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Can you freeze your lungs?
By Amanda McCracken
You know the kind of running weather that results in long frosty eyelashes and icicle adorned beards. It's snowing sideways and the temps are in the teens and dropping (plus there's the windchill factor). You post a pic of your frozen face on social media and wait for your friends to post comments that attest to your hard-core discipline. But was that four mile run really necessary? Did you do more damage than good to your body?
Our bodies are amazingly equipped to run in the cold. By the time the inhaled cold air reaches our lungs, our airways have worked to thoroughly humidify the air and return it to body temperature. Our nose plays a huge role in warming the air. When exposed to cold air, the capillaries in the tissue lining our nose swell to invite a rush of warm blood to heat inhaled air. Because cold air is naturally dryer, humidifying the air is very important. Respiratory exchanges can't take place if our alveoli (tiny sacs in our lungs) are dry. The mucus that lines our airways moisturizes the air before it reaches our lungs.
When we run in severe cold temperatures, our body has to work overtime to protect itself. While you may not literally freeze your lungs, you could be doing more damage to your airways than you realize. By understanding how your body works and what to do to take necessary precautions, you can run in the cold with more peace of mind and safer lungs.
You're Not Iceman
Despite our body's natural ability to protect itself in the cold, it can't always overcome cold conditions, particularly while we are exercising. When we run, we predominantly switch to mouth-breathing which greatly eliminates our nose from playing its important role in warming the air. If the air reaches our lungs without being sufficiently warmed and moisturized, our lungs release inflammatory-response chemicals that often cause coughing and/or wheezing. It's the lungs' way of saying, “I'm irritated! Stop what you're doing." Freezing temps and high airflow damage the epithelial cells that line our airway which can set off a cascade of problems, including asthma, says Dr. Tod Olin, a pulmonology doctor at National Jewish Health, a leading respiratory hospital in Denver, Colorado. He primarily works with amateur to elite athletes struggling with breathing disorders.
The dry factor is just as significant as the cold. To clinically test for exercise-induced asthma, doctors at National Jewish create an environment which mimics exercise in the cold as patients hyperventilate dry freezing air. If patients are found to have decreased airflows after exposure to this environment, they likely have exercise-induced asthma.
While 10 percent of the general population has asthma, more than half of international level Nordic skiers develop asthma, says Olin. You may not be an elite skier, but the statistics reveal the potential damage caused by long term intense exercise in cold conditions. Endurance winter athletes have statistically shown the highest rates of asthma among Olympic athletes.
One Finish study found that long-distance runners “were three times more likely so suffer from asthma than ordinary people." Research also indicates that while intense exercise is still possible in temps just below sub-zero Fahrenheit, asthma-like symptoms are likely to develop when exercising in temperatures colder than five degrees Fahrenheit.
Fortunately, Olin says, symptoms related to exercise-induced asthma tend to eventually go away after athletes retire.
If you feel compelled to run in the arctic air, decrease the intensity of the exercise (don't exert yourself as much as you would during a race or while running intervals) and wear a mask. The bank robber look may not be your style, but wearing a bandana or balaclava will help warm and humidify the air as you inhale. Consider the Arc'teryx RHO AR Balaclava or the BULA Hinge Convertible balaclava.
Ultra-marathoner Michael Wardian, wore a similar mask when running the Antarctica Marathon, one of the seven marathons in seven days on seven continents he completed in January 2017 for the world marathon time challenge record.
“It warms the air up before you have to suck it down," Wardian said, which helps prevent injury to your lungs. Antarctica wasn't his first frozen rodeo. In 2014 he also won the North Pole marathon in temperatures that reached -30 degrees Celsius, and even lower with the wind chill.
Wardian recalls the craziest experience running at the North Pole: "My breath froze into an ice beard around my mask, so I had a huge heavy ice beard hanging off my face. Also my eyelashes almost froze shut, so I could barely see at the end. "
When you look and feel like an ice sculpture, it's easy to forget to hydrate. But your body needs it to do its job of adding the necessary moisture to the cold dry air you're inhaling. As soon as you finish running in the freezing temperatures, drink some fluids and get yourself into a humid environment. If you are feeling the wheezing effects from inflamed lungs, consider spending 10 minutes in a sauna or hot shower.
The next time you are feeling pressure to run outside in sub 20 degree weather, ask yourself if it's worth it. If you are prone to asthmatic symptoms or are already sick, you might be doing more harm than good. And remember, taking one day off won't impact whether or not you qualify for the Boston Marathon, but damaged lungs certainly could.