Received another great question from a bboy, and it goes as follows [paraphrased]:
In the winter when the air is dry and cold, battling feels like running a marathon in frozen air! How does the cold affect breathing when we exercise?
Good question… is this something to actually worry about, or just an inconvenience that we have to put up with?
Coincidentally, I actually read about this recently. The answer is – it depends!
Here’s what the research has to say:
Exercise Induced Bronchoconstriction (EIB)
Some people occasionally experience EIB when they exercise. It’s a slight, temporary narrowing of the airways brought on by exercise, which makes it a bit harder to breath heavily. It’s not a big deal when you are going for a walk, but it can make a difference if you are trying to perform at the top of your game.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, EIB is actually a common occurrence. 1 While it only occurs in about 4-20% of the population, the incidence is slightly higher in elite athletes (11-50%). Also, about 80% of people with asthma experience EIB when they exercise.
It was once thought that cold air was more likely to induce EIB than normal air. However, this has been debated by researchers – it wasn’t clear whether it was cold air, or dry air. In 2005, a research study provided pretty good evidence that it is more likely to be dry air than cold air. 2
So what can you do about it?
- Avoid dry or very cold air when exercising – but that’s no fun!
- Wear a scarf around your mouth – this actually increases the humidity and temperature of the air as it enters your mouth. However, this provides resistance to breathing – which also sucks when you are trying to perform at your highest level!
- You could try one of these bad boys – a balaclava with a heat exchanger, which apparently works better than a scarf. 5
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much it.
But remember, this doesn’t happen to everyone, and the decrease in breathing isn’t life threatening (unless you have severe asthma). It appears to be an annoyance we have to put up with. If it really bothers you, try the scarf over the mouth trick!
What about that burning sensation in your throat?
When breathing heavily during exercise in cold air, it can also feel like your throat is burning or freezing. Is this something you have to worry about?
According to an interview (by Alex Hutchinson in his book ‘Cardio or Weights?‘) with researcher Kenneth Rundell, the cold air simply stimulates the sensitive nerve endings in the throat, but it doesn’t actually freeze anything. Makes sense. And personally, I tried to find some research on this topic, but came up dry. see what I did there?
In conclusion: you might as well get used to it!
- Exercising in cold, dry air can cause slight narrowing of the airways in some people, making it harder to breath at maximum capacity.
- It seems exercising in dry air is more likely to cause issues than cold air.
- You can try covering your mouth with a scarf or balaclava, but this makes heavy breathing more difficult.
- That burning or freezing sensation in your throat is just nerve sensitivity. Nothing to worry too much about!
Exercising in cold air has some inconveniences, but the benefits of exercise definitely outweigh the costs.
1. Castellani JW, Young AJ, Ducharme MB, Giesbrecht GG, Glickman E, Sallis RE; American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand: prevention of cold injuries during exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Nov;38(11):2012-29. Review. PubMed PMID: 17095937
2. Evans TM, Rundell KW, Beck KC, Levine AM, & Baumann JM (2005). Airway narrowing measured by spirometry and impulse oscillometry following room temperature and cold temperature exercise. Chest, 128 (4), 2412-9 PMID: 16236903
3. Zeitoun M, Wilk B, Matsuzaka A, KnOpfli BH, Wilson BA, Bar-Or O. Facial cooling enhances exercise-induced bronchoconstriction in asthmatic children. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 May;36(5):767-71. PubMed PMID: 15126708
4. McDonald JS, Nelson J, Lenner KA, McLane ML, McFadden ER Jr. Effects of the combination of skin cooling and hyperpnea of frigid air in asthmatic and normal subjects. J Appl Physiol. 1997 Feb;82(2):453-9. PubMed PMID: 9049724
5. Eiken O, Kaiser P, Holmér I, Baer R. Physiological effects of a mouth-borne heat exchanger during heavy exercise in a cold environment. Ergonomics. 1989 Jun;32(6):645-53. PubMed PMID: 2776744