Asthma: Breathing Easier in the Saddle
I have very mild asthma that becomes a problem a few times a year and I manage without using medications. It really only acts up with respiratory infections like colds or when there is a lot of air pollution, especially in hot weather. But when it kicks in, it is enough to make biking distressingly harder. There are 4 techniques I use to minimize its impact.
Using the aero bars mounted on my drop handle bars is a phenomenal help. When I am struggling for air with asthma, dropping into the aero bars can make make the difference between being able to continue on or not. Bill's theory is that when more upright, a number of torso muscles contract to stabilize one in the position--muscles that also constrict the chest cavity and make breathing harder. When resting forward on the aero bars, my torso muscles can relax and my lungs aren't constricted so the air moves more readily. Using the aero bars when I have asthma can make the difference between being able to pedal up a 10% grade or not and adds hugely to my over all comfort.
Warming up is always prudent and often makes the whole body feel better, but it isn't always an option when touring. And I've learned that my asthma is much less of a problem once I've thoroughly warmed my muscles. My substitute for warming up is going much more slowly for the first 20-30 minutes, though I often only remember to do that when I have asthma. Being disciplined and riding at a lower level of effort when I'm not breathing well allows my system to become more efficient and breathing always gets easier. That also means taking it easy after a long break, like for lunch and being patient while my whole system re-acclimates to the effort of exercising.
Eating a big meal and then climbing a hill always makes breathing harder and is definitely the wrong thing to do when I have asthma. So, eating less and more often is the way to go if there is much climbing on an asthma day.
Especially when one is distressed for any reason, it can be too easy to get into a pattern of shallow breathing. When I have asthma and especially if there are other difficulties, like climbing a steep grade at altitude, I focus on my breathing. Abdominal muscles are considered "muscles of respiration" because they assist in moving air in and out of the lungs, even though they are below the lungs. Forcefully exhaling to get the belly to hollow, like when coughing, can interrupt the pattern of shallow breathing and help me get more oxygen in.
Making my belly swell with each inhale and flatten with each exhale can re-pattern my breathing into a more beneficial mode, especially when I have asthma. I did this on an asthma day on every breath when on 10% grades at over 6000' and saw my power pick up and I felt better.
Fiddling with your breathing patterns can be challenging enough without trying to do it for the first time on a bike or with a spell of asthma. Standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for the Sandman to show up at night are good times to experiment. Place an open palm on your belly below your navel and make your abdominal muscles move the hand with each breath. Remember: swell on the inhale, flatten on the exhale.