Run Like The Wind: How Russell Winwood Became a COPD Athlete

Diagnosed with COPD in 2011, here’s the story of how one Aussie runs triathlons with less than 30% lung capacity.

On the front page of his personal blog, Russell Winwood summarizes his life as: “Smoke, Stroke, Ironman Bloke.” Diagnosed with asthma as a child, Winwood still played sports and had an active childhood. In his late teens, he took up smoking and continued until he had a stroke on Christmas Day 2002. He was only 36 years old.

This marked a new beginning for Winwood, who eventually gave up smoking, cut down his alcohol intake, and embraced healthy eating. He also took up cycling. Over the next eight years, he competed in triathlons, ranging from sprint to Half Ironman to ultra marathons.

In 2011, however, life changed again for Winwood. He had noticed that his training times were getting slower. It was harder for him to exercise and he constantly felt short of breath. Spirometry and lung function tests confirmed that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with his lung capacity reduced to between 22 and 30%.

Facing the diagnosis

At first, being diagnosed with COPD was hard for Winwood to accept. He was told that he would possibly need a double lung transplant within 5 years. After working hard to rebuild his health after having a stroke, Russell reports feeling cheated.

“I first heard of COPD when I was diagnosed, and I was devastated,” Winwood explained in an interview with Philips. “I wish I understood that this wasn’t a death sentence, and it doesn’t mean you have to give up the things you love. With the support of my wife and family, I vowed that I wouldn’t allow this disease to take control of my life.”

Following his diagnosis, Winwood gradually started exercising again, beginning with short, slow walks that built up in length and speed over time. This created a ripple effect—the more he exercised, the fitter he became, and the less breathless he felt, allowing him to be more and more active.

Becoming a COPD athlete

As he became stronger, Winwood returned to cycling and swimming. Soon he began to consider training for a triathlon and told his respirologist his goal of entering an Ironman event. (An Ironman includes a 3.8km swim, an 180km bike ride and a 42.2km run.) After some hesitancy, his doctor agreed that there was no harm in trying—as long as Winwood carefully followed his guidelines.

On his website, Russell explains that he trained hard but smart, taking it one day at a time and always putting his health first. On the days when he didn’t feel up to it, he would hold off on the training until he felt up to it. Fortunately, he was able to avoid infections and successfully completed most of his training sessions.

By the time race day rolled around, Winwood had no idea if he was going to complete it or not. He made it out of the swim feeling pretty good. Afterward, he hopped on his bike and began the 180 km leg of the race. Throughout the bike section of the race, he began to feel fatigued and slowed down his pace considerably. After he completed the cycling leg, he spent a few minutes convincing himself that the final part of the race—a 42.2 km run—would be easy.

The run was, in fact, not easy. But Winwood kept going. For over 6 hours, he mainly walked fast, running a little. Eventually, he completed the race with a time of 16 hours and 50 minutes—10 minutes before the cutoff time of 17 hours.

Onward into the unknown

Now, over six years past the point that doctors thought he would need a lung transplant, Winwood has multiple Ironman and marathon races under his belt. He ran the 2015 New York City Marathon, the 2017 London Marathon, as well as the 2018 Boston Marathon. He also has an entry for the 2023 Tokyo Marathon.

In 2020 he started using a portable oxygen concentrator (POC) after learning that his oxygen levels were dropping. According to Runner’s World, in addition to the almost seven-pound POC, he completes races with a support runner who carries extra batteries for the POC. While he may have to slow down over time to adjust to his abilities, Winwood is determined to remain active for as long as possible.

Can you follow in Russell’s footsteps?

You might not be looking to join Russell on his next triathlon, but perhaps his commitment to movement resonates with you. Here are some safety tips to follow as you shift into fitness.

  • Start low and go slow. Short bouts of low-intensity exercise are best for beginners.
  • Strategize around your medication schedule. Plan to exercise when your long-acting medicine is at its peak.
  • Keep your inhalers handy. Always bring your rescue inhalers and use them as needed—your doctor may recommend using an inhaler before your workout.
  • Watch your breath. Be sure to notice when you are getting short of breath. Pause, take a break, and catch your breath as often as you need to.
  • Stay home if you’re sick. Do not exercise if you have a fever or infection, feel nauseated, have chest pain, or are out of oxygen.

Exercising can be challenging for people with COPD. However, the right kind and amount of exercise can actually improve COPD symptoms and add to a person’s overall quality of life, as shown by Winwood’s example. Find out more about how to exercise safely with COPD here.