With every breath you take while running, your lungs bring oxygen into your body to be used by your muscles while getting rid of carbon dioxide. “For most people, lung function is not a limiting factor for exercise—your body knows how to breathe,” says Tony G. Babb, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist who specializes in pulmonary function at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
But certain environmental factors can play a role in how your lungs work for you during a run. Here’s how to address the elements and breathe easy.
At increased altitudes, the air pressure is lower than it is at sea level, which decreases the density of oxygen in the air. This makes it more difficult for your lungs since less oxygen enters your lungs with each breath. In order for you to bring in more oxygen, your body increases its respiration rate and depth of each breath.
Babb recommends that if you are planning to run a race or do a long run in a location at a higher altitude, first spend two or three days living at this altitude—sleeping and doing everyday activities—before your competition. This will help your body gradually adapt to the difference in air pressure. When you run, slow down your pace at first until you adjust to the new altitude.
Extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures can both affect your breathing and contribute to irritation of your lungs. Cold air is often dry air, which can irritate the airways of anyone with a lung condition or respiratory illness. Simply wearing a neck gaiter or balaclava that covers your mouth will help warm and humidify the air you breathe and help prevent respiratory symptoms for most people, Babb says.
In the case of extreme heat, avoid running outside on Ozone Action Days, which indicate high levels of ozone near the ground. Breathing ozone can cause immediate symptoms, especially in individuals sensitive to air pollution. “If it’s a high ozone day, you might feel a burning sensation in your lungs and that breathing is more difficult,” Babb says. “If that’s the case, you really should not be out running in that weather.”
Asthma (plus allergens, plus exertion)
For the average allergy sufferer, seasonal allergens such as pollen and ragweed can lead to a runny nose and itchy eyes, but they won’t have a direct effect on lung function. For people who have allergic asthma, however, inhaling allergens triggers a response in the immune system and causes passages in the airways of the lungs to become narrowed or inflamed. Strenuous exercise can also trigger asthma symptoms for many asthma sufferers, which makes the combination of running and allergy season particularly troublesome.
If you notice coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath during a run, talk to your doctor to diagnose what might be causing your symptoms and develop a plan to keep them under control.