Proper breathing is an important technique for runners, and I even coach others in how to breathe. So, when faced with no obvious reason for being overcome by hyperventilation after my last marathon, and then again during my most recent half marathon, I started researching possible causes and stumbled across a condition I had never heard of before: Chronic Hyperventilation Syndrome (CHVS, also HVS). By all accounts, this condition could be a runner's worst nightmare.
As a marathoner, I've dealt with the "usual" running injuries - stress fractures, muscle sprains, even the dreaded blackened toenails. I've trained to run in sleet, rain, wind, heat and beautiful weather conditions, as well as over open trails and endless hills. I'm not a particularly talented runner, nor do I possess the ideal biomechanics or body structure. But, I do have the strength and endurance of a distance athlete. Having also been trained in chorale, ballet, hatha yoga and tai chi, I think I know how to breathe.
However, the past few months, I've been plagued by breathing issues, so much so that my last marathon finish was immediately followed by a sudden case of hyperventilation that required emergency attention by our team physician. Just 3/4 mile short of the finish line at my last half marathon, I collapsed from heat exhaustion and hyperventilation and was picked up by the EMTs. Not fun, very scary and it resulted in my first ever DNF (did not finish) in my 5 years of participating in distance events.
I had been doing everything I've been trained to do: hydrate, hydrate and hydrate, balance water with the provided energy drinks, ease up where I needed to, refuel regularly, etc. Because of the heat, I doused my head and neck with water at every hydration station. I took it easy on the hills, tried to stay relaxed on the flats and just enjoy the scenery. My race was going fairly well, considering the hills and Texas heat.
What is CHVS? It's a respiratory disorder caused by too much oxygen in the blood.
Symptoms can include a tingling sensation in the fingers, dizziness and disorientation, and rapid shallow breathing. Some people have complained about chronic dizziness, constant yawning and other low energy complaints.
Because some can also be among symptoms of heat exhaustion, and I've been fighting heat exhaustion since last summer, that's what I thought I was experiencing. I was so disoriented that I didn't even recognize my teammate who had run up from behind to my rescue and flagged down the medics.
CHVS can be physiologically or psychologically based. Well, I wasn't suffering a panic attack or anxiety, so it had to be physiological. I've recently gone through a battery of tests to determine the cause of my palpitations, another symptom of HVS.
Diagnosis can be difficult, but a test on gases in your blood could help determine HVS.
Treatment may be drug-based or not, depending upon the patient. Breathing exercises during normal daily activities could also help "retrain" your body.
For more information on this relatively little known condition:
Hyperventilation syndrome, Wikipedia
Hyperventilation Syndrome, eMedicine/WebMD
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