How to Breathe While Running & Walking In Cold Weather

Michael Sean Huffman – MS, ATC, PT Fit For Life Physical Therapy

On an early morning run there’s nothing quite like the bracing feeling of a cool breeze in your face. The crisp air makes you feel alive and finishing a workout in the cold gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, some people struggle to catch their breath when they run or walk in the cold weather, and that feeling is real and sometimes even a little bit scary. However, despite the burning feeling in your throat, this sensation is not dangerous.

Why does breathing that cold air hurt so much? Why do your lungs feel like they are burning? Most doctors agree that the burning sensation you feel when breathing cold air is due to the combination of the heat and water exchange that occurs when you breathe in the cold, dry air. This exchange is quite normal and allows your lungs to breathe air that has been warmed to your body temperature and is 100% humidified.

In other words, the burning sensation is not really from the cold air hitting your lungs, but from the dry air hitting your trachea (windpipe). If you breathe in and out normally, your body can hydrate that air and warm it up to your core temperature. This exchange of heat within your body happens so quickly that the cold air never actually reaches your lungs. Because the air also must be humidified, staying hydrated is a key.

There are a few things that can help reduce this burning sensation and alleviate some of this the discomfort often felt with this very normal process.

First, stay hydrated. Making sure that you are keeping up with your normal healthy water intake, especially during the winter, will assist with your body’s hydration of the dry winter air that you are breathing. Even though you are cold and might not feel dehydrated, please remember that your body will still be burning through fluids while you are running or walking on a cold day.

Second, take normal, relaxed, deep breaths when you run. Regular, controlled breathing will help minimize the stress on your respiratory system in ways that fast, panting breathing cannot.

Third, be mindful of your pace. Some runners and walkers need to reduce the intensity of their outdoor workouts until their body has warmed up. Taking it easy during the first mile of any work out can help you warm up slowly and reduce stress on your system.

Finally, bundle up with a comfortable scarf or a balaclava over your face to help moist in the air as it is in hailed.

Most of all, please enjoy your winter run or walk and stay on track with your exercise plan, training program, New Year’s resolution, etc.

Sean Huffman delivers +32 years of experience in physical therapy and athletic training to Fit For Life Physical Therapy. He has completed +38 marathons and has been a 9:00 minute pace coach with Marathoners in Training for the last eight years. Sean studied physical therapy and athletic training at The Ohio State University and earned a Master’s of Science in Health Administration at Oklahoma State University with a Master’s thesis regarding the role of custom foot orthotics in preventing leg injuries for athletes.

Fit For Life Physical Therapy is proud to be Fleet Feet + FrontRunner’s physical therapy partner. We will keep you moving – no matter what you do. Contact Fit For Life Physical Therapy at (614) 981-1979 or with your injury prevention, maintenance, or rehabilitation needs!

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