CrossFitting with Asthma

I am really glad you found this article, I hope it helps you! A little background about the article, I wrote this back in 2012 when I just started CrossFitting. Since I wrote this article I have participated in 5 Opens and received the CrossFit Level 1 certification at NorCal CrossFit where I was blessed to meet several my CrossFit heroes. Asthma still limits me quite a bit. My lungs have diminished capacity from the severity of Asthma. But I still do a great job and so can you!

CrossFit and Asthma

I want to CrossFit. But you need to know that I have Asthma and so I probably should not do this, but I am going to give it a try. If I pass out, just dial 911.

Sound familiar? Then you and I have a lot in common. I cannot even remember how many times I have started out conversations that way.

I want to ______ but I have Asthma. (Insert any physical activity into the blank.)

As you can imagine, I had a lot of anxiety about exercise in general and CrossFit just plain scared me. How on earth would I be able to do it? My severe Asthma has kept me from many things in my life and CrossFit seemed impossible.

I would like to share my story with you in a condensed format, and share some of the strategies I have learned along the way. It’s important to know that before CrossFit I was pre-diabetic, grossly overweight, and my Asthma kept me sedentary and very unhealthy. Today things are much different and the quality of my life is much improved.

I was diagnosed with Asthma at 9 years old. I spent many, many years in and out of the hospital and most of my early teens were spent inside of the house taking Pulmo Aide treatments every 3-4 hours and cycling through courses of Prednisone. It was horrible. A good portion of my life has been finding way to to control my asthma and upper respiratory infections that inevitably followed major Asthma attacks. Nothing has worked as well as CrossFit and the high intensity metcons (Metabolic Conditioning) and strength training.

High Intensity? To an Asthmatic – that’s like asking an elephant to fly.

My first day of CrossFit was a very different experience for me. I was unable to finish the benchmark WOD that we now call the “newbie”. A few simple body weight exercises that are done for time. I passed out and I felt like passing out for hours. It was never that bad again, thankfully, and as rough as that first day was, it awoke something in me. This idea that I could actually do this. I could be healthy, I could maybe even compete with other people and experience what it feels like to be active! I went back, and then again and after 2 weeks I started to see my body changing and the weight coming off. By the fourth week I was not using my inhaler during a workout and it has just gotten better and better.

You are Asthma. You are limited. You are different. You cannot do _____.

CrossFit is about varied exercises and high intensity. If you have Asthma you know that there are limitations that you have to obey. When you hear your coach cheering you on and the room is full of CrossFitters cheering you on, you want to push harder, but you know that you cannot. Well, that’s only partially true. You actually can push harder, you just may not know how to do that safely yet.

You have to unlearn the bad thinking, figure out when it’s your mind telling you to stop and when it’s your body. There is a real line and crossing it means an Asthma attack, and most of us Asthmatics can feel it and we know when we are about to take a trip to the ER for an Epinephrine shot and possibly an over night stay. Don’t go there, but get as close as you can while being safe. As you get stronger and lose fat, breathing gets easier and an attack gets more difficult to trigger. In essence the “line” gets pushed further and further back. You will learn what “leaving it all on the floor” means for you. You can still empty your tank and have nothing left at the end and at the same time avoid an attack. It just takes practice and being okay with a few failures. Getting that intensity is what builds your lungs up.

Is the risk of an Asthma attack worth it? Think of it this way. Is living your entire life with the limitations and side effects of Asthma worth not trying it?

Basically Asthma is not an excuse to avoid exercise and CrossFit. As an Asthmatic you just have to approach things in a different way and be more in tune with your body. I can not stress enough that you are capable of more than you think you are. It’s a huge battle with your thinking. If you are like me, you have had years and years of family members, friends, and some doctors telling you that you cannot do it. You cannot play sports, you are not like other capable people, you need to take it easy. Honestly, it’s hard to push through a run when you are being passed by everyone, it’s really hard to push through a WOD when you are still going 20 minutes after the last person has finished. And to make it even worse, all those negative messages you have heard throughout your life are flooding your mind and filling you with doubt.

Think about a few things.

  1. At CrossFit people do not leave after the WOD is over, they stick around and cheer you on. They will do those last 10 pull-ups with you or run that last 800 meters cheering you on. You are not alone in CrossFit.
  2. Recognize that you are doing something incredible. Silence the voices of doubters and haters and the thoughts that threaten your success by looking at what you are doing. You are doing the very thing you were told (and you believed) that you could not do.
  3. Do not compare yourself to others. You will be performing as an athlete, it takes time. Right now, compare yourself to you. Track and measure. Every month make sure you are doing workouts that are similar or identical so you can look back and see where you improved. Push-Ups without a band, Fran in 16:00 and not 32:00, pushups with proper form, 10lbs PR on Squats. You get the picture. Your competition is with the sick and unhealthy you. Worry about the leader boards later.
  4. You are an athlete. I know, shut up! Right? You are, and so words like recovery, performance, and strength are words that now apply to you. Let that sink in and let that build you up. Keep coming back and getting stronger. Eat, sleep, think and CrossFit like an athlete, you are actively taking on the identity that your creator intended for you to have.
  5. If like me you are a Christian, then you will start to make all kinds of connections between the endurance and transformations that happen inside a CrossFit box. (that’s a whole other article) I use scripture and my strength in Christ to finish WODs and I use the strength from CrossFit to push on in my walk with Christ. Discipline in CrossFit directly translates into discipline in all areas of your life, including faith.
  6. I was there, the guy on the floor 20 minutes after even the newer members had finished. I am not there anymore though. I have closed that 20 minute gap to about 5 minutes on average and if not, it’s because the WOD has muscle-ups or Hand Stand Push-Ups. I am working on those. I go 3-4 times a week a second time each day to work on muscle-ups and “ring work”.

Some Asthmatic-CrossFitter Tips

  1. The Asthma still comes into play, lung capacity is still diminished and when you are pushing really hard it’s like breathing through straw. This is where you take time with each WOD to learn where your intensity level is. Some days I push really hard and hold my intensity right at “the line” until the last round when I go ahead and enter the “breathing through a straw phase” and just go all out, but not into an Asthma attack. Other days, the whole WOD is like breathing through a straw, but that is usually right before a huge strength gain and fat loss, which in turn makes it easier to breath.
  2. The more weight loss, the better you can breath. As your stomach gets smaller and the fat around your organs goes away, well, it’s like being born again.
  3. Sleep is supreme. You need to recover. Sleep well.
  4. Diet is like 90% of the deal. For me Paleo changed my life. Something about Gluten, sugar and grains made my Asthma worse and gave me horrible indigestion. With Paleo that’s all gone. Eat right. (I have not had a soda in over a year)
  5. I meet with my doctor regularly and she is so proud of what I am doing. If your doctor does not encourage you, find one that does and then go every few months. My doctor helps me lower the doses of Asthma medication, monitors my blood work and helps me track my weight. She is also one of my fans.
  6. An awesome trainer is essential. Mine listens to me, he talks to me, he researches for me and lets me know what I need to do to take things to the next level. He respects the Asthma, but he also pushes me when he knows I can do more. How he knows when I can do more, I have no clue, but that’s why he is a trainer. If your trainer is not like this, find one that is.
  7. CrossFit boxes are popping up everywhere. They are not all created equal. My box is very encouraging, we are like family. I started in my trainers garage, I was the first “member” and today we are a full fledged CrossFit Box. In other words, our box exists to help people reach elite fitness and change lives, that’s why it started and why it still exists.

Last Tip

Try and go 3-5 times a week.  I really enjoy the benefits of CrossFit, and I am in love with the community and the people at my box. I also cannot get enough burpees. Just kidding. I hate burpees.