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What Are The Affects of Cold Air on Exercising, Muscles and Lung Capacity

Updated on November 10, 2013

Cold Air Intake

When I was a kid there was something fascinating about watching NFL highlight reels showing these guys playing outside in the cold. Marching onto the field, their padding, like armor, their breath frozen, emerging from the grill of their helmet like smoke rising from the nostrils of a fire breathing dragon.

Then their was the announcer. "The Voice of God", John Facenda.

Now many years later, there is something romantic and special for me about going to the park on a cold December or January morning to test my mettle with the Russian Kettlebell.

Carrying my Kettlebell on to the field, I intentionally walk in slow motion and in my imagination, John Facenda narrates my workout...

Listen to the Voice of God

But there in lies the rub...

I noticed something as I reach towards a PR and begin to really push my limits, running towards a peak. As with all uphill battles, climbing the steps of victory in the Kettlebell Snatch is challenging enough as it is. Recently, I noticed that when it's cold out, I tend to fatigue faster.

I live in Los Angeles, California so cold is a relative term. I'm sure you readers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are laughing at me right now.  Allow me to define cold as 45 Dees-Grees and under...  now Indiana and Montana are laughing at me too!

But seriously folks, this got me to thinking, what kind of effect does cold air have on exercise? Does breathing cold air cause you to fatigue faster? If so, why?

Curious minds want to know!

Opening Statement

Most of the time, when I have a question about strength and conditioning, I go to the one place I know for straight answers. A place where the experts roam and chime in occasionally with wisdom and information.

The Kettlebells, Strength and Conditioning Forum over at .

This forum is the premier location for all things strength training. Most of the time, I don't even need to sign in and post, because if I'm asking, most likely somebody else did too and already has posted. More often than not a simple search will provide me with the insight I need.

This question, about the effect of cold air on training, required a post.

"Just curious. After reading Four Hour Body and the part about cold water immersion as a way to increase fat loss, I got to wondering, what effect does breathing cold air have on strength endurance training such as swings and snatches?

For example, I feel like I get "smoked" faster when I train early on a cold morning verses a warm morning. Even if I warm up good and proper. Today I warmed up with Joint Mobility, Wall Squats, Pumps, and some Jumping Jacks before getting into my Snatch routine and I seemed to have gotten to "smoked" much faster and the only variable I can come up with is that I'm breathing cold air. Cold restricts things so is it safe to say O2 is harder to absorb when it's cold? I know water gets absorbed faster when it's closer to body temp, so does the same go for oxygen?

What does the party have to say?

My answer came back as such:

"In my experience with anoxic patients, cold air is easier to get oxygen out of. Not sure if that applies to fit people, but there may be another reason than cold's effect on oxygen absorption for why working in cold air is more fatiguing, such as more resistance from the antagonists in the motion or something ."

Well, at least it's a start! Anoxic patients? Those are people who have trouble breathing I assume.

From Wikipedia: "The term anoxia means a total decrease in the level of oxygen, an extreme form of hypoxia or 'low oxygen.'"

When In Doubt, Google It!

So from there I took a trip along the Google Highway where I found some pretty interesting stuff.  If you're still reading, it looks like you're interested too. had an article called, The Effects of Cold Air on Your Lungs

In this article, the effect of breathing cold air gets compared to a mini-asthma attack.  The article goes on to say that breathing in cold air through your mouth, is what actually really shocks the lungs.

“The muscles around those air tubes can get tighter and it narrows the passageway for the air to get through and so it hits you and it's like taking your breath away. Well those muscles are tightening up,”

The solution is fairly easy.  Breathe through the nose.  The nose filters and warms the air.

But!  There's always a but!  This article has not taken into account that person who is elevating their heart rate to an obscene level by performing repetition Kettlebell Snatches with a 24kg cannonball of iron!

But we're getting warmer.

Middle of the Road

So in this article I found in the New York Times, (Health > Times Health Guide > Physical Activity > In-Depth Report: Exercise's Effects on the Lungs) they talk about exercise for people with lung problems. It briefly touches on the cold air aspect, by recommending using a scarf or cover to keep the air warm. See, not everyone can breathe well through their nose and when exercise is creating an oxygen deficit, the desire to get in as much air as possible often results in mouth breathing. Hence the term "sucking wind."

The article opens up with stating the following, "Patients with chronic lung problems have difficulty exercising. Shortness of breath is a major limitation in most patients, but in about a third, muscle fatigue is an even greater problem. Although exercise does not improve lung function, training helps many patients with chronic lung disease by strengthening their limb muscles, thus improving endurance and reducing breathlessness."

Strength endurance is what we're talking about here. Combine that with Vo2 max type of training (Kettlebell Swings, Snatches, H.I.I.T) plus breathing cold air, leaves me to ask if breathing the cold air will actually result in one fatiguing faster.

Hypothesis: Cold air restricts lung capacity. Lack of oxygen increases fatigue inducing chemicals in the body. Cold air = tire faster.

Hmmm... let's keep looking.

Mumbo Jumbo

In The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: August 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 8 I found an interesting study called "The Acute Effect of Cold Air Exercise in Determination of Exercise-Induced Bronchospasm in Apparently Healthy Athletes"

HUH? Right!

Translation: "Acute" in the medical world means the onset is quick. A "bronchospasm" is a constriction in the lungs which limits air intake. Often seen in asthma and other lung disorders. So that's their question, for the healthy physically fit person, does breathing cold air while you train have the potential for causing what some people refer to as an "exercise induced" asthma attack? The variable here is the cold air.

Here's what they did for the study.

The primary objective of this study was to assess the acute effects for both cold and warm air running on pulmonary function testing and the diagnosis of exercise-induced bronchospasm

There were 8 men and 4 women who were all athletic (distance runners). They had them perform a maximal oxygen test on a treadmill to assess Vo2 max and maximal heart rate (MHR).

Later, on 2 subsequent days and also within a 1-week time period, our test subjects ran 8 minutes either outside or on the treadmill. The speed was adjusted under both conditions to get the runners up 85-95% of MHR.

This was all done in the month of January to make sure it was cold enough for measurable results. A lung function test was performed immediately before the run, immediately after the run, and at 5, 10, 18, and 30 minutes postrun.

There was no significant difference in any of the lung function tests over time for cold vs. warm running... hmmm. Also, the pattern of change for the lung function variables was not significantly different by condition.

But, that was for the group as a whole (12 people), 7 of the 12 (over half) at some point postexercise exhibited a change that would be considered a positive response and diagnostic of EIB or Exercise Induced Bronchospasm. It appears that cold running produced significantly more positive responses (75%) than warm running (25%). Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it does look like there's an effect.

Final Analysis: "It is concluded that healthy individuals need not be concerned about the acute effects of cold air exercise on the lungs."

In other words, cold air might have an effect on your training, but it ain't gonna kill ya'.  What's important to recognize here is that the science shows that running in a cold climate with your heart rate near maximal can effect your training.

So...  will functioning above this level, which often happens with intense Kettlebell training, mean the EIB could come on faster?

And Then I Found This...

While searching, I found and the World of Sport Science. In their article on "Cold Weather Exercise" they site the following tid-bits of comforting information and something to consider:

"Cold weather affects the bodily systems in different ways. The cardiovascular system, the heart-connected network of vessels that distributes blood throughout the body, responds to cold stimulus by increasing blood pressure and heart rate, and reducing the amount of blood closest to the skin surface. The airway passages of the cardiorespiratory system, which governs the breathing mechanisms, tend to narrow, making the inhalation of air more difficult. Persons who are susceptible to asthma or exercise-induced bronchitis have greater difficulty breathing in cold air. The bodily stores of glucose, stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles and converted to the energy component adenosine triphosphate (ATP), are depleted approximately five times more quickly in cold weather, a circumstance that forces the body to switch to the conversion of body fat to ATP for its energy requirements."

5 Times Faster!!! Wow. So there you have it kids. If you're looking to drop a few extra pounds, this whole cold weather thing might not be a bad idea. However, it looks to me like this will have an overall effect on developing strength endurance. The questions is, will training in cold air make performance in moderate temperatures better? Possibly, but there are risks to cold air training. Injury being the main one. If you're not warmed up good and proper, you're asking to pull something! The article also goes on to address that you dress for success in cold weather to keep the body dry and warm. Also you need to stay hydrated.

"In addition, water or an electrolytic fluid should be carried; dehydration is as significant a concern in the winter cold as it presents in summer heat, as a dehydrated cold weather athlete will have a correspondingly reduced blood volume."

So, clearly cold weather can effect you and your training and it also looks like you can fatigue faster if you don't take the proper steps. 

Not Me!

Steps For Safe Cold Weather Training

So before hitting the streets or the park for your winter run, bike, or snatch workout, make sure to take the following steps:

  • Warm Up. Start with some Joint Mobility Drills, do some old school Jumping Jacks and what ever you do, don't stretch in the beginning. Take a rubber band, put it in the freezer for 60 minutes then pull on it. The result will be your hamstring. Deep knee bends, the Hard Style Lock, Goblet Squats or some form of squatting is a staple part of my warm up regardless of the temperature outside. Make sure you do the same.
  • Breathe through your nose as much as possible. Use a nasal strip if necessary. I do sometimes as I have a deviated septum and the nasal strip really helps. If it's really cold, try a scarf, ski mask or half mask.
  • Stay hydrated. You loose moisture just as much if not more in cold. Dehydration will cause you to fatigue much faster.
  • Finally, train smart. Understand your limits, push against them a bit but be humble enough to know when enough is enough. Injuries suck. Avoid then.

Now there you have it. Train hard, train smart. Now go forth and sweat!


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