Old Man Winter has hit hard and early this year, leaving very little time for our bodies to adjust to the biting and dry winter air. After a few workouts with my fellow F3’ers in the frosty gloom of the AM, I have noticed a few guys struggling with the change: a lot of coughing, hacking, out of breath, spitting, etc. I think a lot of guys really enjoy exercising outside in the cold, myself included, because the body temperature stays regulated and, the colder it gets, it adds an additional level of absurdity to the workout. In other words, there will be fewer people willing to exercise at 17 degrees than the already few who are willing to do it at a comfortable 65, which makes you feel pretty good about getting out of bed and being part of a unique and committed group of bad asses. But, there are some challenges that come with cold weather exercise and breathing is top on the list.
Why Breathing is Harder in the Cold
The cold has a number of effects on the body that generally make everything harder and even dangerous if you are not in good physical condition. Firstly, your arteries constrict and your blood thickens. The thickening of blood occurs due to the addition of red blood cells in the blood. If you remember from your biology class, red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the body tissue, initially collected via passage through the circulatory system. In cold weather your body has to use more energy to increase and maintain body heat, requiring more oxygen to fuel the process. The heart works harder to deliver the payload and also requires extra oxygen.
When colder air is taken in by the lungs, it has a constricting effect on the bronchial tubes (see the image below) which means less oxygen can be taken in per breath. This is called Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction (EIB). Because the body is in need of more oxygen than in warmer weather, this results in heavier breathing and hyperventilation, or an overall feeling that you “just can’t breathe”. The constricting of the bronchial tubes is our bodies protection mechanism to make sure cold air can be warmed before it reaches the blood stream. This is actually pretty amazing. Your body is already working harder to keep its temperature elevated but is also smart enough to not let a draft in the back door, so to speak. Pretty cool, right?
Why is it Easier for Some People to Breathe in Cold Weather?
Over time most people will acclimate to exerting themselves in the colder temperatures, but it may be easier for others through their natural biological makeup. This is really an issue of efficiency. How much air can your body warm before it reaches the lungs? How much energy is expended warming the blood? The more we expose ourselves to the elements the easier it becomes. However, those who suffer from asthma will have a harder time acclimating to the colder air and will need to take precautions before going for a run in 30 degree weather. If running in the cold produces asthma like symptoms or if your asthma is dangerously flared up by cold air, you might want to check out a face mask like this one from ColdAvenger.
Nasal Breathing is Key for All Seasons
I first heard about the importance of nasal breathing when studying Eugen Sandow. His sternness towards this subject really surprised me and I actually dismissed the concept until I realized how right he was about so many other things. Sandow says Nasal Breathing should be practiced all the time, not just for exercise and certainly not just for cold weather exercise. Some of you may be thinking, “But the winter time is when people have stuffy noses and the hardest time breathing through their nose!” I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s look at the benefits of nasal breathing over mouth breathing.
Nasal Breathing Benefits
Smaller Amounts of Air
When we breathe through the nose we take in smaller amounts of air due to the smaller passageway of the nostrils. When exercising this may seems like the opposite of what we want to do, but keep in mind that for every breath we take an exchange must take place; oxygen for carbon dioxide. The goal is not to take in a lot of air because you are feeling physically exerted, but to take in the correct amount of air for the task at hand. Taking in smaller breaths regulates the body’s processing of oxygen and teaches our bodies to perform under an adequate amount of oxygen.
To see the benefit of this, take a look at this example. Suppose you have a man who regularly runs and breathes steadily and heavily through the mouth. He has taught his body to function under conditions where oxygen is plentiful and deep breaths are frequent. Now take that same man and have him run in a higher altitude where there is less oxygen, or perhaps for a steep climb up a mountain, and he is going to struggle. Because he is already taking in large amounts of air to support his running effort, let’s say he is at 60% breath capacity, he’ll have a hard time amping up his intake much higher for a sustained period of time when he actually needs bigger breaths. On the other hand, if a man has trained himself to use oxygen efficiently through nasal breathing, let’s say at 40% breath capacity, then he has room to grow if necessary.
Also, oxygen is absorbed primarily through the exhalation process. The smaller nasal passageways creates air pressure on the exhale allowing more time for the lungs to do their job.
Air is Purified and Warmed
The nose is filled with tiny hairs – well, for some of us larger hairs too – that perform the task of filtering microscopic particles. During the winter months, the dry, cold air causes irritation to the back of the throat and lungs, providing opportunity for particles to enter our bloodstream resulting in further irritation and inflammation and increasing our risk of catching a cold or some infection. Nasal breathing is the only natural way to reduce the intake of harmful particles.
Because of the smaller passageways, nasal breathing slows down air intake and provides more time for the air to become warm before reaching the lungs and less air for the lungs to warm themselves. Warmer air means the bronchial tubes are more open, resulting in better oxygen intake.
The Brain is Stimulated
Breathing through the nose has benefits that Yoga practitioners have known for centuries and science is finally verifying (read more about this here and here). In short, breathing through the nose stimulates the hemispheres of the brain in ways mouth breathing does not. I don’t know whether this would make you a better athlete but it stands to reason that stimulating the brain while exercising can only lead to good things. There is also some research to suggest that nasal breathing stimulates the production of endorphins, a group of “happy hormones” responsible for the “runner’s high”.
How to Practice Nasal Breathing
As soon as you head out the door and that first crisp breath hits your lungs, your natural tendency is to start breathing more heavily through your mouth. You’ll probably notice that within a few seconds of mouth breathing a mucous begins to form on the back of the throat and in the mouth. This is the body’s way of humidifying the dry, cold air and trapping any harmful particles that might be inadvertently sent to the lungs. It’s best if you can remember to breathe through your nose immediately, but I realize this can be painful if it is really cold out. However, the sooner you can adjust your body to nasal breathing in the cold, the better off you will be.
What About Stuffy Noses?
People often think having a stuffy nose in the winter is a seasonal guarantee that can only be remedied medically. It may be, however, that they are in a vicious cycle that promotes mouth breathing rather than healthy nasal breathing. I actually have a problem with nasal polyps, tiny little growths inside the nose that cause problems with breathing and smell. Nasal polyps can lead to chronic sinusitis and other issues and there doesn’t seem to be a proven remedy to treat them other than lifelong use of steroidal nasal sprays (no thanks). So, I took particular notice when Eugen Sandow spoke about them as if it were becoming a new phenomenon in his book The Gospel of Strength (1902). Below is what he had to say about Nasal Polyps as well as overcoming stuffy nose and learning to breathe correctly again. I can tell you from my own experience, that when I focus on nasal breathing throughout the day and during exercise, my sense of smell is better and my nasal passageways are more opened.
Sandow on Nasal Polyps
“The prevalence of post-nasal growths (polyps) is remarkable in these days; but let me say that these growths in children can be prevented by proper attention to nasal breathing. I have devised a special series of light and simple exercises for this purpose, that have proved conspicuously successful in a number of cases where the surgeon’s knife has failed to remove these growths.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength, 1902
Sandow on Overcoming a Stuffy Nose
“The nose is the natural passage for the air. In passing through the nasal passages the air is both filtered and warmed. Nothing is more simple than to acquire the habit of nasal breathing. Many people will tell you they can’t – “My nose is stopped, I cannot do it.” It only requires practice. Do all your deep-breathing exercise with the mouth shut, no matter how uncomfortable it is at first. In a few days it will be less uncomfortable, and in a week or two you will sleep naturally with the mouth shut. So much for nasal breathing.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength, 1902
There is so much that is lost in our modern society that was at one time considered common sense. We often look for medical cures and specialized equipment to address issues which we can take care of ourselves if we just take the time to think about it, along with a little concerted effort. We have to remember, we aren’t too far removed from ancestors who showed every day capability in the areas we are quick to deem as impossible. Tap into the gifts that God endowed you with, and enjoy living fully as a man.