Outside magazine, December 1995
Winter athletes know the importance of protecting the extremities: Fingers and toes, ears and heads have to be insulated from the conditions that can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Less obviously in need of protection--though just as vulnerable--are the lungs. Exercise-induced asthma, which strikes as mid- or postworkout wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest, is one more potential ill that winter athletes in particular should seek shelter from.
And it's not only already-diagnosed asthmatics who are vulnerable. Other preexisting health conditions, such as a history of viral infections or allergies, can contribute to EIA. So can environmental conditions such as air pollution. But the immediate cause is a loss from the lungs of water and heat, two scarce resources in the dry, cold season. "Cold air exacerbates asthma, and warm, moist air reduces it," says Dr. Christiane Ayotte, a researcher at the International Olympic Committee-accredited INRS Santé laboratory in Montreal. "Add a major endurance effort to the equation, and you're very susceptible to EIA." In fact, at last year's Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, 24 percent of the nordic ski competitors declared themselves asthmatic--compared with only 7 percent of Olympic athletes overall.
Cold air entering the bronchial tubes, which lead to the lungs, triggers a reaction in which the muscles in the tubes constrict and mucus production is increased, explains Dr. Gail Shapiro of the Northwest Asthma and Allergy Centre in Seattle, Washington. The narrowing of the airway combined with the buildup of mucus is the one-two punch by which EIA makes breathing tough.
To help keep your cold-season workouts less conducive to EIA, Shapiro advises warming up for at least 20 minutes at a lower intensity than you would in balmier conditions, and preferably indoors. Wrapping a scarf around your nose and mouth will help warm the air before it enters your bronchial tubes. Winter athletes who have been diagnosed with chronic asthma should use their prescribed medication about 15 minutes before exercising.