Meet the COPD Athlete: Never Let Your Disease Define You

Meet the COPD Athlete: Never Let Your Disease Define You

Russell was diagnosed with asthma when he was 10 years old. The addition of a poor lifestyle in his early twenties with no exercise, drinking, and heavy smoking, led him to a stroke at only 36 years of age. In 2011, he would then be diagnosed with Stage 4 COPD after symptoms of heavy breathlessness and fatigue. “I am used to being breathless,” he says as he recalls his respiratory journey. His lung capacity was just 22% when he was diagnosed and doctors considered a double lung transplant he had to use 4 different inhalers.

These experiences were enough to set Russell on a new path of health and fitness while battling COPD. Starting with short walks he then incorporated cycling and swimming into his exercise regime. “The more I exercised, the fitter I got; and the fitter I got, I felt better”, he explains. Russell describes the dilemma but value of exercise for patients with COPD, “Exercise makes COPD patients more breathless but it is actually really important. Don’t be afraid of exercise. Every time we exercise, we take ourselves out of our comfort zone. My goal is to go out of my comfort zone to achieve my goals. Anything is possible”.

And the “COPD Athlete” was born…

Russell is a legend in his own right. He has pushed limits to complete the Ironman Triathlon, whilst having COPD. He reminisces, “I didn’t think I could do it. I remember starting the race, I told myself, ‘If I can finish the swim, I’ll be happy’. And when I did finish it, I told myself the same thing but this time for the 1.8 km bike race. I was nearly kicked out of the race because of my cycling timing but I did finish it. Once two-thirds of the race was done, and with the motivation from my family and friends, I knew I would complete the Triathlon”.


With the support and precautions of his doctor and 10-11 months of training, Russell completed the 2012 Ironman Triathlon in 16 hours and 15 minutes, being the first COPD patient to ever do so. And thus, the COPD Athlete was born. Now his ultimate goal is to complete all 6 marathons: New York City, London, Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, and Chicago. So far, he has completed 3, New York City, London, and Boston, and has transferred his entry to the Tokyo marathon to 2022.

An advocate for patients

Russell’s decision to launch the COPD Athlete platform was encouraged by his wife and friends as there was a clear need for a ‘'positive website' that would provide hope to other patients managing COPD. COPD management looks very different from Russell’s perspective. “‘Go home, sit in a corner, come in 3 months, and I’ll give you some more medication’ is not the way to cope with this disease”, says Russell, “their doctor needs to be onboard with them, help them get out and exercise; help them change their lifestyle”.

The COPD Athlete’s 4 Pillars of Living Well with COPD

In his article “The Four Pillars of Living Well with COPD” published in the European Medical Journal, Russell describes the four key aspects for COPD management as knowledge, medication, nutrition, exercise. For example, he points out that “If you want to manage your disease well, you need to know everything about your disease”. He then highlights the importance of using prescribed medications using the right technique, time, and dosage. For Russell, “All revolves around these 4 pillars. Patients can take care of their health without relying on their doctor to do it for them”. In fact, much of the work of the COPD Athlete is set on emphasizing the significance and impact of patient self-management. Having tried countless types diets and exercise programs while monitoring his lung function, he firmly believes, “If you are feeling your body properly, you can improve your breathing by purely what you eat and doing exercise”.

Russel Winwood using SpiroHome Personal spirometer

'SpiroHome without a doubt is the best spirometer I’ve ever used'

In between marathons, exercises, or daily routines, Winwood has used SpiroHome to manage his lung health a lot. He describes SpiroHome as a “Very useful device. Simple to use. Others I’ve used in the past are quite clumsy and have not given as much data as SpiroHome has given. I even use it to look at how some foods affect my spirometry”. Winwood even uses SpiroHome before his tests at the respiratory clinic and has observed that the results “certainly add up”: “I certainly would say that SpiroHome is really reliable and so consistent. And I am brutally honest with devices”.

“Never Let Your Disease Define You”

Russell Winwood’s message to you:

“You have to stay positive. It does not matter what stage you are diagnosed with; if you adapt to a better lifestyle, you’ll have a better quality of life. Being diagnosed with COPD is not the end, you just need to change the way you do things. Too many patients judge themselves by their spirometry or how they breathe. They do not give themselves a chance to reach their true potential. They already have a preconceived perception of what their potential is. Human spirit is a truly powerful thing. People can surprise themselves. Set those goals and you might surprise themselves.”

Russell is currently working on his book where he plans to further share his experiences with fellow COPD patients. He teases, “Patients tend to listen to patients. ‘OK, he is living with the disease, he knows what he is doing.’ I want to get the most difficult patient to be proactive and follow an easy transition”.

Bonus: Podcasts

As we mentioned on our COPD Awareness Month Blog entries, the COPD Athlete has many informative podcasts. We asked Russell what his favorite episode was:

“My favorite podcast episode is everyone’s most unfavorite episode! It is the one I did with Dominick and Steve. A very technical and very scientific one. But I’d say the most popular one is the one I did with my wife: Living with someone with COPD”

As we end close #COPDAwarenessMonth enjoy listening to both!

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