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July 07, 2014

Spare the Air – Running and Poor Air Quality

Written by Dena Evans

SmogAlong with warm temperatures and more daylight, summer in our urban and suburban areas can also bring more days with poor air.  Running is an activity typically considered beneficial to your health, but a huge dose of smog inhalation doesn’t seem like a great idea either.  What else do we need to know?

 

Why is running in bad air a problem?

When we exercise, we require more air, breathing more rapidly and deeply than when we are on the couch.  We also tend to breathe through our mouths, which means the protective capabilities of our nasal passages don’t help filter out some of the less desirable particles in the air as they normally would.

 

These less desirable particles come in many forms, as detailed by leading voices such as Roy Shepherd of Toronto Western Hospital, as far back as the early 80s in the lead up to the Los Angeles Olympic Games.  Some, as in carbon monoxide emitted from car exhaust, inhibit the body’s ability to transport oxygen via red blood cells by sticking to the bonding points on the oxygen molecules.  Less oxygen means impaired performance over the course of your session. Other chemicals such as the sulfur oxides coming from industrial sites, may gum up water particles in your body to create acidity and irritation in your airways[1].

 

Is that problem serious?

Certainly, many of us run all summer in heavily polluted areas and feel ok. Others have great difficulty.  If you are pre-disposed to asthma or allergies, if you notice that your airway gets itchy even when others around you are fine, or you feel like you have a lingering common cold in polluted conditions, you should definitely be cautious.  Pollution does increase the risk of some serious health issues, such as stroke, asthma, and heart problems, but exercise helps to reduce those risks as well.  Visits to the doctor definitely tick up during smoggy periods, but then again, exercising regularly can keep you away from the clinic over the long term[2].

 

How to reduce the risks associated with running in polluted air

There is no way to completely eliminate the effects of the polluted air that summer might bring, even if exercise is taken out of the equation.  However, we can do some things to help mitigate the negative impact and protect your body as much as you can.

  • Exercise indoors. Especially when it is extremely hot and humid, a run on the treadmill on a bad air day can help reduce the direct impact you might feel from the heavy pollution in the air.
  • Avoid high traffic areas or busy times of day. When possible, even a few more feet separation from the passing exhaust pipes on a busy thoroughfare can help reduce the concentration of pollutants seeping into your lungs.  Do your best to find a trail, field, or even an empty parking lot.
  • Run in the morning.  Smog gets worse throughout the day.  If you can prioritize morning running during a period of bad air, it might help.
  • Wear a mask. If you are having trouble and don’t feel self-conscious, these actually help filter out undesirable particles from getting to your lungs.
  • Stay on top of air quality advisories.  Go to AirNow.gov and type in your zip code for daily readings.
  • Keep a level head. Air quality, like any other environmental factor, such as weather or altitude, can legitimately affect your performance as well as your perceived level of exertion, even if your times are consistent.  Keep that in mind when evaluating your performance on a given workout or training session.

 

Research is still ongoing, but studies appear to generally indicate that the benefits of exercise over the long term are greater than the near term negative impact of bad air while doing so.  Listen to your own body, use common sense and the tips above, and hopefully the smog of summer won’t prevent your enjoyment of summer training.

 



[1] Davis, John. “Does Air Pollution Affect Running Performance?”  Runners Connect. Web. Accessed 2 July 2014.

[2] Hutchinson, Alex. “Exhaust Yourself.” Outside. Web.  5 July 2012.  Accessed 2 July 2014.

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