Every Breath She Takes: Asthma Hasn't Slowed Joanna Zeiger
by Karen Asp
For the past seven years, Zeiger, a 30 year old from Maryland who's pursuing her doctorate degree at Johns Hopkins University, has battled asthma. But she hasn't let that stop her. She's a world-class triathlete who's racked up impressive finishes wherever she's gone, including Hawaii where she's finished in the top 10 in the Ironman World Championships.
Yet for all of her accomplishments, Zeiger never thought she'd go to the Olympics. She qualified for the 1992 Olympic trials in swimming but knew she wasn't at the level she needed to be. She found her niche, though, in triathlons.
The best part about triathlons, Zeiger says, is the chance to experience new things: new places, new people, and new challenges.
Zeiger shares how she's managed to compete at such an elite level with asthma.
When were you first diagnosed with asthma?
I've always been a swimmer so I may have been asthmatic earlier in my life, but if that's the case, I didn't notice it. When I started running in 1993, I realized I had a problem. I'd go for a run and I'd often be short of breath, especially during harder efforts. I was almost hyperventilating. I just thought I was out of shape. But my dad is an allergist and he recognized the problem.
What was your reaction when you were given the diagnosis?
I never realized the implications it would have. I really had no idea it would be a constant battle. I thought I could take my medication and be fine. Even after all these years, I still have days when I can't get my asthma under control, and I have to remember that I'll battle this all my life.
How does your asthma affect your training and competing?
Fortunately, I've found a good combination with my medications so that helps me manage it. Most of the time when I'm training and racing, I can breathe well. But it's always in the back of my head that something could go wrong and I might not be able to breathe. I just have to take my medications daily and be aware of how I'm feeling when I race. If I'm not breathing well, I have to take my medication. It's not easy because you have a fear of being overmedicated or that you're wimping out or you're out of shape. It's hard to admit when I'm having trouble breathing and need to medicate myself.
Have you ever not listened to your body and gotten in trouble because of it?
Last summer, I had a terrible experience, but it helped me learn for the future. I did a race in Chicago, and I'd had bronchitis which triggered my asthma. I knew I was having trouble breathing, but I'd already taken something for it, and I didn't want any more. Because I didn't take anything else, I had the worst asthma attack. Now when I'm having trouble breathing, I don't wait to take my medication.
Many people who suffer from asthma have probably written exercise off their to-do lists. Yet you've managed to maintain a rigorous workout schedule. What did your training for the Olympics involve?
A typical week involved about 30-35 hours of training. Some weeks might have been less. I did two speed workouts with running each week. I typically did one or two long bike rides a week that could last up to six hours. I did one long run each week, about two to three hours. I swam five days a week, and the rest was filler workouts with shorter runs and rides. I didn't lift weights, but I did stretch regularly and get a weekly massage.
What advice would you give to recreational athletes who are struggling with asthma?
You can still compete at a high level but you have to be smart about it. Nothing will ever be 100%. You might have 10 great days but have problems on the eleventh day, and it's that eleventh day you have to worry about. Ask yourself why you're having problems. Then back off on training that day and take your medication.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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