My thoughts and a review regarding cold air breathing


My thoughts and a review regarding cold air breathing

Breathing in cold weather has special considerations that you may not be aware of. I know I had previously been rather dismissive of risks of damage. I grew up with an attitude mix of “no pain, no gain”, “just get it done” and “it’s never killed me”. But now I am a lot older and hopefully a bit wiser. I look at research instead of relying on my perception of what has worked for me (some things take a while to become big enough to be noticed).

I was recently in a conversation with a new-to-running athlete and was posed with the question that went something like this ‘when I run in the cold I feel like it hurts. Is that something that I just need to get used to? Am I being too sensitive and just need to suck it up? Will it be less bothersome with experience?’ This conversation had me decide to look and see if there was anything that I was missing in my understanding because at that moment all I could say was “I just do it”. But that doesn’t really answer the question with anything other than my thoughts based on my personal approach.

Research I Found

After a bit of looking around, I found a few articles that caused me to change my attitude about breathing, especially breathing at a training load in less than warm conditions. 

It turns out that there has actually been some very good research looking into cold air breathing and its relationship to asthma, as well as general short-term and long-term lung health. A study of nordic skiers training in cold weather and its impact helped the International Ski Federation establish very strict guidelines that require races to be postponed or canceled if the temperature on the course gets below -4°F/-20°C. 

Respiratory damage can happen at temperatures that are even warmer than that. It’s not just the temperature of the air that you are breathing that is the issue. At -4°F, there is 99% less moisture in the air as compared to 32°F. Because of the structure of lung tissue, dry air actually dehydrates the lung tissue and makes it fragile. This, combined with the cold air, can cause real, permanent damage. Unfortunately, your lungs don’t repair themselves when not training in cold weather. The damage is cumulative and can add up over years. This is a bit scary for those of us who have been exercising outside our whole lives. 

Current Guidelines

Current guidelines suggest that workouts in temperatures below 5°F/-15°C should not be performed without special considerations to protect the respiratory system, such as:

  • Reduced duration

  • Reduced intensity

  • Use of a face covering, such as a cloth tube or mask of some sort

This brought me to the decision to invest in a quality mask that I hoped would allow me to breathe easier than the masks, buffs, balaclavas I have tried in the past. These I usually ended up pulling down because I couldn’t breathe through them, especially after they started to frost or freeze up from my breath.

The Review

I looked into a few options and decided to try the Airtrim® mask that the Swedish Ski Team uses. The Airtrim is promoted as a heat exchanger that protects your airways from cold and dry air. There are several filter options depending on your activity. 

I have had an opportunity to try the mask and a couple of the filters over the last couple of weeks while we had a nice cold spell in Northern Minnesota. 

I have been surprised and impressed with how much better my lungs feel after workouts when using the mask. Prior to using the mask, I would cough more than normal for hours (or longer) after a run in the cold. And, I’m not struggling with sports-induced asthma issues that have plagued me for years. Additionally and notably, I feel no restriction when breathing with the mask on. That's because the filters are not blocking the pathway to your mouth or nose, there is no tight weave and, despite all the water inside the mask and the filter, it hasn’t frozen.

At this point, I don’t have any concerns about the mask breaking quickly. It seems to be sturdy enough that if well cared for I can imagine using the same mask for years. The filters are pretty fragile when wet but are plenty sturdy when dry, so again with proper care I can see using the same ones for some time. I have found that the filters can and do hold a lot of moisture and should be fully dried before using again. To do this, I actually place my mask over a floor heater vent after each run. Otherwise, the filter still has water in it the next morning.

I intend to continue using the Airtrim mask for all my workouts in temperatures below 5°F. I may even use it for a bit warmer temperatures. I am also encouraging the athletes that I coach to strongly consider either moving workouts inside or masking up even if it means slowing down when it is cold outside. Each of us has a personal tolerance for what is a comfortable temperature to workout outside, but the current consensus of researchers seems to point us to protect our respiratory system any time we are going to be dealing with temperatures below 5°F.

-Jeff Miller 

UESCA Certified Ultrarunning Coach

RRCA Certified Adult Running Coach 

Stryd Certified Coach

Northwoods Running  


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