The Air I Breath: Pollution & Exercise

March 5, 2021

[IMPORTANT NOTE]: We are NOT doctors and cannot and do not provide medical advice here. This is our anecdotal experience and you should ALWAYS consult an M.D. for true medical advice, especially if you have any kind of pre-existing condition that may be affected by exercise.

As many folks know, air quality in California and the northwestern USA has been rough due to widespread wildfires. Hopefully, it will abate soon, but there's a chance it could persist and it is always helpful to be knowledgeable about its potential impact. Whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural area, the outdoor environment is as important to runners as our shoes and poor air quality can have negative implications for our training and long term health.

Team Chaski is located all across the country and around the globe, and we reached out to our athletes and coaches local to the affected areas to hear how they are restructuring their training amidst this uncertainty.

"AQI has been on/off bad for a month in CA and was over 200 for most of last week.  I generally encourage my athletes to stay indoors if it is over 100 AQI, especially since there's so much variability depending on which site people us (PurpleAir is best). I suggest 100 because different people have different sensitivities/reactions to smoke and so I want them to err on the side of caution-because a few weeks of off/indoor training won't hurt too much. AND the impact of running in bad air quality can have long term ill effects."   - #DevonYanko

Understanding Our Air

Even if you don't live in an urban area, you can still be affected by other pollutants or traveling air pollution. Thus, it is important to understand what is safe and not safe to breathe.

AQI basics - The higher the number the more hazardous the air quality. Generally, 50 or below is considered good air quality and 300+ is very dangerous. (Due to the increased risk during exercise, Chaski doesn't recommend running outdoors over 150 AQI and to consider cross-training if it's over 100.)

Pollution can be present in two forms: gases and particles.

Outdoor air pollution can come from many sources, including:

  • Motor vehicle traffic
  • Pollen from flowers, trees and shrubbery
  • Wind-blown dust
  • Burning wood
  • Construction
  • Agricultural operations, including raising animals, clearing land, and pesticide spraying (don't even get us started)
  • Power plants

Even when you're not exercising, exposure to air pollution can cause health problems. But with the combination of air pollution and exercise, the potential health problems are increased.

How Air Quality Affects Athletes

As breathing gets heavier and faster during a run, the number of particles deposited into the airway increases (3-4.5-fold increase during light exercise, 6-10 fold increase during heavy exercise). During exercise, you switch from predominantly nasal breathing to oral breathing, which bypasses the protective properties of your nasal passageway, causing more particulate matter (pollution) to be deposited in your lungs.

Additionally, the body experiences temporary impairment of the mucociliary clearance, which is the process by which the respiratory tract is able to clear particulates. These factors explain why a runner might be at a greater risk for the negative effects of air pollution than a person at rest.

In fact, going for a run in poor air quality might be more detrimental than taking an unplanned day off. A paper focusing on the effects of air pollutants on athletes found that when exercising in poor air quality, VO2 max can actually go down in the short-term. This would make a normally easy pace feel much more difficult.

"Health problems associated with air pollution include:

  • Headaches
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Damage to airways of the lungs
  • Increased risk of asthma development
  • Worsening of existing asthma or other lung conditions
  • Increased risk of heart attacks and strokes
  • Increased risk of death from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease"

-Mayo Clinic

"The 100-150 range is the toughest to figure out. Within that range, I am very attentive to how my athlete is feeling, where they live, upcoming events, etc.

If they don't have access to a treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical etc. I recommend no weight HIIT classes and yoga combinations. 30 minutes of each together or split up in the day seems to work great."   - #DaniMoreno

Taking The Necessary Precautions

"I think when it comes to air quality we should be thinking about our athletes' long term health. Yes, some people can 'get away' with running between 100-170 AQI, but there's more to consider here. Since running makes us inhale bad air and particles much more rapidly, I think we should be advising our athletes to err on the side of caution."  - #DevonYanko

What's not clear with air pollution and exercise is how much exposure is a danger, how long you have to be exposed, or which types of outdoor air pollution are the most harmful over time.

However, because exercise has clear health benefits, don't give up on exercise entirely, unless your doctor has instructed you to stop. To stay as healthy as possible while you exercise, focus on ways to minimize your exposure to air pollution.

Before heading out on a run, we advise checking the outdoor air quality index (AQI) which can give a general idea of the air quality that day. There are a variety of websites you can use - we like  Depending on your risk level (asthma, COPD, heart disease, general sensitivity to poor air quality), set a standard for yourself. As Devon mentioned, if it is over a certain level (i.e. 100), look for other options like the treadmill or indoor cross-training.

Other tips for continuing training including timing workouts well and staying flexible within your program. For example, air quality is often worse midday so maybe you end up starting your long run a few hours earlier than normal. While not ideal, it is a great opportunity to practice adaptability which is key on race day.

Air quality can also vary day-to-day so it is helpful to stay open to the idea of switching around workouts, especially if there are a few key workouts that are high priority. Finally, be cognizant of indoor air ventilation if you are running on the treadmill. Lastly, if you feel you must run outdoors, research nearby areas that may be further away from smoke.

"I've been focusing on more substantial strength work coupled with mobility exercises indoors since treadmills and bike trainers unavailable."  - #IzzyRay

Some other ideas for forced indoor days:

- Take the opportunity to zero in on goals (both process and outcome goals)

- What are some little things you could be doing better that could help your running performance?

- try to explore some new recipes, get a little more sleep each night, stretch/roll before bed, etc.

Get Healthy. Be Happy. (But Most Importantly) Stay Safe!

Want to learn more?

We’re stoked you want to get in touch! Our real, live human staff of elite athlete-coaches will get back to you as soon as we can.

Tyler Andrews

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Kathy Pico

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Amelia Boone

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Devon Yanko

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Coree Woltering

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Mike Wardian

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Pete Kostelnick

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Alicja Konieczek

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Maggie Fox

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Zandy Mangold

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Emily Schmitz

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Sarah Burns

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Kimber Mattox

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Jon Waldron

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Sue McNatt

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Carolyn Stocker

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Calvin Lehn

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Jase Trimmer

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