 10% of air. And I can tell you it’s bloody frightening! Bad asthma attacks are generally followed by a rapid onset of panic.

See here’s the thing about an asthma attack. Inhaling is fine. Breathing out is where we get into trouble. When an attack occurs, you can take a full breath of air into your lungs but can struggle to exhale all that carbon dioxide. (This is where panic sets in). Take another big gulp of air in, and again, struggle to exhale. Your lunges get bigger and bigger, holding a mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide and all you’re able to do is breathe in short bursts of oxygen, with tiny exhalations of CO2. Medication such as Ventolin (relievers) or Symbacort (preventers), help manage the levels of severity, and the varying types of medication have become so effective that most asthmatics are now able to fully control their asthma attacks. Allowing them to train hard, with little to no shortness of breath.


If you witness someone in this condition, (and I’ve had this happen to me when I’ve struggled to breathe), don’t try to spark up a conversation with the asthmatic. They have one goal in life at that moment and it’s to breathe. Talking is a distant second.

(Side note : When I’ve had asthma attacks in the past, and I mean bad ones, I’ve actually had people ask me whats wrong. When I haven’t been able to answer them, they’ve assumed I’m upset with them. They think I’m giving them the silent treatment. They in turn get upset with me. I’m dead serious!)

Here’s some handy tips.

  • Sit them down. They need to be as relaxed as possible.
  • If medication is available, (they may have a ventolin with them, most asthmatics generally carry one), get it to them asap.
  • If you are going to ask them anything, make it a yes or no question so that they can nod or shake their head. (Trust me, as an asthmatic having an attack, if someone recognises the symptoms and knows how to calm me down, regardless of how I might look and sound, I will start to calm down.)
  • Don’t panic. Seeing someone short of breath can make others around them panic. Reassure them, and coax them to slow their breathing down.
  • Call 000 if needed. Asthma ain’t no joke. If the person in front of you is not responding to medication, is not calming down, and their breathing is not improving, then don’t muck about. 000 treat asthma attacks like heart attacks.
  • And finally, don’t get upset if they don’t talk to you 🙂


For a large portion of my 20’s, I considered my asthma well managed.

  • I lived on my ventolin, relying on it every day
  • I would constantly feel short of breath but it didn’t stop me from living day to day so I thought it was normal
  • If I laughed too hard, I would immediately need my ventolin
  • I was in hospital twice within a space of six years. Once for three days. Once for six days. Both were severe asthma attacks.

For the record… this was NOT a well managed asthmatic. This was a guy who assumed that ‘this was as good as it would ever get’. Because I had never known any different.

Speaking to an asthma specialist after my second visit to the hospital, I started taking a variety of medications until I settled on the one that was right for me. That was in 2002. 16 years later and (touch wood) I have not had an asthma attack since. Do I still experience shortness of breath? Yes, and it’s usually around the changing of the seasons or when I get a cold, but I am aware of it and know how to manage and medicate myself through those periods.

If you see yourself emulating any or all of the traits I have described back in my 20’s, then do yourself a favour and go see an asthma specialist.

Oh, and if you speak to your GP about asthma and they don’t take it seriously, find another GP or an asthma specialist that will.

Written by Coach John