The Air I Breath: Pollution & Exercise

Updated: May 10

[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.