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Charles Allen: Why breathing in cold air might not be best for your marathon training

Head of Physical Performance at Walk To Run, Charles Allen. Picture: Supplied

Head of Physical Performance at Walk To Run, Charles Allen. Picture: Supplied

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If you've signed up for a spring marathon, you'd be wise to consider the effects of heat on your respiratory system.

It might be cold right now but, as last year’s London Marathon demonstrated, all that can change in a few short weeks.

I heard stories from many people who, despite ticking all their boxes during training, were beaten by the dramatic rise in temperature on the day.

The main thing I want to highlight is how breathing cold air impacts the body differently to breathing warm air.

When it’s cold, your body works hard to try and regulate its core temperature and, as a result, doesn’t want to take in such deep breaths. Lung tissue doesn’t like cold air. It naturally repels it until the air is warmed by the body but even if we wrap up well to avoid the sharpness of the cold, it still creates a reaction which encourages you to breathe out. Why? Because exhaling warms the human body. It expels the cold air remaining in the lungs to a residual amount whilst forcing a muscle action that adds heat.

Warm air means the opposite.

It’s much easier for our body to take bigger, deeper breaths. And we need to take more air in during hot weather. Heat makes the molecules in our body vibrate and increase in size, meaning we take more air in to satisfy our needs. But this brings its own challenges, it accelerates dehydration and impacts our performance sooner. The additional air pressure can cause us to feel asthmatic-like symptoms.

MORE: Love running? Join the Run Anglia Facebook group here

Put simply, when we train in cold conditions our natural breathing pattern adapts and we are likely to use a pattern of taking shallower breaths, more often. It’s something we have to accept as it’s a semi-automated system within us. To try and change it would cause other issues so it’s more about being aware of what’s happening. But when, after a great block of winter training, we turn up at our chosen start line and the temperature requires our body to adapt and go against the conditions it has come used to, it can be tough.

So, what’s the solution? My advice would be to do what you can to control the variables. I tend to do a few runs on a treadmill where I can control room temperature and explore my breathing mechanics. “But I hate the treadmill…” I hear many of you say. I know, and while it’s not the running experience many of us seek, it is important to remember you can use it as a deliberate part of your training and your attempt to try and control some variables.

If it really isn’t for you then think of other ways you could practice/increase your exposure to warm air breathing patterns. Perhaps a fitness class or Bikram yoga is more your thing?

If you are training through spring/summer for an autumn/winter event or vice versa there will always be challenges like this to consider. It’s all about preparation, whichever route you choose.

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