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Is running in the cold bad for your lungs?

Running in the cold can be tough on the lungs, but it doesn't mean you can't get your winter miles in

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Whether you’re a seasoned winter runner or you’ve just started venturing out into the cold this year, you’ve likely experienced a small amount of chest pain or a burning sensation in your lungs during your winter run. This feeling is generally not dangerous, but it is uncomfortable enough to make some people retreat indoors for the entire season. If you’ve experienced discomfort in your chest and lungs from running in the cold and are questioning whether you should continue your winter running routine, don’t give up just yet. Continue reading to learn why your lungs don’t like the cold, and what to do about it.

What happens to your lungs in the cold?

When you breathe in, your lungs humidify and heat the air as it enters your body. Cold air irritates your lungs and causes them to narrow, making it more difficult to breathe. At the same time, they’re trying to humidify and heat the air as quickly as they can. Cold air also has very little moisture, so it’s easy for your throat and lungs to get dried out if you haven’t hydrated enough before your run.

Related: How to dress for winter running

Runners who already have a respiratory condition (for example, asthma) may find the cold air even more difficult to deal with. The good news is, it does get easier over time as your body adjusts to the weather, and there are ways you can combat cold-weather lung problems.

How to protect your lungs in the cold

When the temperature is less than 0 C, you may want to consider wearing a scarf or mask of some kind over your mouth while you run. This will help to humidify the air you’re breathing before it reaches your lungs, lessening some of the strain on your lungs and helping alleviate the discomfort you’re feeling.

Ensuring that you’re drinking enough water and other fluids throughout your day can also help your lungs handle the cold better. Many people remember to drink water during the hotter summer months, but even in the cold, you need to stay hydrated. If you’re running in the morning, try having a tall glass of water before heading out, since you likely haven’t drunk anything for several hours when you first wake up.

Related: Enjoy the cold: Tips to make the most out of winter running

If you find you get a nasty, dry cough after running in the cold, try taking a hot shower soon after you get back inside. The humidity created by the shower can help moisten your lungs’ mucous membranes that have been dried out by the cold, and of course help to warm you up in general.

Finally, when you’re running in the winter it’s important to modify your expectations and remember that you may not be able to run the same speeds you can on more temperate days. Instead, try focusing on effort rather than pace, and simply enjoy the opportunity to get outside and get some fresh air.

When to talk to a doctor

In most cases, chest tightness or irritated lungs will subside shortly after you finish your run. If these feelings persist, you may want to talk to your doctor to make sure you’re not experiencing a more serious respiratory issue. Additionally, if you have a medical condition that affects your lungs, like asthma, you will need to be more careful than others when running in the cold. Always be sure to use your inhaler before you head out for your run, and if you don’t already, bring it with you just in case.

This story originally appeared on the Canadian Running Magazine website.