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  • Writer's pictureLyns Romano

Considerations for Running in Poor Air Quality

The risks of running in poor air quality for athletes is something that is often overlooked by many recreational runners, however it needs to be acknowledged that runners are an at risk population. 

Understanding the Risks of Running in Poor Air Quality for Athletes

Runners, particularly those who train rigorously outdoors, are an at-risk population when it comes to poor air quality. This increased risk stems from the nature of the activity itself—running significantly elevates minute ventilation, the amount of air inhaled and exhaled per minute. According to research by Munzel et al. (2021), this high rate of ventilation means that runners can inhale more pollutants than they would during less strenuous activities or while at rest. This can lead to a higher deposition rate of airborne particulate matter and other pollutants in the lungs.

The Impact of Airborne Pollutants on Runners

The pollutants of greatest concern include particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide, all of which can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and even enter the bloodstream. Long-term exposure to these pollutants can exacerbate or lead to the development of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Furthermore, studies have shown that athletes, especially those in endurance sports, may experience significant impairment in lung function and are at an increased risk of developing conditions like exercise-induced asthma due to prolonged exposure to poor air quality.

Utilizing the Air Quality Index (AQI)

The AQI is an essential tool for runners aiming to minimize health risks from air pollution. It measures pollutants like particulate matter and ozone, providing a scale from 0 to 500:

  • Good (0-50 AQI): Pollution poses little or no risk, ideal for outdoor training.

  • Moderate (51-100 AQI): Generally acceptable, though sensitive individuals should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.

  • Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150 AQI): Those with pre-existing conditions should reduce outdoor activity.

  • Unhealthy (151-200 AQI): It's advisable for all runners to avoid outdoor workouts and opt for indoor alternatives.

Canadian AQI (Now Called Air Quality Health Index - AQHI)

  1. Scale: Unlike the US AQI, the Canadian AQHI is measured on a scale from 1 to 10+, with an additional category to represent risk levels above 10. The scale is more straightforward in terms of understanding the health risks.

  2. Categories:

  • 1 to 3: Low Risk (Green): Enjoy your usual outdoor activities

  • 4 to 6 : Moderate Risk (Yellow): Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you are experiencing symptoms or at risk

  • 7 to 10: High Risk (Orange): Reschedule strenuous activities outdoors

  • 10+: Very High Risk (Red): Avoid strenuous activity outdoors

Practical Steps for Runners

  • Regular AQI Monitoring: Use reliable sources like the Government of Canada's AQHI

  • Adjust Training Plans: Shift to indoor training options like treadmills or indoor tracks when AQI is high.

  • Symptom Awareness: Monitor for symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, or chest tightness, which may indicate health impacts from poor air quality.

Tailored Safety Guidelines for Runners

Given the risks, athletes must make informed decisions about their training sessions based on air quality:

  • AQI Awareness: Avoid outdoor workouts when the AQI exceeds 151, or international levels reach 7.

  • Special Precautions for Vulnerable Athletes: Those with conditions like asthma should consider a lower AQI threshold of 100, or levels 4-6, and monitor how they feel during and post-workout.

  • Use Reliable AQI Sources: Before any outdoor activity, consult real-time air quality data from trusted resources.

  • Monitor Your Symptoms: Be vigilant about any unusual physical responses during or after running in poor air quality.

Concluding Advice

Runners have specific vulnerabilities to air pollution due to the increased intake of air during vigorous exercise. By staying informed about the air quality and adjusting training habits accordingly, runners can continue to enjoy the benefits of their sport while protecting their health. As we face ongoing environmental challenges, it’s imperative for the running community to prioritize air quality awareness as part of their overall health and training strategy.

  1. Munzel, T., Sørensen, M., Gori, T., Schmidt, F. P., Rao, X., Brook, F. R., ... & Brook, R. D. (2021). Environmental stressors and cardio-metabolic disease: part II-mechanistic insights. European Heart Journal, 38(7), 557-564.

  2. Health Effects Institute. (2020). State of Global Air 2020. Health Effects Institute. Available at: [Link to the report if available online]

  3. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2020). Air Quality Index - A Guide to Air Quality and Your Health. EPA. Available at: [Link to the document if available online]

  4. Rundell, K. W., & Sue-Chu, M. (2013). Air Quality and Exercise-Induced Bronchoconstriction in Elite Athletes. Immunology and Allergy Clinics of North America, 33(2), 409-421.

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