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Q&A: How to Breathe Easier in the Cold

If I have breathing issues in cold weather, is there anything I can do before/during/after the run to help me breathe more easily or more deeply?

When the temperatures start to drop, many runners complain about discomfort and/or burning that they may experience when running in colder temperatures. Runners are often nervous or fearful about this cold air getting into their lungs.

The truth is that as you are breathing in that cold air, it is immediately humidified and warmed up before it hits your lungs. The air enters through your trachea before entering your lungs. The cells in the trachea help to warm and humidify that cold, dry air before it hits your lungs. Needless to say, runners do still experience some discomfort when the cells in the trachea become dehydrated and irritated, which explains the burning that one may feel.

One solution to this problem is to make sure that you stay hydrated during these cold months. Even though it is cold outside, you can still sweat and become dehydrated. This loss of body water can make those cells in the trachea dehydrated and can lead to irritation.

Another solution is to make sure that you are taking long and deep breaths. Shallow quick breaths can lead to further drying out of the tracheal cells. Along those lines, breathing in through your nose can also assist in humidifying the dry, cold air.

If it’s very cold and you’re experiencing discomfort, try covering your mouth with a very thin fabric of a scarf or neck warmer. The fabric can act as a barrier between your trachea and the air.

Finally, if you continue to experience discomfort, along with coughing and difficulty catching your breath, consider a visit to your doctor, as you might be dealing with exercise-induced asthma.

And don’t forget that getting in some easy miles in this winter can help you come back stronger when the temperature starts to rise!


Julie Khan

Julie Khan is a physical therapist in the HSS rehabilitation department. She graduated from Columbia University with a masters and doctorate in physical therapy. Her clinical interests include post-surgical sports-related injuries and running mechanics. An avid runner herself, Julie enjoys rehabilitating runners and helping them get back to their sport safely and even stronger than before. She is a USATF Level 1 Coach as well as a Road Runners Club of America certified coach. She has completed more than 20 half-marathons and seven marathons.

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