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Running in Cold Weather: Is it Bad for Runners?

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Often runners wonder if running in cold weather will damage their lungs and lead to fatal conditions. And why shouldn’t they? There’s a possibility that the frigid air could get us sick to death with lungs being the first victim. But hold on? Could running in the cold really get us that sick?

"Cold, dry air and increase in minute ventilation are both stimuli for bronchoconstriction, which manifests with shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a cough," says triathlete and doctor Cathy Koger.

That’s true but if you take appropriate steps of precaution than running in cold weather shouldn’t be a problem. Keep reading to debunk the myth of lung damage after running in winter.

Read on to know:

Is Running in Cold Weather Dangerous

Running in cold weather
Running in Cold Weather is Not Harmful (source)

What happens while running in winter?

Why there is a burning sensation?

Do the lungs hurt after running?

Research reveals that runners are not in danger of ruining their lungs or freezing them, even in the coldest places on Earth including both the polar regions. Thanks to our body's brilliant mechanism and adaptability, the cold air that's being breathed in mellows down to body temperature as it reaches the lungs.

That said, icy temperatures can still cause irritation in the airways and affect your body parts in the absence of proper insulation. Those who are less aerobically fit, suffer from exercise-induced asthma. Runners dealing with existing respiratory illness are more susceptible to problems.

It is good that runners are cautious about running in cold weather. But the apprehension tagged is baseless. Why? Because cold weather and lung damage should be the last excuse to not run. However, we do not dismiss the complaint of burning sensation that is sometimes felt in the lungs while running in the cold. Rest assured, your lungs after running in cold air are just fine. Let’s us break it down for you as to what happens and why you feel that burning sensation

First, understand that by the time the inhaled air reaches the bottom of your trachea (your windpipe) it reaches body temperature (98.6 degrees F) and is 100% humidified. So, there is never “cold air” that reaches your lungs.

Now, sensations like burning lungs experienced by some are caused by the dehydration and subsequent irritation of the cells around the trachea. The relative humidity of winter air tends to be very low as compared to the relative humidity of the air of the summers. As we know, the air needs to be brought up to 100% humidification before it reaches your lungs.

So how to furnish the extra humidity? The answer is the cells that line your trachea. These give up their water supply to humidify the air that is about to go into the lungs. Hence, proper hydration while running in cold weather is critical.

Being outside for a short period of time in the cold weather shouldn’t give such distress. But if you are outside pounding the road hard then you are breathing a lot harder and consequently those cells that outline the trachea become severely dehydrated. Once they hit dehydration, they become irritated, and you perceive this sensation as "burning" in your throat and lungs. This is mostly felt individuals who are new to exercising outdoors in the cold weather and do not know the importance of hydration.

What Happens While Running in Winters

winter running
Rise the Bar, Do Regular Winter Running  (source)

The unfriendly winter winds may tempt you to swap the daily outdoor running for a warm indoor drill on the treadmill. But consider these benefits of running in the cold that the treadmill won’t give you.

  • Burn More Calories

There could be multiple reasons for this; shivering alone can burn approximately 100 calories in 15 minutes! The shivering of the body activates the muscles to secrete a hormone called irisin which stimulates the fat cells to generate heat. This mechanism engages both the muscles and fat cells in burning calories.

  • Build Mental Strength

Besides the typical bragging of doing an “easy six miles” in the freezing weather, solid mental benefits can also be achieved. Running in difficult conditions trains the mind to deal with tougher life situations too. This mental training will prep you for adverse race conditions. Additionally, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is estimated to affect 10 million of the population. Hence, getting a daily dose of sunshine and fresh air can keep the SAD off and maintain your fluctuating emotions in check during the colder months.

  • Good Muscle Building Strength Workout

An intelligent runner adds strength training to compliment their running. Maintaining a firm grip on the icy track and lifting the feet higher with every stride, not only gives you a better workout but also trains your body to become more efficient and swift. Running in the cold benefits the muscles. Just try one day and you are likely to experience soreness in muscles that you usually do not feel sore in. This proves that snow running is activating and working on muscles which are typically missed. After training and condition to snow running, you may feel faster on the dry tracks.

  • Your Metabolism Will Increase

A physical adaptation to cold running is known as thermogenesis. This is the process of heat production that not only increases the calorie burning (while running) but also shapes your overall metabolism. There's a research study that evaluated the effects of repeated exposure to colder conditions and found that it leads to an overall spike in metabolic heat generation. It also shows a boost in calorie burning and better body temperature regulation.

  • Run Faster

With dripping temperature, your running speed may also suffer a setback. But here’s more, running in cold conditions trains your body to use oxygen more efficiently. A research study of the University of Northern Arizona revealed that a 29% increase in (running) speed could be obtained after five months of cold exposure.

How to Run in Cold Weather

How to run in cold weather
Hydration and Breathing Exercises Will Help You Run in Cold Weather (source)

There are at least two things you can do in order to minimize the feeling. First and foremost, you must stay hydrated this time of year. We know that many of you might think that it is cold out and I am not really sweating all that much, so why do I need to drink for hydration this time of year? The answer is you are sweating more than you think, and if you stay well hydrated you will go a long way toward minimizing that sensation of "burning" in your trachea. The other helpful tip is to focus on deep breathing in cold air and not "panting" as much. Short quick breaths will irritate the trachea even faster.

So, keep up the great work you are all doing with your running, and enjoy the beautiful crisp weather this time of year. Remember there is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices.

To prevent the runner's cough induced by cold, dry air, be sure to wear a scarf or balaclava to aid in warming and humidifying the air. The material will allow you to recycle your natural water vapor that gets trapped in the scarf when you exhale. The bank robber look may not be the fashion statement you were going for, but at least you won't be hacking up a lung. And be assured, if you do hack up a lung, it won't be frozen. If you're in doubt or feeling under the weather, don't run. One day of rest won't cost you a Boston qualifying time but a couple of weeks off with pneumonia might.

Tips on Running in Cold Weather

tips to run in cold weather
Wear Running Shoes with Least Amount of Mesh (source)

In case, you are finding ways to beat the bitter temperature and run your best in the searing winds, here are some tips on running in cold weather.

1. Get Up and Run

The first thing you want the most to run in winters is the motivation to get up and get going. Although you may enjoy solo strides, running with someone may actually help to boost your enthusiasm. Also, there’s no wimping out if you have someone waiting for you. But if you get out regularly without a second person helping then that’s also great!

2. Layer up well

But not too much! Do not consider the temperature before you set out. Understand that you are bound to be cold as you do not have any robust blood flowing. But once you start moving, your body temperature rises and you feel warmer. Hence, put on as many layers as you can handle.

Do you have all the cold weather running gears? Learn what to wear for running in winter.

3. Pre-run Warm Up

This is a good idea to get your blood flowing before putting in the miles. Move around inside without breaking a sweat. Run up and down your stairs, use a jump rope, or do a few yoga asanas or maybe a speedy house-cleaning! Keep moving even while chatting with a friend.

Check out these stretching exercises for runners.

4. Protect Your Extremities

To keep body warmth intact, run in shoes that have the least amount of mesh. You can choose shoes with Gore-Tex uppers. Wear socks that wick away wetness quickly but keep your feet warm. The non-itchy SmartWool socks are a good choice for the runners running in cold weather.

Read about Best Compression Socks: A Must-Have Guide for Runners

5. Speed is not Your Goal

Winter running is more about maintenance miles than speedwork. In very cold weather, look for “inversions,” places that are elevated and where the air will be warmer. “Even 300 feet up, the air can be 20 degrees warmer, which makes a big difference,” says Steve Bainbridge, the trails liaison for the Fairbanks, Alaska-based Running Club North, the northernmost running club in the United States. Bainbridge’s coldest run took place in minus 50-degree weather. “My eyelashes were freezing together,” he says. If you can’t run in the middle of the day when the temperatures are warmest, run twice a day, says Stanton, three miles in the morning and three miles in the evening: “That’s better than doing one long six-mile run where you might get very cold toward the end.”

Find out to improve your running speed and endurance.

6. Change Quickly Postrun

Your core body temperature drops as soon as you stop running. To avoid a lingering case of the chills, change out of your clothes from head to toe ASAP! Women should get out of damp sports bras quickly. Put a dry hat on wet hair. And drink something hot to maintain body warmth from inside. If you are driving to a run, it is a good thing to bring a thermos of green tea or hot chocolate in your car.

Do you know these excellent sports drink for runners?

7. Keep the Hydration Up

Like mentioned before, hydration is the key to better running in cold weather. Keep your body replenished with water and sports drinks for proper cell hydration and prevent the “burning sensation” in lungs. Hydration will also help to avoid dizziness and fatigue.

8. Breathing Exercises

Practice deep breathing while running. Avoid short rapid breaths as it will irritate the windpipe (trachea).

Take notes from this ultimate breathing guide for runners.

Summing Up

Running outside in cold weather
The fresh air can do wonders! (source)

Your passion for running is tested when your ambient temperature dives in. If you are passionate about running, there’s nothing much that will stop you from getting outdoors to pound the pavement — except the chilly winter weather. Of course, you could stay toasty and get some miles in on the treadmill, but it’s never as satisfying as breathing in fresh, crisp air and feeling the wind on your face. But all that takes a back seat once the sub-20-degree temperature rolls in.

Suddenly, the love for a nice jog is crushed by the harsh elements — not to mention an inevitable runny nose, numbness in your toes, and an overall stiffness within your body and joints. In that case, stay in; you can put in the miles some other day.

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