- Exercising in freezing temperatures can strain your lungs, research suggests.
- Inhalation of plenty of cold, dry air may cause temporary coughing, sore throat and runny nose.
- Relax on the intensity, put on a mask, and avoid getting inside too quickly, an expert recommends.
Colder weather is perfect for winter sports such as skiing, snowshoeing or even snow-covered trails. But when temperatures drop below 30 degrees, it may be time to turn down the intensity, according to Michael Kennedy, a professor of kinesiology, sports and recreation at the University of Alberta.
Breathing hard in cold, dry air can stress your lungs and cause symptoms such as coughing and sore throat, Kennedy’s research suggests.
“The lung is truly a unique organ in the body because it is open to the air. There is nothing to prevent the environment from getting in there,” he told Insider.
To avoid unpleasant (albeit temporary) breathing problems, avoid intense exercise in the cold, wear a mask and let your lungs adjust before re-entering, he said.
Symptoms of cold weather training include coughing, wheezing
When the lungs are exposed to cold, it is normal to experience coughing before and after exercise, wheezing (a feeling of constriction in the lungs), sore throat, runny nose and mucous cough.
Symptoms can occur in healthy people during vigorous outdoor exercise, similar to those you may experience with a cold or respiratory infection.
You can distinguish exercise-induced symptoms from more serious illness by paying attention to signs such as fever, body aches and a general feeling of tiredness and discomfort, Kennedy said.
Exercise-related coughing and wheezing will generally go away within 24 hours, Kennedy said, but can be induced after just a short bout of outdoor exertion if it’s cold enough.
“Even 30 minutes is a pretty challenging stressful event for your lungs. If you want to choose to go out, you have to reduce the intensity so you will stress your lungs significantly less,” he said.
Do not rush back to the heat – it can aggravate the injury
While it may be tempting to go inside immediately after a cool workout, Kennedy said hot air can worsen lung symptoms. When the air temperature rises, it requires more water content to humidify. As a result, the hot air hitting your already dehydrated lungs and airways can make them even drier, especially if you are still breathing heavily.
“If you take a really stressed lung that’s dehydrated and bring it into hot air, you’re basically multiplying the effect of what happened in the cold air,” Kennedy said.
A better option is to let your breathing return to a normal resting speed so that your lungs can recover a bit before reintroducing warmer temperatures.
Wearing a scarf or mask can help protect your lungs from cold, dry air
To avoid cold injuries to the lungs, stay indoors or exercise less intensely when temperatures drop, especially at 5 degrees and below.
A face mask can also help mitigate some of the damage, Kennedy said.
While surgical-style masks can be helpful in preventing viral particles, they are not helpful in protecting against dry air because they tend to get too moist, too quickly when you breathe heavily.
In contrast, a scarf, neck gaiters or mask of thicker, performance fabric can help create a pocket of warm, moist air in front of your mouth.
“Wearing a mask probably provides benefits to relieve some of the symptoms,” Kennedy said.
In some places, it may be worth taking precautions such as masking yourself or exercising less intensely, even before the winter cold sets in.
Dry air can be a source of irritation to the lungs at milder temperatures in high mountain areas or very dry climates, according to Kennedy.
“Even in the fall temperatures, dryness can be a problem,” he said. “If you apply more hand lotion or chapstick, that dryness can also affect the lungs.”