Overcoming asthma as a triathlete

It can be done, says respiratory specialist Gavin Dolman

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It may come as a surprise to learn that many elite athletes suffer from asthma: in Britain alone, well-known figures such as Becky Adlington, Laura Trott, Paula Radcliff and David Beckham all suffer it to varying degrees. Australian triathlete Emma Snowshill was even carrying her inhaler when she secured gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

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British age-grouper Gavin Dolman has battled respiratory problems throughout his life, and says that even in severe cases it doesn’t have to mean the end of your sporting ambitions…

I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 18 months and spent the vast majority of my childhood in hospital with frequent asthma attacks.

Made worse by specific allergies, the condition deteriorated over the years and into my teenage years I was in denial that I even had asthma. I didn’t want the stigma or rejection for being different. As a result of this, I didn’t take my medication correctly and by the age of 19, lung function testing showed that I was only using 50% of my lung capacity and that I had caused myself irreversible airway damage.

I sought further advice and despite as a child being told to avoid exercise, I was then advised I must exercise to try and prevent my condition from worsening into chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). At the age of 20 it was a very numbing thought that I would spend the rest of my life struggling to breathe.

I remember the first time I tried to run, I got no more than 10 yards before I was wheezing and gasping for breath. Inhaler in hand, I used my medication and pushed on. Within a year I was able to run short distances and spend most of the day on a bike. The feeling of being outside, exercising and breathing easier captured me. It was the start of a long and difficult journey.

New beginnings

My asthma has shaped my career, training as a paediatric nurse and then specialising in respiratory. My job has allowed me to teach and help so many other asthmatics the basics of good inhaler technique, active management, symptom awareness and how to exercise according to your own condition. 

It has to be tailored to the individual so a gradual fitness regime is adapted. A year ago I formed a company called Respiratory Awareness UK that aims to provide this kind of comprehensive and interactive education, making it available to everyone, not just asthmatics.

Continuing with my own legacy, I tried a couple of sportives and then duathlons. I was captured by the amazing atmosphere on race day, the step up in training prior to the race and the overwhelming satisfaction of completing an event. Being told you will never be able to take part in sport because of asthma was life changing, yet for me it had the opposite effect.

Gavin Dolman

Role models

I love to train and to compete, but my passion is portraying this message that asthma is under-recognised. It can be a silent killer, we have to take it seriously but most people with asthma can participate in the world of sport. Laura Trott, Austin Healy, David Beckham, Paula Radcliff and Rebecca Adlington all have differing degrees of asthma, and all compete in the world of sport.

A decade ago, asthma was asthma. Now there is recognition of different types, triggered by different things with each individual responding in a different way. Treatment largely remains the same, preventative medication twice daily with a reliever inhaler for troublesome times. 

When you factor in the chance of an asthma attack being triggered by the chlorine in a pool, the cold air outside or the fumes when out on a bike, the realisation is that it is a difficult disease to live with. However, given the right treatment and most importantly education, anything is possible!

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Do you suffer from asthma? How does it affect your training and racing? Let us know in the comments below!