How to Breathe If You Hate Cold-Weather Exercise
Exercising in cold weather gets a bad rap. After all, it’s cold. Maybe it’s snowing or sleeting. And every time you take a breath, your windpipe burns.
While you can’t change the weather, the right workout strategies can make exercising in cold weather much more comfortable and, dare we say, enjoyable. Here, trainers and sports medicine physicians answer your cold-weather workout questions.
Is It Safe to Exercise in the Cold?
Outdoor winter workouts can be more than safe; they can be incredibly healthy.
For example, when exercising in cold weather, the cardiovascular system has to work harder than it would if you were moving in a comfy temperature-controlled environment, improving your physical and mental endurance, says Chicago-based Trainer Jumha Aburezeq, CPT.
Meanwhile, the time outdoors can help up your vitamin D levels, which typically wane during the coldest months. And, since the body has to work harder when you’re exercising in the cold, you can expect to expend more calories, he says.
“Even though there are a lot of benefits to training in the cold, you still need to respect the cold,” Aburezeq says.
The two most significant risks for exercising in cold weather for a long period of time are hypothermia and frostbite, says Nick Occhipinti, CSCS, an exercise physiologist based in Red Bank, New Jersey.
- Hypothermia is any drop in core body temperature below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius).
- Frostbite occurs when skin and its underlying tissues literally begin to freeze.
Hypothermia is a potentially fatal medical emergency, and frostbite can cause long-term nerve damage or affected tissues to excise.
“When we’re exposed to cold, the body responds in a few ways physiologically to try to prevent these two things from happening,” he says.
First, the body vasoconstricts, or narrows, the blood vessels in the body’s extremities to maintain more warm blood in and around the vital organs, Occhipinti says. Unfortunately for your hands, feet, ears, nose, and limbs, this limits the amount of warm blood coursing through their veins — meaning they can get cold fast. Frostbite is possible at any temperature below freezing, but the risk increases with decreasing temperatures and increasing time in a cold environment.
“A second response the body has is to initiate shivering to generate heat,” he says. “Shivering is an involuntary muscular response that involves small muscular contractions to try to generate heat to warm the body. Shivering for a long time can very quickly fatigue someone who is already mid-workout and struggling to stay warm.”
Lastly, in your body’s quest to stay warm, the body deprioritizes some functions. For instance, research shows that the cold may cause levels of a fluid-regulating hormone to diminish thirst by roughly 40 percent. This drastically increases the risk for dehydration. Combine that with the fact that it’s more difficult to notice you’re sweating in cold weather (sweat dries fast in cold, dry weather!), and dehydration becomes a very real possibility, Aburezeq says.
What If It’s Hard to Breathe in Cold Weather?
The body has many natural responses to help us manage extreme cold temperatures. One of these responses happens in the lungs.
“Our lungs prefer that the air we breathe is roughly body temperature,” Occhipinti says. “If it isn’t, that’s OK because to some extent, our body can warm up the air before it hits our lungs. Traveling through the nasal and oral passages and down through the trachea, this air is surrounded by warm body tissue. In winter conditions, the air can be so cold and dry that we cannot warm it up sufficiently. Our body responds by slightly closing down, or constricting, the airways. This is a process known as bronchoconstriction.”
When exercising, this natural response can intensify. Up to 20 percent of people experience bronchoconstriction to a certain degree when exercising, according to a 2018 review published in Primary Care Respiratory Medicine. In many people, the aptly named condition, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB, can occur when working out in even warm, humid conditions. Cool and dry the air, and things only get worse.
“Breathing hard and fast, generally though the mouth, during exercise causes a loss of heat and moisture in the airways, which ultimately leads to an exaggerated inflammatory response that results in EIB,” explains Sander S. Rubin, M.D., sports medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
“Those with EIB generally begin to experience symptoms 5 to 10 minutes after starting their exercise, with symptoms peaking within 10 to 20 minutes,” Rubin says. “The most common symptoms include chest tightness, wheezing, cough, and shortness of breath.”
In most people, symptoms resolve on their own within an hour, but exercisers with compromised lung health, such as those with asthma or COPD, may need to work with their doctor (and an inhaler) to manage conditions, he says.
How to Keep Outdoor Winter Workouts Safe — and Comfortable
1. Warm up and cool down
“[In temperate conditions], a warm-up should produce enough body heat to raise the core temperature one degree, at which point you should start to notice some sweating,” Occhipinti says. “The same reasoning should be applied in the cold, but it just may take a little longer.”
Doing so will warm not only your core, but also your muscles and connective tissues to help reduce the risk of injury. Also, by slowly increasing your oxygen demands and respiration rate, it can help to mitigate symptoms of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, Occhipinti says.
At the end of your workouts, slowly bring your body back to baseline with 5 to 10 minutes of a cool-down activity. If you can end your workout at your front door, car, or anywhere else that’s warm, you’ll reduce your likelihood of getting super cold immediately after your workout, he says.
2. Dress appropriately
You know to dress warmly, but how you do it matters. They key is “layering.” Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, then add multiple easily removable layers so that you can help yourself stay dry and comfortable as your body temperature changes, recommends Aburezeq.
“It’s also important to make sure your head, hands, and feet are covered and warm,” he says. “When it’s cold out, your body will prioritize keeping your torso warm to protect your internal organs, that usually means it’ll draw heat away from your extremities to make it happen. Which means you need to put some extra protection around those to do what your body isn’t.”
Lastly, all COVID-19 concerns aside, wearing a gaiter or face mask when exercising in cold weather is an easy way to warm and humidify the air you’re breathing, Rubin says.
3. Regulate breathing
Speaking of exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, focusing on breathing through your nose during exercise can go a long way toward reducing EIB severity. The passage of air from the nose to the lungs is slightly longer than through the mouth, so there is a better chance of it warming up and humidifying sufficiently, Occhipinti says. “Breathing through your nose will also decrease your risk of illness, as the nose is better at filtering germs and irritants from the air.”
To make nose breathing possible, you may need to lower the intensity of your outdoor workout or prolong your warm-up, he says. When you work out at high intensities, especially without a sufficient warm-up, it can be challenging for your nose to meet your respiration rate.
“It is possible that with all this extra weight in clothing combined with the body’s natural response to maintain core temperature that a workout in very cold conditions may increase caloric demands of the workout,” Occhipinti says. If you are working out at very high intensities or for an hour or more, you may need to supplement with an intra-workout fuel, such as Ladder Hydration or an energy chew rich in fast-digesting carbohydrates.
And no matter your workout intensity or duration, drink up! “While you won’t need the same intake as you would on a hot summer day, it’s important to hydrate before, during, and after training,” Aburezeq says. Since your thirst sensation dulls in cold weather, make a point to sip even if you’re not thirsty.
5. Check the trail
One significant hazard that often comes with cold weather is ice. Try to limit any walking, exercising, or running on ice, and if the ground is snowy, wearing winter cleats can help you gain some traction. Also, when going outside to exercise in the winter, make sure it is light out so you can see where you’re going and what’s in front of you,” Occhipinti says. A headlamp is another option that can widen your view.
- Frostbite www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791079/
Thirst Sensations and AVP Responses at Rest and during Exercise-Cold Exposure
Exercise-induced bronchoconstriction: prevalence, pathophysiology, patient impact, diagnosis and management