For me, and many other runners, running in the cold is a challenge. I don’t love being cold, and on top of that, I often find that my lungs hurt during and after cold-weather runs. I get a pain in my chest (that is decidedly lung pain) and I’m left with a nasty cough in the hours following the run. If this happens to you when you run in the winter months, read on to find out why.

Why your lungs may hurt during winter runs

The explanation for why this pain happens is surprisingly straightforward: Your lungs don’t like the cold. When you breathe, your lungs heat and humidify the air coming in. The cold air is usually dry air, meaning it lacks humidity, and breathing it in can cause your airways to narrow and become irritated. Your lungs are working overtime to heat and humidify the cold, dry air you’re breathing in, but because there’s no moisture in the air and you breathe heavily when running, it can be difficult for them to keep up. Because of this, many runners experience wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, a burning sensation in their throat and lungs, and bronchial spasms. This can make running in the cold a risky activity for people with respiratory problems, especially those who have asthma, bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). 

Fortunately, the steps for avoiding lung pain and consequent symptoms are easy to implement. (Embarrassingly easy when you consider how many years I’ve spent putting up with the cough and pain without doing much to stop it.) 

How you can avoid lung pain in the winter

1. Wear a scarf, mask, or neck gaiter

To recap: Running in the winter means you’re breathing in a lot of dry, cold air into your lungs, which causes irritation. Your lungs prefer warm, humidified air. In order to achieve that during the cold winter months, try wearing a scarf, mask, or neck gaiter on your next run. Covering your mouth (and/or your nose) will help heat and humidify the air you inhale, and in turn, you can lessen the strain on your lungs. I personally prefer neck gaiters because I find them to be the most comfortable, but you can try different options and see which you like best. 

2. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, as much as you can

“Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth” is a cue we often hear in meditation, yoga, and anxiety relief practices, but that same advice could help prevent lung pain during and after a run. Inhaling through your nose can be an effective way to heat up the air you breathe in (read: this is exactly what we want). Getting used to this type of breathing may require some time and effort, so you may have to ease up on the intensity or duration of your run at first…otherwise, you may experience cramps or shortness of breath. Just remember, it’s okay to slow down! Be patient with yourself and rein it in if necessary.

3. Wear clothes and gear that will keep your whole body warm

Aside from your neck and mouth, keeping your body warm is essential for minimizing the strain that cold weather runs can put on your body. Hats, gloves, ear covers, and thick moisture-wicking socks are just a few options for additional gear. You don’t want to overheat (keep in mind that your body temperature rises as you run), but you want to be prepared, especially if it’s windy or snowing outside. 

4. Take a hot shower after your run 

In the event that you can’t take any of the three preventative measures listed above—which are meant for before and during your runs—you may want to take a hot shower right afterward. Doing so can help moisten the mucous membranes in your throat and lungs, which dry out when we breathe in cold air, and it will help re-regulate your body temperature.

Running in the cold is absolutely doable if you take the right steps to prevent pain and irritation. Every person’s body is different, so there’s no “cure-all” advice I can give you, but take it from me: Once you figure out what methods work for you and the symptoms stop, running outside in the colder months is SO much more enjoyable. All you may need is the right gear, the right mindset, and a nice warm shower. I’ll choose those over a cough any day. 

Please note: This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.