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Is Cold Weather Running Bad For You?

by Amby Burfoot
Visit Runner's World Online
We inspire and enable people to improve their lives and the world around them

Melvin Hershkowitz has one of those names you never forget, and he wrote one of the all-time great running essays about a fearsome runner malady. The name Hershkowitz came back to me when I began looking into the alleged perils of cold-weather running. His essay appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the January 20, 1977, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which has a long history of publishing creative letters from M.D.s who are frustrated writers. Dr. Hershkowitz began in the classic recitative of medical case studies: "A 53-year-old physician, nonsmoker, light drinker (one highball before dinner), 1.78 meters tall, weighing 70 kg, with no illnesses, performing strenuous physical exercise for many years, began a customary 30-minute jog in a local park at 7 p.m. on December 3, 1976."

The temperature that evening was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wicked wind. Result: "At 7:25, the jogger noted an unpleasant painful burning sensation at the penile tip." In the next few minutes, the runner's pain increased dramatically. He made it back to his apartment and removed his pants to check the damage. "Physical examination revealed the glans was frigid, red, tender upon manipulation, and anesthetic to light touch."

The runner took immediate rewarming action "with one cupped palm." It worked. The "response was rapid and complete." But his troubles were just beginning: His wife walked into the room, spotted him naked from the waist down, and noted the rewarming procedure. She also saw that he was ogling the pages of a well-known magazine. "Spouse's observation of therapy produced numerous, varied, and severe side effects," Dr. Hershkowitz wrote. In other words, the runner's face turned redder than even his overchilled body part. (Important note: The physician runner claimed the magazine was the New England Journal of Medicine, and he was merely keeping up with his profession.)

Was Dr. Hershkowitz writing about a doctor friend, or about himself? In October, after finding a listing for Melvin Hershkowitz, I made a cold call to find out. "That's me," said the man who answered the phone. "It was autobiographical. I wrote it on a bit of a lark, as you can tell, and was amazed by the response. I must have received 100 letters, including all manner of insulated and protective athletic supporters."

I had just one other question: Did he recover fully from his condition? "Oh, sure," Dr. Hershkowitz says. "I kept jogging, and it never happened again."

Humor aside, there's a point to this story. In cold weather, you should be far more concerned about your exteriors than your interiors. This simple fact has not stopped well-intentioned people from warning me about frozen lungs for the last 40 years. My parents worried about frozen lungs when I was a high school runner, my college trainers worried a few years later, and the hotel staff got very edgy the morning I recorded my record-low run of -28 degrees one January in northern New Hampshire.

I returned from all of these workouts without any damage, but the frozen-lung warnings persist. Truth or fiction? There was one way to find out: Launch a search for a pair of frozen lungs.

Steven Bainbridge, president of Running Club North in Fairbanks, Alaska, is the race director of the Fairbanks Equinox Marathon. One evening last January, Bainbridge sat in his toasty-warm home watching the thermometer drop to the high 30s, below zero, that is. He realized he was looking at a special opportunity, so he pulled on his running gear--all of it--and headed out the front door. Bainbridge was hoping to experience a rare convergence run--a workout at the only temperature where Fahrenheit and centigrade are the same: -40. And he did. At the bottom of one hill, he saw a thermometer that read -45.
At these temperatures you've got to be careful. "The face must be covered to protect the ears and the nose from frostbite," Bainbridge wrote about his convergence run. "And the air you breathe must be filtered through a scarf or neck gaiter so that the 40 below atmosphere doesn't do any damage to your airways."

Damage to your airways? Sounds like a precursor to frozen lungs! I call Bainbridge to ask if he or his friends have ever suffered from frozen lungs. "You probably won't find any frozen lungs," he says, "but you get an uncomfortable burn in your throat at minus 40."

Burn, schmurn. I'm not impressed. I turn next to Richard Donovan, an Irish adventure runner who was the first to complete marathons at the South Pole (2002) and North Pole (the last three years). He says conditions were worse at the South Pole, including -50 temps, strong winds, and the 9,300-foot altitude. Donovan won the race, but it took him 8:52, so his lungs had plenty of time to freeze. That never happened. "I never had any breathing problems at all," he says, "no burning throat or anything."

Maybe he didn't go high enough. In 2004, veteran mountaineer Sean Burch joined Donovan at the North Pole Marathon just 11 months after he had summited Mount Everest. It was Burch's first marathon, but he won it in 3:43:17. "The North Pole is heaven compared with Everest, especially Everest in the death zone [26,000 feet and up]," he says. "Up there, you can barely breathe or talk. Your throat and lungs burn as if you poured boiling coffee down them. But I can't say I ever got frozen lungs."

The reason, of course, is that the human body is adapted, after surviving five major ice ages, to heat air quickly as it passes through the nose and mouth. In fact, the one legitimate lung condition that troubles runners in cold air doesn't come from the cold. In his 10 years of working with Nordic skiers at the U.S. Olympic Committee training facility in Lake Placid, New York, exercise physiologist Ken Rundell, Ph.D., found that as many as 50 percent would develop "skier's hack"--a transient cough--during or after training.

In subsequent research at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Rundell proved that the dryness of cold air causes the "airway narrowing," a term he prefers to the more common "exercise-induced asthma." To diminish this problem, Rundell suggests using a scarf that will trap your natural water vapor when you exhale, and then allow you to "recycle" it when you inhale.

I have just about given up on my quest when I receive an e-mail from one of Steve Bainbridge's running partners in Fairbanks. Owen Hanley, M.D., is a pulmonary specialist, so he knows lungs, and he has seen the frozen variety. "It's easy to develop frozen lungs," Hanley says. "You simply have to die in the icy outdoors, and then your lungs will freeze along with the rest of you."

So, it is possible for your lungs to freeze. Only not while you're alive and running. To stay comfortable in frigid weather, wear a microfiber shirt as a first layer, followed by a breathable windbreaker, gloves or mittens, and a hat. Begin by running into the wind, not with it, which will keep you from sweating too much. Sweat is bad in winter, as water robs heat from your body up to 25 times faster than trapped air does.

Last, whenever the temperature approaches convergence, by all means put on your fur-lined underwear.

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