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Struggling to Breathe During Cold Winter Workouts
Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction or EIB

Cold weather workouts can be fun!
Cold weather workouts can be fun!
Skiing in North Pole, Dan and John Reynen.

A good workout is going to make me sweat, my muscles are going to tire and I'll probably be breathing harder when I finish than when I started. But there are some conditions that can cause labored or painful breathing, almost as soon as the workout begins. This isn't the normal huffing and puffing you should expect, but something that's so severe it can leave you gasping for air, as if you're having an asthma attack.

It's not because you're out of shape, but rather it's a combination of temperature and humidity. Specifically, cold temperatures and a lack of humidity. The condition is called exercise-induced bronchoconstriction or EIB.

The first time I learned about the condition was on a trip to Alaska. I went to a small town called North Pole in December. On the day my flight landed, it was 40 degrees BELOW zero. A friend who had lived there gave me a little advice on how to deal with the temperature.

"When you step out of the airport, the first thing you're going to want to do is take a deep breath. Don't! Taking deep breaths of really cold air is going to cause a burning sensation in your lungs. You're going to almost immediately start coughing, gasping for more air and making the entire situation worse."

What he suggested I do was make sure I had a face mask on so that it can warm the air a little before I breath it in. It worked. I didn't have any problems, but I stood there and watched as several people walked out of the terminal, took deep breaths and immediately began coughing up a storm.

I later learned it wasn't just the cold, but the lack of moisture that causes the problem. When you inhale dry cold air, the bronchial tubes tighten. As those tubes constrict, your airways narrow and breathing becomes more difficult.

It turns out, not only is North Pole really cold, it's also very dry. In fact it's classified as an "arctic dessert." So taking a deep breath exposes your lungs to both very dry air as well as extreme cold.

Now not many people are ever going to have to deal with weather that's 40 degrees below zero in an arctic desert. But EIB symptoms of chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, fatigue and weakness can strike any time it's cold and dry. Even world class athletes can experience EIB. Here are some simple steps to work through it.

Warm up with high-intensity intervals. Short but intense bursts of exercise seem to keep EIB symptoms manageable and according to a 2012 study called, " Effect of Warm-Up Exercise on Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction" the researchers concluded, "interval exercise may be superior as it is a more easily standardized for the athlete/coach, and there is more evidence for this strategy. [ It ] may be a short-term nonpharmacological alternative to reducing EIB."

Wear a scarf, mask or buff to cover your mouth and warm the air you're breathing in. In climates where the temperature goes below zero degrees Fahrenheit, consider investing in a heat exchanger mask.

Don't run outside if the pollen count is high and avoid areas where there's lots of smog. You should also avoid heavily trafficked roads because of all the vehicle exhaust. Particles in the air from any of those things can be a trigger for an attack.

Talk to your doctor and get a medical diagnosis. If it's serious enough, your physician can recommend medications, inhalers or bronchodialtors to help relieve inflammation and open up your airways. Your doctor can also rule out other potential problems that may only appear to be EIB.

Exercise inside if all else fails. Concentrate on doing intervals on various indoor cardio equipment so you get the best results in the shortest time. Change the equipment you use to prevent boredom until it gets warm enough to venture back outside.


The Studies Referred to in this Article

Am Fam Physician. 2003 Feb 15;67(4):769-774.
Recognition and Management of Exercise-Induced Bronchospasm

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2012 - Volume 44 - Issue 3 - p 383–391 doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31822fb73a
Effect of Warm-Up Exercise on Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction

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3/4/2017
Updated 4/9/2018