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Cycling with Asthma: How to Cope and Overcome Asthma-Related Issues on the Bike

with NIKKI RHODES, The Black Foxes

I am a southern girl. Born and raised in Arkansas. I rode bikes with friends when I was younger, but I grew up knowing nothing about mountain biking, much less mountain biking as a sport. I moved to Colorado in 2014 and in the summer of 2016, my boyfriend took me mountain biking as one of our first dates. I was pretty excited to attempt something new, until ten minutes into our ride when I started struggling to breathe due to my intense asthma. I tried keeping up with him until my lungs bled but still felt embarrassed because I felt like I was slowing him down. I remember thinking to myself that I would never mountain bike again.

But, I couldn’t be kept down for long. The thrill of something new and my steadfast determination made me push to try again. Once I took the steps to manage my asthma, I fell in love with the sport. Now I love riding mountain bikes, gravel and road.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a lung disease that can affect people physically, mentally, and socially. It is a narrowing and swelling of the airways that can cause difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness, which can have an impact on your day-to-day activities. Your body needs the oxygen it gets from breathing to work properly. Your body needs even more oxygen when you are exercising, particularly at higher altitudes such as Colorado. It is important to have a routine for your asthma, as serious conditions can result from poor management.

Physical activity does not have to be off-limits because of asthma, but some days will be better than others. There are different types of asthma and symptoms and severity may vary. If you have a friend who is asthmatic, respecting the challenges that person goes through will make them feel included and not judged. The limitations that asthmatics experience can create a huge emotional impact, but providing emotional support and having a better understanding can go a long way. Many people with asthma just want their riding buddies to understand that they are not using asthma as an excuse and are giving it their all on the trail, but taking asthma seriously is important for their health.

My Top Tips for Coping With and Overcoming Asthma on the Bike!

1. Find an asthma specialist and develop a medical action plan to control your symptoms.

An asthma specialist can work with you to help prevent and treat asthma. We all know that going to the doctor is not a fun way to spend your time, especially when you are getting tossed around by doctors who spend very little time getting to the bottom of your health problems. This is why it is important to find someone you are satisfied with. For me, it took three specialists until I found the right one. Not only did she pay attention to my hobby of mountain biking, but also my day-to-day needs for asthma. She told me that they would do whatever they can to make breathing easier for me while on the trails.

After taking an allergy skin test, I found out I am allergic to several types of tree, grass, and weed pollen, as well as cat and dog dander, horse and cattle, molds, crop pollen, and cigarette smoke, which is important to know when developing a treatment plan. I also take a spirometry test every visit. This measures how much air I can breathe in and out of my lungs and determines if I'm improving or getting worse and if the medication provided is working properly. After all the testing, I was given a medical action plan. Following my doctor’s instructions has given me hope and helped.

2. Develop a pre-ride plan.

I’m finding natural ways to manage my asthma when it comes to mountain biking. I do not want to become dependent on my inhalers for this sport unless I need them. I have discovered that it takes my lungs 20-30 minutes to warm up. Below is my personal action plan that has helped me mentally and physically. Running through this checklist makes me feel more at ease knowing I’ve done everything to be prepared.

  • Warm-up at home (with weights and using a stationary trainer) or in the parking lot by stretching and riding around
  • Drink a can of beets, beet shots, or beetroot pills
  • Drink half a glass of Magnesium Powder with water
  • 2 puffs of Albuterol 20 mins before ride
  • Take my time the first 30 minutes of my ride

3. Be aware of environmental factors that could affect your breathing.

Weather, allergens, climate, and pollution play a substantial role in asthma and will trigger symptoms. Living in Colorado, the air is dry, which causes swollen and irritated airways and amplifies symptoms. We also have wildfires. The summer of 2020 was the worst for my breathing because of the heavy smoke. It destroyed my lungs and I’m finally getting back to normal. I even had to stop riding for a few weeks because I was afraid that the smoke and particles would permanently damage my lungs.

During winter, colder temperatures make breathing a battle, so I know it is best for me to avoid biking at 40 degrees or lower. One year, I got bronchitis due to biking in colder temperatures and unfortunately, my breathing has not been the same since. If you do decide to exercise in colder temperatures,  breathe through your nose rather than your mouth if possible. This method warms up the air more effectively. Also use a neck gaiter and layer up appropriately, especially over your chest. Warm-up slowly.

When biking is part of our lifestyle, it’s difficult to stay off the bike. Sometimes I do ride in below-freezing temperatures, but I plan easy rides that aren’t harsh on my lungs, like shuttling! Who will pass that up? If all fails, hook up the bike trainer and Zwift!

4. Develop a positive mindset.

Climbing is a chore for those with asthma. I stayed away from group rides for years because everyone climbed at a faster pace than I was used to. Mountain biking is a competitive sport, and being left behind caused a lot of disappointment and lowered my self-esteem. There were multiple times where I cried because I thought I was not good enough and that my dreams of racing would never happen. But at the end of the day, this is your ride. You are in charge, and it is up to you to take the action to change things. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and give credit where it’s due. I know asthma will hold me back no matter what I do, so I had to change my perspective on this situation. I recognized that I was stopping myself from achieving my biggest goals and dreams. It’s all about positive thinking and not worrying about what others think of you.

My first step to changing my mindset was group rides. I joined WMBA (Women’s Mountain Biking Association of Colorado Springs). They are about empowering all women through group rides for all levels. I gained confidence from this amazing group of women. After my first year of joining, I decided to become a ride guide for WMBA. I appreciate the hard work the women put into this organization to help others feel comfortable at their level of comfort. Because of that, I want to help others.  After that, I slowly began engaging in group rides with friends. I explained to them that I have asthma and I am a slow climber. They responded positively, which made me feel welcomed. Eventually, you will find a group of friends that are at the same skill level as you, that have the same goals, and that will push you to achieve them. Group rides may be challenging, but they also give you the greatest feeling of accomplishment.

5. Control your anxiety.

For some, getting on the bike can help relieve feelings of anxiety. For me, it causes it. When breathing becomes difficult, I start to panic. Sometimes, I will have a full-blown panic attack and I can’t talk myself through it. I can’t think clearly, my body gets tingly and goes numb. I can’t explain how others can help. Sometimes, I’m too embarrassed to tell them what is happening. I despise that this occurs. I cry and feel defeated. It’s scary. It doesn’t help that I’m already fighting to breathe due to asthma and then hyperventilating on top of that. But, I’ve developed some ways to control my anxiety on the bike:

  • It is important to not overexert yourself and watch your heart rate.
  • You don’t have to be the fastest on the climbs. I take several breaks and that is ok. I do this so I don’t have to depend on my rescue inhaler. During these breaks, I get my breathing back to a controllable level.
  • To feel safer and at ease, I have learned that it is best to have a riding buddy that understands my issues. I know that there are times on the ride where you will lose sight of friends, but knowing you have someone who will come back for you or assist you if anything occurs is a relief.
  • Another tip is music therapy. I put one earbud in and listen to my favorite playlist or meditation music. Music is a great distraction and helps calm my overthinking mind. Singing along in my head is a great release of tension and takes my focus away from breathing.

If you suffer from asthma, don’t let your differences restrict you. Remember, you are in charge. After creating a positive attitude towards cycling and making patient friends who understand my needs, I am doing things I never imagined I could. I started racing in 2019 and ended up on the podium three times that year. My best finish so far was second place at Big Mountain Enduro (BME) Winter Park, Colorado in the sport category. I have learned that I prefer group rides. Now I ride with friends for fun and sometimes I can keep up on the climbs. With practice and maintaining your asthma properly, you will be surprised at what you can accomplish! Now, I am a positive believer in positive thinking.

Click HERE to learn more about Nikki