Running Increases the Quantity of Air Inhaled

This is one element of information, which immediately explains the risks associated with running in polluted environments: when one is out jogging for three hours at an endurance pace (that is, about 70% of one's VO2 max), a runner inhales as much air as a person who does not take any exercise over a period of two days. Furthermore, this air is generally inhaled through the mouth and therefore does not pass through the natural filter of the nose.

However, few studies have been able to confirm the level of danger of aerobic exercises conducted in a location where the pollution is reaching peak levels. Nevertheless, the Sports Medicine scientific journal recently emphasised the fact that running when the air quality is poor cancels out the positive effects of running on the brain.

What are the Health Risks?

The pollution warnings regularly issued by the governmental health authorities are increasingly frequent. It must be said that there are a number of risks associated with breathing in a polluted environment. . This is particularly true for people with a delicate disposition:

  • Increased risk of developing asthma (or triggering an asthma attack).
  • Increased risk of lung cancer.

The same is true for running in polluted environments? Few are those who have not felt the effects of car traffic when running – to mention only the pollutant effects: coughing fits, runny nose, headaches, irritation to the eyes and throat… Yet, runners generally develop less chronic illnesses than people who do not exercise and live in polluted cities.

Precautions to be Taken

Therefore, should you refrain from all physical activity during peak pollution periods? Certainly not. You should, however, follow certain precautions:

  • Adapt your training to the unfavourable outdoor conditions and, preferably, undertake your training sessions indoors.
  • running on a treadmill or a home trainer
  • cycle on bike trainer
  • swimming
  • stretching sessions and general physical preparation at the gym or even yoga courses
  • Avoid over-polluted locations and steer clear of the major road links. Preferably use green spaces (or the woods on the outskirts of the major towns).
  • Schedule the time of your training session according to the conditions. Pollution generally reaches peak levels at midday and in the afternoon. So make sure you run early in the morning or in the early evening.
  • Find out about the pollution levels and respect the pollution warnings issued by the authorities. Particularly when you suffer from asthma, diabetes or pulmonary problems.

Haile Gebreselassie, who is probably the greatest long-distance runner ever, preferred to forfeit the Marathon of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 because of the pollution levels that are commonly recorded in the Chinese city. Gebreselassie suffers from asthma and did not want to take any risk. One month later, he broke the world record in Berlin!


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