Climbing With Asthma

By Peg Labiuk | 01/21/13
Climbing With Asthma

We’ve teamed up with Marilyn Trout, certified USA Cycling Elite Coach to answer Voler Newsletter List members’ training questions. You can view her coach profile at Send your cycling inquiries to Marilyn, and for a limited time, if yours is selected to be answered in our Training column, Voler will send you a $20 gift certificate that can be used towards any purchase from the Voler Store at To submit your inquiry, e-mail her at, and type “Voler Training Question” in the subject line of the e-mail.

This is a repost of a 2009 training question which was answered by Peg Labiuk (nee Peggy Maass), a colleague of Marilyn Trout, and a certified NCCP level 3 coach with a career in international road and track racing. She is a World Championship medalist, World Record holder, U.S. Olympic Team member, former British national team coach and Kreb's Cycle co-founder (British Columbia, Canada).



I have diminished lung capacity due to childhood asthma. It isn't a problem most of the time, but I really feel it on the hills and need a few minutes of recovery after each climb. What advice do you have to help build hill stamina? Should I do more hills, interval hills? I feel like my lungs are holding the rest of my body back! I've used inhalers but find that just makes me shaky with exceedingly dry mouth.

Tia Haenni

Hi Tia,

I am a fellow asthma sufferer, so I sympathize with your problem. I’m not sure which inhaler you tried that left you feeling shaky with dry mouth, but you should go back to your prescribing doctor and try again. There are always new products coming on the market. Unfortunately it may take several trials and several weeks with each type of inhaler to find one that works for you. I think the relief you will feel with the right medication will be worth it.

I have also had success with diet change (avoiding wheat and dairy), Chinese cleansing herbs, and herbal allergy remedies, so you might explore those aids too. Cool temperatures aggravate my asthma, so I have more trouble in the winter months. Then, it’s even more important to work at keeping calm. It’s easy to feel anxious when your airways are restricting. I talk to myself about staying steady and getting through the warm-up time especially. Slow down your exhale and lift your head and upper body up to facilitate a free breathing pattern and a positive outlook.

As you mentioned, hills are more difficult because of the increased effort.  It helps to keep my upper body loose except for pulling back on the bars when seated or rocking the bike slightly when standing. The extra recovery time you need is normal, but it doesn’t mean you stop pedaling until you catch your breath. Wearing a heart rate monitor will show you that your heart rate drops fairly rapidly after the ascent. Train yourself to keep pushing over the top, even though you are breathing hard, so you don’t drop pace significantly. Occasionally I get caught and do have to ease up to slow my raspy breathing, but most of the time if I keep a positive attitude and pace myself, I can ride hills without an episode. I do need a long warm-up; usually after 25-50 minutes easy pace I’m ready to go. I recommend you determine your needs – how much warm-up you need, and if you have allergies or weather conditions that contribute to your asthma. Pay attention to those and work with it. Then, yes, do more hill repeats to build up your leg and lung strength. I’m a fan of timing intervals and making note of the gears you use or wattage because then you can monitor improvements instead of just going by feel. By planning ahead, instead of inwardly groaning when a climb comes into view, you’ll look the challenge square in the eye and rise to the occasion.



Additional Notes - We had some great comments added by our readers when we first published this article:

Mark Talbot on Oct 15, 2009:

As usual Marilyn is spot on and I will be sharing her nutritional advice with some of the athletes I work with.

 I have also had good success with asthmatic cyclists and runners by coupling Marylins advice on hill attacks with improving their aerobic base. The simplicity of this is you can do more with the air you are getting as your aerobic base increases. Simply consider the fact that when you are more aerobically fit you can ride at greater intensity with less air consumption, i.e. no panting or gasping.

So I usually put them on long slow hill climbing during their Base period and then steadily increase the pace up the hills across their Base period. The trick is keep it slow enough, breathing should never become labored and should remain deep and rhythmic. Then in the next training period (Build) we attack the hills and push the lung capacity.

This combination of aerobic building followed by increasing leg and lung strength with hill attacks works well.

Craig Jones on Oct 26, 2009

I am an asthma suffer too. I have had asthma for over 50 years. Riding and racing is a challenge especially in the cold. I recommend wearing a scarf over your face to help pre-heat the air your are breathing. As mentioned by Peg a good long warm up works wonders.


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