Exercising in cold weather: tips for breathing


This year’s Superbowl is being held in New Jersey, a place not exactly known for balmy winter weather. While both teams in this year’s match-up—Denver and Seattle—are used to playing in freezing temperatures, weekend warriors may not be as accustomed to exercising in the cold air. So how does the cold affect breathing?

Cold weather affects the body in different ways. The cardiovascular system—the network of vessels that distributes blood throughout the body—responds to cold by increasing blood pressure and heart rate while reducing the amount of blood closest to the skin surface. As a result, the airway passages of the cardiorespiratory system tend to narrow, making inhaling more difficult. People with asthma or exercise-induced bronchitis have even greater difficulty breathing in cold air.


According to an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, winter athletes inhale large volumes of cold air during exercise and shift from nasal- to mouth-breathing. Endurance athletes, such as cross-country skiers, perform at 80 percent or more of their maximum oxygen consumption with rapid breathing, called hypopnea. The dryness of winter air combined with hypopnea has been shown to cause bronchial damage in winter athletes.

“The muscles around those air tubes can get tighter and it narrows the passageway for the air to get through, and so it hits ya and it’s like taking your breath away. Well, those muscles are tightening up,” said respiratory therapist Darcy Ellefson in an article for Sanford Health.


For those with asthma or other lung conditions, however, the cold air also can trigger an asthmatic episode. In Olympic athletes, some of the highest instances of exercise-induced bronchospasms are in cross-country skiers and hockey players, according to a Health.com article.

The trick, it seems, is to breathe through the nose, which not only warms up the air but also adds moisture to it.

It’s also a must to take preventive measures while exercising outdoors in freezing temperatures.  

  • Wear layers that include a synthetic material next to the skin that allows perspiration to wick away, a fleece layer for warmth and a third outer layer that’s weather/waterproof. Include a hat, since 50 percent of body heat is lost through the head, a scarf and gloves to cover extremities.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Try breathing through a scarf to help warm the air before it’s inhaled.
  • Asthmatics should take their asthma medication 30 minutes before outdoor exercise in cold air.
  • Avoid exercising in the cold if you have a lung condition in which breathing may be aggravated.

Our site can best be viewed with the latest version of Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome or Firefox.