In the wintertime, runners often hesitate as to whether they should continue exercising outdoors or switch to a treadmill instead. Have you ever heard your mom or coach warn you not to run in cold weather? The common phrase used is “You will freeze your lungs if you run in that frigid air”! Have you ever considered the possibility about how and at what temperature the cold can actually cause damage to your lungs?
Can your lungs be affected negatively?
Many people, especially new runners, believe that running in cold weather is harmful. But as per research, runners are usually not in danger of freezing their lungs, even in the coldest places in the world thanks to our body’s excellent capability to cope and adapt – the air reaches body temperature by the time it greets our lungs. When a person takes a breath, the nose, mouth and throat work in tandem to warm the entering air. It isn’t possible for the lungs to freeze even if you live in places with the coldest of temperatures on the planet. Running in chilly temperatures won’t cause permanent lung damage and is – for most people – a safe and effective workout.
But then again, frigid temperatures can still lead to irritation in the airways, especially in certain circumstances, causing run to become challenging in unanticipated ways. A healthy individual won’t suffer serious respiratory issues or incur lung damage after going for a jog in the cold. However, many others experience unwanted side effects during or after running in cold temperatures. The colder the air, the drier it tends to be, so the body has to both warm and humidify each incoming breath. Some people, especially those who aren’t acclimated to exercising in the cold, can experience a raw, scratchy or burning feeling in the throat and windpipe. This type of air and increases in minute ventilation are both stimuli for bronchoconstriction, which manifests with shortness of breath, chest tightness and a cough. Simply inhaling cold air while running won’t cause an infection, but if you’re already suffering from a throat or chest ailment, running in freezing temperatures can exacerbate such conditions.
Moreover, the body is unable to warm or humidify inhaled air completely when temperatures are excessively low – zero degrees and under. This type of air and increases in minute ventilation are both stimuli for bronchoconstriction, which manifests with shortness of breath, chest tightness and a cough. In fact, those who are less aerobically fit, suffer from exercise-induced asthma, or are currently suffering from a respiratory illness are more susceptible to problems.
How can runners prevent this from happening?
If you plan to run in the cold, you can take certain measures to prevent the side effects. The nose warms and humidifies incoming air more effectively than the mouth does, so breathe through the nose rather than the mouth when possible. Wear a scarf, neck warmer or ski mask around your mouth and nose. The material will help to trap the warm, moist air that you exhale, automatically making your next breath warmer and moister. Run during the warmest hours of the day, which in winter typically occur in the early afternoon. If possible, gradually work your way up to running in increasingly colder temperatures. For instance, decrease the speed and length of your run when first running in cold weather, and progressively work back up to your regular pace and duration. Or try to run at least a few times a week throughout the fall and into the early winter, as temperatures slowly drop.
A word of caution for those who suffer from asthma
Asthmatics must be even more careful when running in cold weather. Both cold air and aerobic activity like running can intensify asthma symptoms, and the combination of these factors can create a problematic situation. Winter conditions can set off bronchial spasms as discussed, thus blocking incoming air from fully entering the lungs. Wheezing or shortness of breath soon follow and can potentially turn into a serious asthma attack. Thus, asthma suffers may want to preemptively take their rescue inhaler before running in the cold, and carry it while running in case anything happens mid-workout.
If you literally feel “under the weather” on a cold morning, avoid running on that day – resting isn’t considered shirking and won’t hamper your daily routine. Conditions like high fever or intense cough and cold, should be taken seriously and you need to stop running till you feel better. Running in winter when your immune system is at a low isn’t a wise decision at all and can lead to more serious issues. Always remember your health is the top priority – once it goes haywire you will be bombarded with a host of illnesses, so maintain proper health and fitness before preparing to run.
How does running in cold weather affect the lungs