Vocal Chord Dysfunction

I’m not a runner. Never have been. I run. For awhile, I got kinda good at it. I didn’t get “Olympic qualifying time” good at it, but I was able to hit the pavement pretty much anytime, anywhere and always finish with a pace between 8:15-8:45 per mile. The year my wife and ran about 8 half marathons, we were consistently finishing in the 1:53 timeframe. I was also blessed to get stronger as the race went on. Once I got through the first few miles, I found going long distances easier. During one stretch, I actually achieved my personal best time of 1:48 for a half marathon. It was consistent and I like consistent.

About a year and a half ago, I noticed that “consistent” was no longer the word I would use to describe a run. “Enjoyable” was also another word that became banned from my running vocabulary. I often told my wife that “good run” was an oxymoron. The reason why is because I began to feel as if I was breathing through a scuba hose like the one pictured. After noticing that it wasn’t getting any better, I finally broke down and went to a doctor. After a battery of tests (chest x-ray, stress test, breathing test), I was giving a “puffer” and diagnosed with “Sports Induced Asthma”. After about a month of hitting the puffer, I pitched it because it was doing nothing to help. I also noticed the issue was getting worse.

No longer did I feel like I was breathing through a scuba hose, I now felt like my air capacity was down to breathing through a straw. If you think that sounds odd, go give it a try. It’s no joy. As you can imagine, you start using other creative ways to get air into your lungs. Chest breathing became my new normal and that is no way to run. It was a spiral downward. By the 6th to 7th mile of half marathons and training runs, I was DONE. My chest muscles were tired and my throat felt like it would explode. There’s only so deep you can dig and only so much you can grind out. Frustration had set in.

On my most recent annual physical, I gave one final plea to our doctor. I explained my frustration and basically begged to get to the bottom of this. Fear was obviously there, but I just had to know what had happened to me. For a frame of reference, my last 3 half marathon times were 2:10, 2:11 and 2:05. My pace was a full minute to 1:30 per mile worse than just a year and a half ago. Something wasn’t right and the numbers didn’t lie. After an extensive exam by an ENT (which included a small camera looking down my throat) we finally had a diagnoses…

Vocal Chord Dysfunction

That long story (and this long post) is to explain it to anyone that might hit the site in a search. It is also to share it with my running friends. There’s no real cause and there’s no real cure. Acid reflux can play a part. Breathing improperly can also play a major role. The bottom line (as you can see from the diagram) is that your breathing is very difficult. The vocal chords don’t open as far as they normally do and can often fold over one another. The “spasms” can happen at any time, but most likely are triggered during exercise. Thus the reason it is often misdiagnosed as Sports Induced Asthma. Environmental factors can also trigger it. For me, it’s a combination of all of the above. We’re addressing the acid reflux and breathing techniques now. It’s helped a little bit, but might take time. You can do google searches and find all sorts of information about VCD. If nothing else, the anxiety of knowing “whats wrong” has certainly helped.

For a guy that’s competitive by nature, this is a struggle for me. I waved goodbye to winning races a long time ago. When I say “competitive”, I mean against myself. I always want to challenge myself to be able to go farther or faster. That’s something I enjoy about running. It’s you against yourself. Yet this new challenge wasn’t part of the original equation. I am learning to be okay with a pace that wasn’t my normal. I am learning to give myself grace on the tough days. This has not been easy. I often try to focus on the positive that it could have been many things far worse. This isn’t deadly. It’s just frustrating. If you think you might be dealing with any of the symptoms above, I encourage you to talk to your doctor. It’s worth the ask.

That’s the best a non-medical, non-runner, average dude explanation I can offer. I have no expertise in this area and am learning more all of the time. It’s causing me to make changes and possibly even ending my 1/2 marathon career. Blessed to have had it last as long as it did.

It was a good run.

5 comments

  1. Dave Parsons (@MVNUSID) · July 5, 2012

    Wow, that doesn’t sound fun at all, Aaron. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you’ve gotten a diagnosis and can now move forward with some plan of action. Here’s hoping you don’t have to hang up the running shoes quite yet. Praying for you, brother!

    • aaron · July 5, 2012

      Thanks Dave. I appreciate the encouragement. Honestly, it’s nothing serious and, for that, I am thankful. “Frustrating” is the best word I can use to describe it. I’ve got some terrible breathing habits that I’ve developed just to get through runs the last year or so, so I have to unlearn those. It’s easy for me to slip back into them again for survival (in my mind anyway). Again, there are far worse things in this world. I’m just going to have to move back a few corrals :)

      My intention is to stick with 20 miles a week (5 days of 4 miles each). I can get through 4 without too much trouble. It’s the later and longer I go that gets very difficult. Not sure about 1/2’s. Might just have to do some 5K’s. Thanks again!

  2. Erik Lane · July 5, 2012

    I’ve seen you mention this before but didn’t realize how it can affect you when running. I appreciate the explanation and better understand your frustration now. 20 miles a week still keeps the body ticking on all cylinders.

    • aaron · July 5, 2012

      Thanks Eric. Yep, 20 miles a week of shorter (4 mile) runs should keep the ticker in good shape and be good for the mind, body and soul. Today may have been THE day that I finally made peace with not being able to do the distance. If we could somehow get this worked out, maybe I’ll return to it. I just had to make peace with it within myself at some point. Frustrating, but it’s all relative. Appreciate the support. You’re right, 20 miles is still a distance!

  3. Pingback: Praying for Two One Six Point Five | aaron conrad

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