winter + exercise + breathing: what's normal?
January 24, 2011 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Winter vs. being out of shape vs. exercise-induced asthma - what feels like what?

I started skate skiing (cross country skiing) this winter, and it is awesome. However, as my technique improves and my stamina does not, I'm wondering if exercise-induced asthma could be a reason. For those of you who have experience exercising outdoors in winter, how did you know what was just general winter exercise issues? Winter issues + being out of shape? Or asthma? In sum, how do you tell what's normal for winter, and what's not?

Background: I've got my annual physical coming up next month, but there are several weeks of good weather/snow before then. I find myself stopping to catch my breath a lot more than anyone else on the ski trails, but I never had this problem last year when I did classic skiing (probably because my $20 Craigslist skis and I were the slowest things on the trails). Tonight I skied further than ever before (yay for learning the V2 stride!), and my lungs still ache a couple hours later. It was 25 degrees out tonight, pretty optimal for skiing.
posted by Maarika to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For me, exercise induced asthma is mostly a post-exercise problem. I need my inhaler as soon as I *stop* the physical activity, not while doing it.

Cold air itself can be an asthma trigger though-- so make sure you have a way to warm the air before it gets into your lungs. It's probably not so pleasant for non asthmatics to breathe cold air regularly either.
posted by nat at 9:15 PM on January 24, 2011

I have very slight asthma that's brought on by exercising when I'm out of shape -- for me, the two are one and the same, and cold air exacerbates it. (The only proper asthma attacks I've had have all been while exercising.) In my case, when I start running again after slacking off for a few months, I'm usually wheezy the first few weeks, and then it gradually fades.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 9:25 PM on January 24, 2011

As someone who has both exercise-induced and cold-induced asthma, I would strongly suggest consulting a doctor. What you're describing--frequent stopping to catch one's breath, and then aching afterward--sounds very much like what I experience when I don't use an inhaler.

For me, it was a fairly simple fix--two hits of an inhaler before I head outside means that while I occasionally get out of breath, I'm pretty sure it's because I'm fat, not because I'm asthmatic, and I'm spared the burning, aching lungs later.
posted by MeghanC at 9:28 PM on January 24, 2011

For me, cold air makes my lungs feel dry and creates a burning sensation until I get used to it. Then its fine.

Asthma attacks make me feel like my chest is compressed and I can't take a full breath.

If you just have to stop for breath, but have no problems taking the breath, its possible that you're just out of shape.

But, as others have said, cold air can be a trigger. Very mild asthma can resemble being out of shape. I forgot to take my meds yesterday, and my morning ride was hellish - as if I was carrying an extra 20kg. If your lungs still hurt long after you've stopped exerting yourself, then its sounds like asthma to me, exacerbated by the cold.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:48 PM on January 24, 2011

For me, the key sign for it being asthma rather than out of shape/ate too much/some other non-dangerous reason for being out of breath is that it's hard to breathe out. I can't really tell what's up with the in-breaths, but the out is the tell. I'm not a doctor, but the peak flow meter (a super basic test of how your asthma is doing) involves trying to blow out a full breath hard and fast, so that suggests to me the out-breath thing is more than just my idiosyncrasy.

Oh, and by the way, I get some asthma if I exercise in cold air, I very rarely get it any other time.
posted by crabintheocean at 10:22 PM on January 24, 2011

I get minor exercise-induced asthma, winter or summer alike. While I'm working out, I don't really notice anything, but when I'm finished, I feel a burning-ish sensation in my chest. If I use my Ventolin inhaler before working out (as prescribed by my doctor), then this doesn't happen.

The feeling of asthma is different from the feeling of working too hard, but I'm not really sure how to describe the working too hard feeling. Your best bet is to get a heart rate monitor, set it to low intensity, stay in that zone, and see if you experience any pain. If you do, the exercise itself may not be the problem. (But I'm not an expert, so please consult your doctor.)

Anyway, if you aren't enjoying the exercise, pain or otherwise, slow it down. If walking is painful, then there is something to worry about. If sprinting for hours is painful, then yeah, that's because it's hard. The key is finding a middle ground. (When I run, I stop running and start walking when my heart rate gets too high. You have to work up to fast, non-stop running, it's not something your body can do on day one.)
posted by jrockway at 10:35 PM on January 24, 2011

I understand how hard skate-skiing is (just posted this question, sadly)- it is a *lot* harder than the classic skiing you were doing last year. I live in Alaska and exercise in the winter a lot, and work pretty hard at it in temperatures most non-Alaskans wouldn't brave. Stopping to catch your breath a lot as a newish or even intermediateish skate skier is completely normal but

and my lungs still ache a couple hours later

is not, at all. Your body might ache, sure, and that would be normal, but lung issues after the fact (especially hours after the fact) absolutely seem like they must be correlated with some existing asthma issue (whether cold-related or exertion-related).
posted by charmedimsure at 11:19 PM on January 24, 2011

Wait, have you been diagnosed with asthma and are just wondering if this is it, or you've not been diagnosed but are wondering if you have it? Asthma isn't about being out of breath. It feels like you're breathing through a straw, like your trachea has constricted to straw diameter and you have to work extra hard to get the air into your lungs. Being out of breath is like, "whew, I'm not sure I can go on right now," whereas having asthma is like, "If this were worse, I would suffocate." When you're having significant asthma, you don't keep exercising - you try to be slow and calm to try to keep it from getting worse until you can find an inhaler.
posted by Askr at 12:57 AM on January 25, 2011

My asthma is more like itchy lungs. It doesn't start until after a few hours of exertion. It makes me cough, but coughing doesn't make the itchiness go away.

The burning the others describe only happens around the eleventh or twelfth mile, but the itchiness usually starts around mile 8. Once we're off the trail, it'll take several hours before it all gets better. It's different from being out of breath, in that you can catch your breath fairly quickly. If I have itchy lungs and stop along the trail, stopping doesn't help.

I knew it was asthma and not being out of shape because over a period of weeks, my legs got stronger but my lungs didn't.

First time I hiked with an inhaler, I was shocked. It extended my range a good three or four miles. It almost felt like cheating.

As far as cold goes - snow shoeing doesn't trigger my asthma. Cross country skiing did. The big difference was that I breathed rapidly with the cross country skiing. But, as others pointed out, you can have cold triggered asthma.

What my doctor told me is that when you have mild asthma, it's better to treat it. If you try to tough it out and ignore it, it'll just wind up getting worse until you go from having a little trouble breathing to full-on attacks. My mom gets scary asthma attacks working in the garden now because she didn't get her mild asthma treated younger.
posted by arabelladragon at 4:20 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yup - itchy lungs sounds about dead right for my cold-induced asthma. Other asthma attacks, usually caused by allergens in the air, feels like you've swallowed some water down the wrong pipe, the wheezing and burbling you get right after coughing it out, only it can last for hours instead of minutes.

That said, now that I've been on Advair and Claritin, I don't get attacks anymore. I take a hit off the rescue inhaler maybe once or twice a month, where before, I'd go thru two inhalers a month.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:47 AM on January 25, 2011

Askr, I get exercise-induced asthma and it's almost impossible to tell it from being out of breath unless it gets REALLY BAD, which is why it took years for me to get it properly diagnosed. I just thought I was literally incapable of getting in good cardio shape ... no matter how fit I got, I would get out of breath when I exercised with any exertion at all. I understand that this is fairly common with exercise-induced asthma -- it just feels like being out of breath unless it's REALLY BAD -- and it can be a significant lifestyle impact because it makes exercise so frustrating and unpleasant, but people don't realize it's treatable; they think they're just out of breath. Many people give up that day's exercise before they push themselves to the "breathing through a straw" stage.

I think it's worth consulting a doctor, for two reasons: First, my life dramatically improved when I realized it was exercise-induced asthma and learned strategies to control it (and got an inhaler). And second, a young man across the street from me had cold-induced asthma and didn't know it, was shoveling snow, and ended up collapsing and having to be rushed to the hospital (with what everyone thought was a heart attack, of course, since that's why people collapse when shoveling snow ...). He is fine now, but it was scary and ambulances are expensive.

Anyway, if you have the means and opportunity, I'd see a doctor just to be sure, and then you'll know whether you need to work on more cardio, or whether an inhaler will make it possible for you to enjoy skiing more and avoid more icky outcomes.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:16 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I deal with both exercise and cold induced asthma (sucks to it!) but better than when I was a kid.

Definitely describe your symptoms when you next see a doctor, but here's a rubric you could try:

Now, when you're feeling fine, take some deep breaths. Feel what it's like when those passages are open--how deep the air gets, how loose or tight everything seems.

Repeat when having been in the cold for a bit, having exercised for a bit, and having exercised in the cold. If the bronchii are constricting, versus just "sucking wind," I think you'll be able to feel the difference.
posted by stevis23 at 5:19 AM on January 25, 2011

Itchy lungs, wheezing, horrible coughing fits that lasted hours after I exercised.

I am chiming in, because I was just recently in your position. I had asthma symptoms in the past, and they cropped back up when I started running. I talked to my doctor about it, got an inhaler and once-a-day inhaler, and wow, it made an enormous difference. The first day I used my inhaler before going out for a run, I ran 50% more than I had before. So even if you're not sure, definitely talk to a doctor about it, the pay-off can be huge.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 6:31 AM on January 25, 2011

I find that I'm always catching my breath and taking breaks while skiing with my friends, but we're all pretty sure it's because they have much better technique and are exerting nowhere near the effort I am.

Of course, it could asthma, just wanted to throw in another data point.
posted by advicepig at 6:55 AM on January 25, 2011

my technique improves and my stamina does not

That's exactly what made my doctor suspect I had exercise-induced asthma, which is made worse in cold weather. You don't have to see a specialist; your everyday doctor should be able to help you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:06 AM on January 25, 2011

Response by poster: Cool - thanks for all your feedback. I think it can wait until my doctor's appointment in early February, so I'll take it easy until then (like ski on flat lakes instead of hilly parks).
posted by Maarika at 7:54 AM on January 25, 2011

I just got my first inhaler for exercise induced asthma. My anecdata: I have always had bronchial problems - lots of bronchitis and post-nasal drip issues. I spent Nov/Oct in Virginia and then returned to the UK to much colder weather. My first bike ride and first run both left me so winded and my throat so constricted I considered making my way to the A&E. I'm fit - I run 10-15 miles a week and cycle 15-20K 4 or 5 times a week. It was bad enough that i completely stopped exercising outside for the month of December because I was too scared to even try it without an inhaler and medical advice (breathing matters to me!) and only just did my first outdoor run today and experienced only modest improvement. I'm still struggling a bit and have some stridor but I now think it is manageable. Next run I will be wearing a buff and see if that helps and I will be very gradual in working my way back up to my normal 5 mile run.

On the plus side when I am struggling to breath I don't notice post run aches and pains elsewhere!
posted by srboisvert at 5:13 AM on January 7, 2012

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