Milt Bedingfield, C.D.E., M.A., Exercise Physiology
Ever find that when you go out to run you have a difficult time catching your breath? You feel fine, otherwise, but you feel out of breath the whole time you run, like you can’t catch your breath? Or maybe eventually you catch your breath but it has taken you a mile and a half to two miles to do so and you were uncomfortable the whole time? Well, join my club! I have a long history of running and have experienced every one of these problems. Almost every runner has at one time or another. In most cases there is a logical, harmless explanation for all of these breathing issues, but nonetheless, anytime you start experiencing any shortness of breath, you should always get yourself checked out by your doctor, right away.
If you find there are no medical problems for your shortness of breath, then you might consider some of the following possibilities:
There is a very real possibility that you are starting off your run too fast and getting yourself into an “oxygen debt” situation. For a variety of reasons many people start their run without enough of a warm-up and start off at a pace too quick for their body’s degree of readiness. This results in the inability of their aerobic system (A combination of the cardiovascular system and many little organelles known as mitochondria located inside every muscle cell) to ramp up in time to provide adequate energy for the working muscle cells. This results in the anaerobic metabolism (the breaking down of sugar in the absence of oxygen) of sugar stored in the muscle cells so that immediate energy is available to the muscle cells being used to run. An unfortunate side effect of anaerobic metabolism is the production of lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism, which if allowed to accumulate in the blood, will cause a serious problem for any athlete known as lactic acidosis. Lactic acidosis changes the delicate pH balance of the blood making the blood more acidic, which in turn causes breathing to become more rapid but shallow, frequently leaving the athlete feeling breathless and panting. Usually the best treatment for the resolution of lactic acidosis is to significantly slow the pace of the run, sometimes even to a walk for several minutes. In fact, once an athlete develops lactic acidosis it is only a very short time before the intensity of whatever activity they are doing has to drop drastically. Failing to recognize the early signs of lactic acidosis and not immediately reducing the intensity of the exercise will quickly worsen the situation.
Another common cause of breathing difficulties when running is beginning to run too soon after eating with a lot of food still left in your stomach. A whopping seventy percent of your blood volume is shifted to your gut area after eating. This doesn’t leave a lot of blood left to deliver oxygen, nutrients and energy to the muscles being used when you try to run. You should never exercise until you have lost that “full” feeling you get after a meal.
Similar to running with a full stomach is running in really hot and humid weather. This, for most people, is very unpleasant and difficult to do, and for good reason. When temperatures are high and your body heats up, large amounts of blood, that under much cooler conditions circulates through the lungs and muscular system, leaves the main circulatory system and travels through very small blood vessels just under the surface of the skin. This is the process by which your body tries to cool itself.
What is important to note here is that whether blood is diverted to the stomach after meals to aid in digestion or whether blood is rerouted to the skin to help cool the body, the end result is less blood available to working muscles. The less blood passing through the muscles, the less oxygen being delivered to the muscles, significantly increasing the need for anaerobic metabolism (without oxygen) and the production of lactic acid. Anytime lactic acid is produced at a rate faster than it can be used by the body, it will begin to accumulate in the blood. This results in more rapid and shallow breathing. This could be perceived as not being able to catch your breath, or shortness of breath.
Several other causes of feeling like it’s hard to catch your breath include the early stages of an upper respiratory infection, recent exposure to a respiratory irritant such as cigarette smoke or chemicals, and over training.
From time to time I have had athletes complain about having a bad day, or saying, “I just don’t have it today.” The next time I saw them they told me that they had woken up sick the next morning. I have had athletes complain that they had been around cigarette smoke all day or that their building was being painted. In both cases, the athletes were short of breath and their workouts showed it. Athletes should never under estimate the negative effects that chemical smells, exercising with too much food in their stomach (too soon after eating), exercising in the early stages of getting sick and even stringing together too many tough workouts too close together can have on their ability to breathe.
In summary, whenever an athlete is experiencing shortness of breath, during a workout or anytime, and it is not consistent with the circumstances, the athlete should have an immediate medical evaluation. It is simply not true that athletes, no matter how far or how fast they can run, bike or swim, are immune from heart and other diseases. If a medical evaluation finds the athlete free from medical problems, then the above possibilities for shortness of breath while exercising may be considered.
Milt Bedingfield, is a Health Blogger for The Huffington Post and has authored the book Prescription for Type 2 Diabetes: Exercise. His website is Http://theExerciseDiabetesLink.com