It is common, that athletes and people doing fitness sports go see a doctor when they experience troubles in breathing or just difficulties in running. One thing explaining the symptoms may be asthma.
In the Nordics, asthma is not rare even among top athletes. I’m definitely not a top athlete, but I too run often, I run long distances, and I want to run throughout the year. It’s not always easy as here in Finland, winter is long and cold, and I’ve got exercise-induced asthma.
The term, exercise-induced asthma, is considered by some professionals a bit outdated, since exercising does not cause asthma – it only triggers the symptoms of existing asthma.
Asthma doesn’t prevent winter sports but makes them a bit more complicated. I developed asthma as an adult, and it has limited my winter sports a bit. It gets triggered by running in cold air and laughing my eyes off. Did I already mention that I trail run in winter? (And I also laugh a lot! :D)
What are the common triggers of (exercise-induced) asthma?
- Winter sports and breathing cold air
- Exercising that requires heavy breathing, such as trail running
- Allergies for e.g., dust, hey, fragrance, detergents
- Exercising in polluted air
The symptoms of asthma triggered by exercising
Trail running and other exercising can make asthma symptoms worse. Common symptoms are coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Asthma is a state where our lungs defend themselves too strongly without a real danger.
My symptoms are usually quite mild, but they are really annoying. It starts with mild wheezing after a few minutes of running in cold. The symptoms can also occur on colder autumn days, particularly if I’m running too close to civilization and pollution.
I have been tested for asthma several times in my life. I have done two sets of peak expiratory flow (PEF) tests, spirometry, and one test where I was jogging on a treadmill connected to various machines. The results have been great: I don’t have severe asthma. But sometimes, I still get the annoying symptoms after trail running in cold.
When asthma is triggered by cold
Exercise-induced asthma symptoms may be triggered by exercising or cold and the symptoms occur more often in winter than in summer. One reason is breathing cold air through mouth.
I’ve tried breathing through my nose when trail running to get the air warmer to breathe. It’s just that my nose starts dripping right away, and I have to start breathing through my mouth again.
If I want to be sure my running is going to be a pleasant experience, I have to use my inhaler before hitting the trails. But since the symptoms are random, I usually just go running and see what happens.
Using remedies for asthma may come with side effects. I prefer not to use asthma remedies daily, since I don’t need medication when I’m not exercising. I rather slow down my pace when running in winter and cut the frequency of trail runs and choose alternative sports for winter to maintain my fitness during the cold season.
Health from the woods and vitamins
According to Finnish folk wisdom, the forests have healing benefits for asthma and allergy. The coniferous trees secrete antibacterial and anti-inflammatory oils to air. When you spend a lot of time in the woods and breathe fresh air, it cleanses your respiratory system and heals inflammation in the lungs.
I believe there’s definitely something to it. My exercise-triggered asthma symptoms have decreased since I started trail running and spending time in pine and spruce forests daily. It has also improved vasomotor rhinitis – I don’t really have that anymore!
I have also read studies arguing that some vitamins and fish oil help managing asthma symptoms, but I can’t say I’ve personally noticed much difference between long periods of taking and not taking vitamins.
Maybe the best thing about taking a lot of vitamins and eating antioxidants, raw vegetables and fruit and nuts is that a healthy diet decreases fatigue during the dark season in the Nordics.
Alternative winter sports outdoors for trail runners with asthma
Funnily enough, there are several other sports I can do just fine without getting any asthma symptoms. It’s mostly just running that triggers the asthma attack. Here are my favorite alternative winter sports in nature:
- Snowshoeing. One of my favorite winter sports is snowshoeing. The tempo is slow enough not to trigger my lungs, but it’s still great exercise. In fact, you’ll get quite the same benefits from snowshoeing than from trail running, especially if you add some weight to your backpack and head to the hills. It’s amazing to wander in a snowy quiet forest – exercise and meditation at the same time!
- Cross-country skiing with fell skis. It’s impossible to ski very fast with the long skins. The same benefits again: spend time in the beautiful snowy woods
- Nordic walking. Walking with poles intensifies the walking exercise as it involves arms and mid-body more effectively. Walking with poles increases oxygen intake and going up and down a hill with poles increases oxygen intake even more. A Canadian research found that Nordic walking is more beneficial than HIIT or running among patients with coronary artery disease. To make the most of this sport, try walking in the woods and combine it with hills – that’s basically a version of trail running!
- Walking. If your asthma gets really bad during the very cold days, try walking at a pace that doesn’t trigger your symptoms. Walking in general is excellent rest day exercise for trail runners, and great exercise for anyone.
- Cold-water swimming. Well, you can’t really call a 5 second dip into ice-cold water exercising, but you’ll still get health benefits.
Tips for trail running with asthma in winter
Here are the best tips I have found helpful when trail running with asthma in cold weather and in winter.
1. See your doctor before you start running
See your doctor first and find out how severe your asthma really is. If your symptoms are life-threatening, it may not be a good idea to go trail running solo in the winter. If your symptoms are severe enough, carry the inhaler with you when running.
If your symptoms are mostly annoying slimy cough like mine, you’ll be able to run but perhaps with limited performance.
2. Cover your face
Covering your nose and mouth is critical when doing winter sports. One option to warm the air would be using a face gaiter or a balaclava. I have been testing running with a light merino wool tube scarf covering my mouth and nose. I think it has been somewhat helpful.
You could think we all are used to having a mask on our faces by now, but no. I don’t like the feeling of having something on my face, but it’s still better than coughing.
3. Try different breathing technique
Try breathing through nose to avoid cold air going straight into your lungs. There are various breathing techniques available.
Some people have found e.g., Buteyko breathing method helpful for asthma and other conditions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buteyko_method I have found the method helpful for asthma, hyperventilation and relaxation.
4. Warm-up before you run
I have found it helpful to warm up properly before heading to the freezing temperatures. Warming up prepares your lungs for the exercise, so you don’t get both exercise and cold air simultaneously.
5. Carry your inhaler
The more severe your asthma symptoms, the more important is to carry your meds. Going to a solo trail run in a remote location in winter may not be a good idea. An inhaler is small enough to fit a jacket or a running vest pocket.
6. Run in clean air
Prefer trail running in a forest. Avoid running in a city center next to traffic. Air pollution is a common trigger for asthma symptoms.
7. Avoid exercising hard when it’s very cold
During winter, focus on trail running at slower pace than during summer season. Winter is not the time to engage in HIIT training. When the temperatures drop very low, consider a brisk walk instead.
8. Take a break after flu
Flu and other respiratory infections may worsen your asthma. It may also take a long time before your body has healed enough to continue exercising. Start with baby steps after recovery.
9. Avoid stress
Stress makes asthma symptoms worse. Try to include enough recovery time to your running exercise program. Treat yourself with good sleep: consistent sleeping times and enough good quality sleep.
10. Accept your condition
So, winter running makes you cough and your legs heavy. Be grateful for the days when you can trail run and enjoy something else during the days you can’t run!
Asthma is a limitation to a trail runner, but it doesn’t prevent enjoying sports year-round. Accept that you weren’t made for winter and find the exercise that fits your health – if you can’t trail run, try slower sports. A 30-minutes daily walk in the Northern winter wonderland nature gives health benefits and pampers your soul!
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. I’ve got mild asthma and I do winter sports. If you have got a medical condition and you are considering winter sports, please contact a medical professional.