5 Ways That Air Pollution Ruins Your Running

Running in a polluted city

Basically, everyone now knows that air pollution is bad for one’s lungs. If you live in a city, you probably have many concerns regarding how the quality of the air affects health. If you are a runner, you may be even more concerned.

Air pollution occurs when artificial structures, such as cars, factories or power generators, release toxic fumes into the air. Not only are these pollutants harmful to the environment, they are extremely damaging to human health as well. When we run, we draw in big breaths of air into our lungs. When running in polluted cities, it increases the risk of drawing pollutants into the body.

Here are 5 of the worst ways air pollution can ruin a good run.

Tired and sweating runner

Air Pollution Reduces Athletic Performance

Of course, you run to improve your health and put yourself at less risk for conditions like heart disease. But could you really benefit from the positive effects of exercise if you run surrounded by polluted air?

There have been studies on athletic performance and air pollution dating as far back as the sixties. When 1984 Olympics were held in smog-infested Los Angeles, research took a renewed vigor.

One interesting study published in 1984 right before the Olympics looked at how oxidants affect athletic performance. Oxidants are particles like carbon monoxide in polluted air. The conclusion of the study is predictable: oxidants are detrimental to athletic performance.

As toxins like carbon monoxide increase in the blood when polluted air is inhaled, athletic performance steadily drops because red blood cells don’t have enough available oxygen.

Several studies have concluded that many pollutants in the air decrease athletic performance. That means you may not be able to run optimally when inhaling polluted air. You could be doing more damage than good.

Strenuous running can actually worsen the effects of air pollution. Unlike walkers, runners need to take deep, heavy breaths. That increases the amount of air that moves through your lungs, thus increasing the number of pollutants that enter the body.

Pollutants also have a higher chance of getting trapped in the mucous membranes of the nose, which may lead to upper respiratory tract diseases as elaborated below.

Runner coughing

Running in Polluted Air Increases Risk for Upper Respiratory Diseases

Carbon monoxide is not the only culprit. There are chemicals in smog known as reductants that studies have shown to irritate the lungs. Reductants can enter the airways and create a buildup that reduces the passage of air into the lungs. This can cause asthma in runners. Athletes with asthma will definitely see a worsening of their condition after running in polluted air.

Of course, if you can’t breathe properly, you can’t run properly. Reductants can increase the risk for chronic respiratory diseases for runners. So, even if you lose weight jogging every day in the city, you can still suffer from respiratory diseases.

Woman looking sick from running

Higher Chance of Developing Pulmonary Disease

Air pollution is strongly linked to pulmonary disease, or health issues of the lungs. Children are known to be generally more affected than adults. Being exposed to toxic air for prolonged periods can lead to pulmonary disease and even lung cancer.

According to data from the National Resources Defense Council, about 64,000 people die each year from pulmonary disease related to air pollution.

Runners, as mentioned above, draw in more polluted air. Therefore, runners are particularly at risk for developing this condition.

Runner feeling heart pain

Runners May Not be Able to Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease

Many people take up running to maintain a healthy heart. While exercise is great for keeping your heart functioning properly, guess what is absolutely not good for your heart? It’s not just excess sugar that can affect your heart; air pollution can cause a number of cardiovascular issues as well, according to the American Heart Association.

The association estimates that air pollution can reduce the life expectancy of an adult by between 1.8 and 3.1 years due to cardiovascular complications. Air pollution can disrupt the normal functioning of your blood vessels.

Polluted air may cause the carbon dioxide levels in your blood to increase, which results in serious conditions such as impaired brain function, and sometimes fatalities. Air pollution also increases a person’s chance of having a heart attack or a stroke.

So, if you are a runner, polluted air may negate the positive impact running has on your body. If you are a runner who has suffered a heart attack or a stroke in the past, running through polluted air may not be the smartest idea. It’s best to talk about the risk of heart problems when running in polluted areas with your doctor before engaging in a rigorous schedule.

Sportswoman feeling sick and tired

Runners May Get Lead Poisoning

Those toxic fumes that pollute the air are full of harmful heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. When runners inhale polluted air for a long period of time, they become susceptible to all the bad health conditions you know are associated with these metals.

Inhaling polluted air can lead to lead poisoning as the metals can accumulate inside the body over a period of time. Arsenic and mercury can increase a person’s risk for cancer, nerve damage, and if you are a woman, giving birth to a baby with congenital defects.

Female runner in pain

Does This Mean You Should Stop Running Outside?

You should not stop running just because of bad air. Exercise is crucial to staying healthy. What matters is avoiding polluted air.

If you live in a city where the air is known to be severely polluted, avoid running outside (You can ask a doctor to know for sure). Instead, use indoor tracks or treadmills to keep in shape.

Experienced runners know that a treadmill could never replace the thrill of running against the wind. When you have free time, drive outside the city to a forested area where the air is cleaner. You can run outside in these clean air areas.

Understandably, there isn’t much a person can do to fight off the effects of air pollution short of moving out of the area permanently.

If you are going to terribly miss running outside, you can try mixing up running outside with using a treadmill indoors. At the same time, you can do other things to mitigate the negative effects of air pollution on your body.

Doctors recommend taking vitamin C and vitamin E supplements to fight off the negative effects of pollutants in the air. Talk to your personal doctor before taking these supplements.

If you are a runner with asthma, do not run outside. You will have to stick to indoor activity. You should also take steps to reduce your exposure to bad air. Do not go outside when air quality is worst during the day. Avoid walking outside in the smog. If you are planning a jog, go to waqi.info, or a similar website, to check the quality of the air for the day.

Tired runner at a table with water


Overall, it’s best to avoid running or jogging in bad air as it severely impairs your body’s ability to effectively absorb oxygen. You will also put yourself at risk for a host of diseases because of bad air.

So, keep your running indoors if you live in a smoggy city. Or try driving out of the city for a run. Do not stop running just because there is bad air where you live.

Not exercising causes health problems just as bad air does. Find a workaround to polluted air and don’t let matters out of your hands get in the way of staying fit.

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