By Gary Fitzgerald
Apolo Anton Ohno was diagnosed with exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB) in 2000. After his diagnosis, he became the most decorated American winter athlete in history. Apolo also twice competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” winning once, and in 2011 he ran the New York City Marathon in 3 hours, 25 minutes.
He recently sat down for a Q&A interview with Allergy & Asthma Network:
Q: What did you initially think caused your breathing difficulty during and after exercise?
Apolo: I always attributed it to just being really out of shape. I would get fatigued really quickly and I figured I needed a long time to rest. That was not the case. My diagnosis revealed the impact that EIB was having on my performance.
Q: What did your EIB symptoms feel like?
Apolo: I had really strong tightness in my chest, and my throat would hurt. It felt like my esophagus was tight, like it was very small. It was like trying to get air through a straw – I just couldn’t do it. It would take me a long time to recover [after workouts].
Oftentimes, after I really pushed myself, I would have intense coughing, even sometimes a day or two after the activity. People would ask me, ‘Why are you hacking? Are you sick? What’s going on?’ I wasn’t sick, it was my body’s response [to exercise].
Q: How were you diagnosed?
Apolo: Our short-track speed skating team used a protocol in which you had to complete 6-10 nine-lap time trials at different intervals. Given the speed you were supposed to skate each lap at, and the rest you had in between each time trial, you should be able to blow or inhale a certain amount of air consistently throughout the exercise.
Doctors monitored your respiration from when you first became active, to when you started pushing to a threshold that’s more intense, to when you felt completely tapped out.
My test revealed my respiration was functioning at almost 40 percent less than what it should have been. Several members on my team were diagnosed with EIB as well, so I was not the only one. I was one of the worst cases, though.
Q: Your doctor’s treatment plan included using a bronchodilator before and during exercise. How did the treatment plan impact your performance?
Apolo: I noticed a huge difference. I had one of my best years ever. I won every single race that season.
Not only did I see a significant change in my performance, but I also felt more confident. You don’t want to be thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should do this’ or ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ You want to have the mind frame that, ‘No matter what happens, I’m going to give it my best and feel confident that my body will be able to hold up for that.’
Q: What advice would you give someone newly diagnosed with EIB and equipped with a proper treatment plan:
Apolo: Tackle any challenge, activity or exercise you want. Don’t let EIB inhibit your hopes, goals and dreams.
Q: What do you say to people who ignore EIB symptoms?
Apolo: Unless your EIB is treated properly, you’re not going to reach your full potential. EIB ranges across all fitness levels, whether you’re training for the Olympics, training for a triathlon, or trying to be more active with your family.
Working out and staying active is supposed to be fun. It should not be extremely grueling or so painful that you wish you never did it. A proper diagnosis can provide you with the inner confidence that you can accomplish any goal.
Reviewed by Eileen Censullo, RRT