In a Q&A, Russell Winwood discusses his COPD diagnosis and deciding to defy the odds and become an even more accomplished athlete.
When were you diagnosed with COPD? What was it like learning to live with the diagnosis?
In 2011 my training times were getting slower, exercise was getting harder, I was constantly short of breath and fighting chest infections, so I took myself off to my doctor. I was then referred to a respiratory doctor who sent me for spirometry and lung function testing. This confirmed I had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with a FEV 1 <30% of predicted. I was told that I would possibly need a double lung transplant within five years. Surprisingly, the scan showed that there was little damage to my lungs from smoking — I had been a smoker for 20 years. My airways had become very narrow due to years of chest infections and chronic asthma which caused a build-up of scar tissue.
Initially, I felt very depressed as my prognosis wasn’t great and I didn’t know what the future would hold for me. After a few months of feeling sorry for myself I decided I needed to fight my disease and not let it consume me. Over the past nine years I have developed strategies around exercise and nutrition which has allowed me to significantly improve my quality of life. I have competed in Ironman events and marathons all over the world and live a quality of life the experts tell me is not possible with severe COPD.
Symptoms of COPD include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and, often, exhaustion. With all of these symptoms, what made you decide that you were going to try a triathlon?
When I decided to fight my disease, I knew I need a strategy. Coming from a sporting background I knew exercise was good for you and I knew if I was going to improve my quality of life, I had to be able to exercise. This was the start of developing my nutrition and exercise strategy. I started walking slow, short distances. Each day I would go out and walk. Each day I would try and increase the speed and distance I walked. It took time, but I gradually built my exercise capacity.
I then applied this same tactic to cycling, slowly building my exercise capacity. I was noticing a difference. My breathing was becoming more manageable, and my energy levels were increasing. I then decided to try swimming. After a few early hiccups I developed a way that I could swim. Learning how to adopt pursed lip breathing to my exercise regime has been key to being able to continually improve.
I then decided to try and compete in triathlons. In consultation with my doctor, I undertook a training program which gave me solid workouts but plenty of recovery between sessions. A year later I completed my first Ironman triathlon. While I have decided to retire from Ironman events, I’m still running a marathon every year and loving it.
Why did you start your COPD Athlete blog?
After I had completed my first Ironman, my coach suggested I should start writing about my journey. I decided to start a blog. The name COPD Athlete just made sense – I had COPD and I now considered myself an athlete.
What do you hope the blog will achieve?
My blog was initially just a form of mental therapy for me, I actually never thought anyone would ever read it. When I discovered that it was getting over 4000 views per month, I realized I could use it to help others. I now share my story and strategies in the hope it will help others with their COPD. I have recently added a podcast to the blog. The podcast, called COPD Wellness, is a series of interviews with experts in respiratory disease and nutritional science as well as some patient guests. This year I hope to write a book which will be a combination of my story and useful strategies to help fellow patients.
What advice do you have for recently diagnosed patients?
Quit smoking if you’re a smoker! This will always be number one. I wrote an article for the European respiratory society about the 4 pillars of living well with COPD. The number one pillar is knowledge. The more a patient can learn about their disease the better they will be able to manage it; they can be an expert in their disease. Adopting this mentality from day one of their diagnosis will lead to a better quality of life for them.