Running And Air Quality

BY ON April 15, 2013

A woman running in from of a polluted city skyline

While thumbing through my recent Runner’s World magazine, I found a short article about running and air pollution. As an air quality activist and a long-time runner, this article fit a cross-section of my interests. It took me back about 20 years, to when I was visiting my aunt in Los Angeles. I went for a run in the dingy haze, on a high traffic street. I learned later it was an ozone alert day. I came back, and my aunt said that my run had probably been the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes.

Did I benefit more from the run or damage my lungs from running during a bad air day?

The article highlighted the hundreds of thousands of runners across the U.S. who are affected by poor air quality daily. City runners are faced with air pollution from vehicles and industry. These exposures can lead to an increased chance of heart and lung disease. Suburban runners are  hit with increased pollution from mowers, weed whackers, and lawn chemicals. Country runners (yours truly) are not spared, either. Agriculture, wildfires, dust from dirt roads (hello, Vermont!) can all cause respiratory problems.

Runners are more affected by air pollution than others because runners take in significantly more oxygen, 10-20 times as much as non-runners. Recent research shows this affect is particularly troublesome among female runners. According to the International Herald Tribune:

A study that used the mass of data included in the Women’s Health Initiative found that women who lived in communities with relatively high levels of air pollution in the forms of tiny particles–also known as soot–were far more likely to die because of heart attacks than women who lived in cleaner air.”

In addition, particulate matter found in air pollution can prematurely age a runner’s lungs– and lead to an increased chance of heart disease.

No one is advising runners to stop running outdoors. But scientists urge caution and planning.

Take these precautions when running outdoors (tips gathered from Runner’s World and

  • Check the air quality status before going out running– skip the run if the air index is over 100.
  • Run away from cars and exhaust, if possible.
  • Avoid running close to highways and busy road ways, especially during rush hour.
  • Avoid running on dusty, windy days on dirt roads.
  • Run in parks or near water.
  • Don’t run near major pollutors (industry, factory farms,power plants).
  • Avoid roads with tractors and heavy equipment– they spew pollution and make dust particles.
  • Run in the morning, before air quality gets bad.

*Last, but arguably, most important, fight for stronger air quality protections nationwide. JOIN Moms Clean Air Force and work with us to protect the air our families and neighbors breathe.

The benefits of running far outweigh the risks. But wouldn’t it be amazing if runners (and everyone) didn’t have to worry about air pollution because vehicles, industry, and other polluters were held to higher air quality standards?

Do you run? How does the air quality where you run affect you?


TOPICS: Asthma, Pollution