How to Breathe When Running in the Cold – Winter Exercise Tips

Winter running is no easy feat, especially for runners who have breathing problems during cold weather.

In fact, most runners—except for the lucky ones living in moderate climate regions—often experience issues such as a runny nose, restricted breathing, burning lungs, and a dry throat when braving the cold.

For these reasons (and some), many shy away from winter running.

But, that’s no excuse to stop running altogether.

Here are the guidelines you need to keep the cold air from taking your breath away. By implementing the following tips, you’ll be able to breathe better throughout your outdoor winter workouts.

But before we do that, let’s first look at what happens to your body when exercising outdoors in the cold.

The Difficulty of Running in Winter

According to popular belief, running in winter can do more harm than good.

In fact, many beginner runners believe that, at a specific temperature, their lungs will freeze when breathing the cold air and die on the spot.

That said, frozen lungs are not something you need to worry about. In fact, this fear is blown out of proportion.

Here is the truth.

Running in sub-freezing temperatures is more uncomfortable than it is dangerous.

Only in extreme subfreezing conditions does the chance exist for severe lung damage.

In fact, at temperatures below 4 °F (-15 °C), outdoor exercise is out of the question since your body may not be able to adequately warm the air before it gets to the lungs (along with other problems that I won’t get into in today’s post).

Nonetheless, the odds of you running in such freezing conditions are slim—unless that’s your home (then I really feel sorry for ya!)

The Process of Air “Warm-ups”

The pulmonary system is excellent at warming up the air you breathe.

When you breathe the cold air (whether while exercising, or on your way to work), your nose, mouth, throat, and the cells that line the trachea—the windpipe—have a very important task: Warming up the incoming air.

In fact, by the time the inhaled air reaches the bottom of the trachea, the cold air would have been already warmed to near body temperature.

Then, on the exhale, and regardless of ambient air temperature and the relative humidity in the atmosphere, you’ll breathe out air that matches body temperature.

How to Breathe When Running in the Cold

Although research shows that exercising in the cold won’t do permanent damage to your lungs—running in the winter is no walk in the park.

That said, before you start thinking about skipping outdoor running altogether, know that the downsides are manageable, and are by no means a valid excuse to skip your training.

Without further ado, here is how to breathe right when running in the winter.

Use A bandana, Scarf, or Balaclava

If the subfreezing air makes your lungs burn or causes you to cough while running, you can wear a moisture-wicking neck warmer, scarf, or bandana.

Why is this so helpful?

A bandana, or a scarf, will act as a barrier between the icy air and your lungs. This helps humidify the incoming air and recycle the moisture that gets trapped on the exhale.

It also makes the air you breathe in a bit warmer, which is easier on the lungs.

For subfreezing temperatures, opt for a merino wool balaclava that covers the mouth, nose, ears, and head, offering full insulation.  This must-have winter time not only helps keep your face warm, but also prevent frostbites on your cheeks and lips.

Sure, you might look like a scary bank robber, but, at least, you’ll be warm and comfortable, and won’t be hacking a lung.

There is a host of neck-warmers, bandanas, scarfs, and balaclavas, with numerous designs to fit your individual preferences. Not to mention your sense of fashion, etc.

Inhale in Through the Nose & Exhale Through the Mouth

In all my previous “how to breathe when running” articles, I typically recommended breathing in both through the nose and mouth.

That said, you might have to breathe differently in cooler temps.

In fact, when running in the cold, inhaling solely through the nose is the way to go.

Here is why.

Breathing in through the nose may help better warm up and humidify the air since the latter has to travel a great distance to get to the lungs, granting it more time to be heated and moistened through the nasal passages and the cells that line the trachea.

Nasal breathing not only helps warm the air, but also regulates body temperature.

The only downside to this method is that it won’t allow to take in as much oxygen as it’s possible through the mouth. This is especially the case as you increase your running intensity, such as when opting for intervals or hill reps.

As a result, relying solely on the nasal breathing may result in shortness of breath and side stitches.

So, during the extreme cold, do less intense running to prevent you from panting for air.  Keep your workouts at a conversational pace, and up the intensity only when it’s comfortable and easy to breathe.

Are you Asthmatic?

If the above guidelines proved futile, then you might have asthma (or another pulmonary disease).

In fact, inhaling the dry and cold air can irritate the throat, and may cause inflammation and damage, resulting in an asthmatic reaction.

In such a case, consult with your doctor for a thorough examination.

If it’s asthma, they can prescribe medication, and, maybe, an inhaler.

Asthma is just one condition. Running in the cold weather is not recommended if you have any of the following health issues:

  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Exerciser induced bronchitis.
  • Raynaud’s diseases—a condition that hinders blood circulation to some regions of the body, resulting in numbness and pain.

A Better Alternative

In the end, it’s up to you. So, if you feel uncomfortable when heading out for a run on a cold day, think twice.

In fact, when in doubt, or feeling under the weather, skip the run. Live to run another day. Turn around, move your workout to the gym. Don’t be a martyr.

And remember that you have to work with what you have. The treadmill is there for a reason.

A lot of runners dislike treadmills—yet these cardio machines are the next best thing, and can help you keep training consistently all year round. Who doesn’t want that?

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David Dack

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