How to Run Safely in Polluted Areas

African american woman running in New York City at the morning

One of the main reasons we love running is that it gets us outside, breathing the fresh air and enjoying the outdoors.

But as it’s the case for most people in the developed world, the air is filled with pollution, making outdoor exercise harder than it should be.

This is especially the case if you already have chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, lung, or heart diseases.

Would you like to learn more about how to stay safe and healthy while running outdoor?

Then keep on reading.

In this article, I’ll be sharing a few guidelines and measures to help you reduce the danger of air pollution while running.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started.

Running In Urban Areas

Stats from the United Nations report that roughly half of the population around the world live in urban centers; the number goes up to 78 percent in the developed world.

This means that a lot of runners live in cities—and a high percentage of them are susceptible to the dire effects of poor air quality.

How Much?

The amount of polluted air hitting your lungs while logging the miles vary on many factors. These include location, season, weather, and time of the day.

Outdoor air pollution takes many forms and comes from various sources, such as :

  • Motor vehicle traffic
  • Wind-blown dust
  • wood-burning fireplaces
  • Construction
  • Agricultural operations, such as clearing land and raising animals
  • Power plants
  • Industrial facilities
  • oil refineries
  • factories
  • wildfires
  • Dry bushes.

When running in a polluted environment, your lungs take in all the air polluted air, then transfer it onto your blood and cells. The moment the “polluted blood” reaches your heart, it gets pumped to the rest of your body, setting the stage for all sorts of health problems.

Let’s look at the impact of this on your body.

The Impact of Pollutants on Your Body

Research has found an undeniable link between breathing carbon-monoxide-rich air and a higher risk for a plethora of health conditions, such as

  • Exacerbating Asthma and any allergic reactions
  • Inflamed lungs
  • Increase heart attack risk
  • Cancer
  • Obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Stroke

Air pollution is especially problematic for people with medical conditions.

For example, diesel exhaust can trigger an asthma attack. Other pollutants, such as smog, can be detrimental to the cardiovascular system and can even lead to cancer.

Is It The Same For Running in Polluted Environments?

If you have never felt the effects of car traffic when running, then you are either super lucky or haven’t paid attention. These pollutant effects include runny nose, coughing fits, headaches, irritation to the throat and eyes—to name a few.

Most research has shown that people who regularly exercise in areas or on days with high pollution levels are more prone to health conditions than the general population.

That’s not the whole story.

Research has reported for years that air pollution can kink athletic performance and even put your health at risk. Experienced intense fatigue instead of fresh after a workout? That’s one of the early signs.

Air pollution can directly affect your performance. Research that looked into the impact of air pollution on marathon performance found that every increase of 10 mg per cubic meter of PM10 air pollution can lower marathon performance by up to 1.4 percent.

Another review published in the November Issue of Sports Medicine has also suggested that working out in polluted air may undo some of the positive gains of exercise.

And it’s not just your performance; your health is also at risk.

Research out of the European Heart Journal examined roughly one million active adults to study the effects of air pollution and exercise in active subjects.

The researchers specifically checked for the risk for cardiovascular disease.

In the end, they reported that excessive exposure to high levels of pollution while exercise can drastically (and negatively) impact cardiovascular health.

There’s actually a physiological reason why runners are at higher risk for health conditions than sedentary individuals.

Why Are Runners At More Risk?

When running, you’re inhaling more air than you do when you’re at rest. You’re also breathing the air deeply into your lungs in order to deliver more oxygen to your working muscles.

Research has shown that running for three hours at an easy pace (or 70 percent of one’s VO2 Max),  you might inhale as much air as someone in a sedentary state over a period of two days. That’s quite a lot.

In fact, as a runner, you might be taking in as much as 20 times more air than a person at rest. 

And as you can tell, the more toxic air you breathe in, the more of those tiny pollution particles that get into your body, too.

What’s more?

As a runner, you might typically breathe in most of the air through your mouth, especially if you are pushing the pace. Breathing this way bypasses the natural filter of the nose.

All that being said, runners typically suffer from fewer chronic conditions than individuals who do not exercise and live in polluted cities.

At the end of the day, it’s better to be a runner living in an urban area than not to run at all.

paleo diet
Couple running in Brooklyin. Urban runners on the move in New york

How to Prevent

By now, you should be well aware of the negative effects that exercising in polluted areas has both on your performance and health.

But by no means should this dissuade you from pursuing your running goals.

Here are some of the measures to take in order to protect yourself from the polluted air and make the most out of your workouts.

Know The Conditions

Check the local air quality ratings and warnings before you head out.

Most major television news stations will share these ratings and warnings as a segment of the weather forecast.

You can also use an online tool to help you find information about your city’s pollution control agencies. Plenty of online resources provide information about air quality from reliable organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fact, if you simply type “air quality” and the name of your state, country, or city in google, you’ll be two clicks away from an official governmental agency that tracks and reports pollution levels in your area.

When the air quality index is over 150 (100 if you have any type of breathing issues), exercise indoor, or pay attention to any symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breathing, or throat irritation while logging the miles.

You should also pay attention to any temporary event that might put you at risks, such as wildfire, controlled burns, and chemical spills.

Plan Your Route

One of the biggest air pollution factors that you have some control over is location.

Sure, hitting the trails away from sources of pollution is great, but it’s still possible to drastically lower your exposure to pollutants in urban regions as well.

Typically smoke particles are the highest within a quarter of a mile of main roads and industrial zones.

The good news is pollution levels dip drastically just a few hundred meters from a busy road, so choose local paths, or preferably trails, away from all the traffic.

For example, flat areas or hilltops tend to have lower levels of pollution in the surface air than lower-lying valleys.

Make it a rule to avoid congested roadways, especially if you often run alongside roadways where combustion compounds are the highest.

Have to run in the middle of the city? Plan a running route that keeps away at least 500 yards from large, stoplight-controlled intersections and major highways where congestion typically occurs.

Time Your Runs

When it comes to air quality, there are typically times of the day that are better or worse for your health, especially if thermal inversions are involved.

In general, pollution levels reach their peak around rush hour (typically midday), so you’re better off logging your miles early or late in the evening.

By running during rush hour, you achieve nothing but increase your exposure to polluted particles.

The season also matters

In the cold season, pollution is highest in the morning as it builds up overnight. But in the summer it is highest in the evening.

Run In Greener Spaces

Run in a park or a less-busy neighborhood with tree coverage, if possible.

Green spaces, especially when they have plenty of trees and vegetation, are ideal venues to log in the miles.

Plants, such as trees and other vegetation, absorb pollutant and release oxygen in the atmosphere, making green spaces, such as parks ideal for outdoor running.

Eat Antioxidants     

Diet also matters in your fight against pollution.

Adding plenty of antioxidant-rich foods into your diet can help your body get rid of toxic substances picked up from pollution.

Great sources of vitamins C & E foods such as green-leafy veggies and fruits contain lots of antioxidants and should be a part of your nutrition plan whether you’re exercise when the air quality is poor or not.

Yes, they’re that important.

Some of the healthiest choices include:

  • Broccoli
  • Bell peppers
  • Tomatoes
  • Berries
  • Oranges
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

What’s more?

Remember to drink plenty of water, too. Water is a great diluter and detoxifier, too.

Use A Mask

If you can’t help but run in high pollution, wear a mask.

As I explained earlier, the harder and faster you run, the deeper you’ll breathe. This means you’ll take in drastically more toxic particles than some just out for a walk.

A good mask, such as an N-95 mask that has a one-way valve, will help filter some of the air you inhale but not the air you breathe out.

A proper N-95 mask can filter roughly 95 percent of particulate, or PM 2.5 matter, whereas an N-99 one may filter out up to 99 percent of the bad stuff.

Keep in mind that higher-end masks make breathing much more difficult, which can make running much more challenging.

Train Indoor

When everything else fails, move your run indoors and give your lungs a break.

Keep in mind that often Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) can be worse than outdoor air quality. This mediocre air quality can take a toll on your health, even if you work out at a gym or at home.

For the highest air quality, exercise somewhere with a high-performance air purifier whenever possible.

Be More Careful

There are some runners who are more likely to experience a stronger reaction to air pollution and smoke.

Get the green light from your doctor if you have any of the following applies to you

  • Have asthma or other respiratory illness
  • Have lung disease or heart disease
  • You are pregnant
  • You‘re over 50

Conclusion

After reading this, you might be wondering if it’s worth running in low-quality air. I mean, exercise is meant to improve your health, not the other way around.

Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.

Keep training strong.

David D.