The one on the exhale…part II

Asthma Story_0In my last post, The one on the exhale…, I spoke about my history of asthma and the frustrating judgement I feel when people immediately connect the limitations of my lungs with my overall physical fitness. As I mentioned in that post, I usually try to avoid doing cardio in public because of the embarrassment I feel looking weak and out of shape while struggling to keep up.

A coworker recently invited me to attended a new class that was starting up at the gym. She describe it as being a mix of spin and circuit training and I thought I might check it out because at least on a spin bike I don’t need to worry about falling behind. The class, which is mostly attended by experienced endurance athletes, is by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.

Don’t get me wrong, challenging is a great thing. The first couple classes we went through a nine-station circuit including kettle bell swings, ball slams, battle ropes, Bosu hopscotch and a slew of other things, mixed in with 15-minute sessions of intervals on the spin bike. I didn’t in any way feel strong throughout that 90-minutes, but I finished and felt accomplished for having done so.

This week, things changed a bit. The class was taken outside, which is something I had been dreading. All day at work I prayed it would rain so we wouldn’t have to do the class outdoors. Breathing outside is an entirely different scenario compared to inside. I suddenly have to contend not only with my usual exercise-related asthma challenges, but also with the environment. Allergens in the air, the wind, the temperature, humidity (or lack thereof) and a host of other factors all irritate the delicate bronchial lining of my lungs, leading to increased mucus production and airway inflammation.

The plan for the class was a trail run to a steep set of stairs, followed by stair sprints, some flat sprints then a trail run back to the gym for a spin session and a bodyweight circuit. I had kind of hoped there would be at least one person in the class who was not a runner, like myself, and that I wouldn’t be the only person holding everyone back. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, that’s what happened.

I was one of the first people to leave the gym for our run and bit by bit everyone passed me. I tried to push myself to keep up with the pace everyone else was setting but it was completely unsustainable for me. My air exchange was terrible, I couldn’t catch my breath and by the time we got to the stairs I was already feeling light-headed. I was the last person to get there and the last person to begin the stair sprints, with my energy already sapped from struggling to breathe on the way there.

I felt compelled at this point to inform the instructor that I was asthmatic. Partially because I thought people should know, in case of emergency, but ultimately I was trying to find some way to justify why I was so slow, why I was holding everyone back, why I was…weak. I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but I am and the reason why slapped me in the face during the run back to the gym.

Once again, someone stayed behind to run with me and as we were jogging along he said:

“You just gotta keep with it, you’ll be amazed what can happen if you just keep with it. Add in a little healthy eating and the pounds will fall right off. What made you decide to start working out?” 

Assumption #1: I’m out of shape

Assumption #2: I’m out of shape because I’m overweight

Assumption #3: I’m out of shape because I’m overweight and am just trying out this fitness thing for the first time.

It’s so deflating to know that it doesn’t matter how hard I work, how many hours I spend in the gym, how many PR’s I’ve broken in the last decade and how proud I’ve been as a result of my own accomplishments because to the world outside my shortness of breath is because I’m fat and lazy and for no other reason.

Part of this is a lesson in how we should be cautious of our words, but I used it as a means of education and an opportunity to explain a bit about my struggles. The class was Wednesday, it’s now Sunday and I still haven’t recovered enough to be able to take a deep breath. I’ve considered not going to the outdoor classes, but in the end does it matter whether I’m dead last so long as I finish? Not really. People can think what they want about me. I know that even though I’m slow, even though I’m struggling, that I’m working my ass off.

It’s challenges like this that will allow me to improve my VO2 Max so I might strengthen my lungs for the future. I don’t want to be on oxygen when I’m older and I’m willing to deal with the discomfort, both physically and socially, in order to make that happen.

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