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Exercise and Fitness

Exercise Outdoors: Don't Let the Cold Air Stop You!

If you have ever walked, run or biked in he cold winter weather, you are probably familiar with the "burning" sensation you feel in your lungs. Some runners are even nervous about running in the cold winter air, concerned the cold air is potentially damaging their lungs.

The truth is that exercising in the cold air is completely safe for your lungs. The air you are breathing in when outside during the colder months is not cold at all by the time it reaches your lungs.

First, know that by the time the air you breathe in reaches the bottom of your trachea, (i.e., your wind pipe), it is warmed to your body temperature (98.6 degrees F) and is 100% humidified. This is true no matter what the outside air temperature is and no matter what the relative humidity is in the atmosphere. So there is never cold air that reaches your lungs.

You may be wondering why you still feel that "burning" sensation. The "burning" sensation is caused by the dehydration (drying) and subsequent irritation of the cells that line the trachea. As air is breathed in this time of year, the relative humidity of that air tends to be very low (especially when compared with the relative humidity of the air in the summer time). Remember that the air needs to be brought up to 100% humidification before it reaches your lungs.

Where does all that extra water (humidity) come from? The answer is the cells that line your trachea give up their water supply to humidify the air that is about to go into your lungs. This is not a problem if you are only outside for a short period of time in the cold weather. However, when you are outside working hard (e.g., exercising) and you are breathing a lot harder, those cells that line the trachea become severely dehydrated. Once the cells are dehydrated, they become irritated and you perceive this dehydration and irritation as a "burning" sensation in your throat and lungs. This sensation is not at all uncommon for those who are new to exercising outdoors in the cold weather.

There are at least two things you can do in order to minimize this feeling. First and foremost, you must stay hydrated this time of year. You might think that it is cold out and you are not really sweating all that much. However, you are sweating more than you think, and if you stay well hydrated, it will go a long way toward minimizing that sensation of "burning" in your trachea.

The other helpful tip is to focus on deep breathing and not "panting" as much. Short quick breaths will irritate the trachea even faster.

So keep up the great work with your outdoor exercise and enjoy the beautiful crisp weather this time of year. Remember - there is no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing choices.

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Last Reviewed: Jul 23, 2014

Steven T Devor, PhD, FACSM Steven T Devor, PhD, FACSM
Associate Professor of Sport & Exercise Sciences and Physiology & Cell Biology
School of PAES
The Ohio State University