Spring here in Central Texas is a great time for running. The summer heat and humidity hasn’t kicked in yet but when it does, you can bet it will also usher in plenty of air pollution. In the spring, we suffer from pollen but in the summer the pollen is replaced with all sorts of disgusting air.
If you were paying attention during science class, you know the air we breathe contains more than just oxygen. There are all sorts of gasses in our air—some necessary for life and others that are deadly in certain doses.
By now, we all know that our earth is horribly polluted. Every continent—with the exception of Antarctica—has unhealthy levels of air pollution. And even Antarctica, has a pronounced hole in the protective ozone layer which we all need.
But clearly, the citizens of the major cities are at greatest risk to the ill effects of air pollution. A random sampling of air in the major cities of the United States contains a dozen or more harmful pollutants. With each deep breath, we inhale most of these pollutants. Needless to say, that can be a very real health hazard for us.
If you’re an Austin runner, you are at special risk because we are outside so much running around and breathing so deeply. How deeply? As runners, we move 10-20 times more air through our lungs than someone who is at rest and that unquestionably affects us.
Certainly, the fact that air pollution is harmful to all life forms isn’t exactly a news flash. The thick, noxious air in many of our big cities is a national calamity that impacts millions of Americans. It’s particularly bad during the summer when air quality is usually the worst. Especially in Austin and San Antonio, when the air is typically made even worse from the fires in Mexico that blows north.
Fortunately, our air isn’t as bad as some other American cities. Leading the way in this dubious distinction, is Los Angeles which annually has the greatest number of days when its air exceeds the pollution standard index. New York City, Denver and Chicago follow as American cities with the most unhealthful levels of air. But Austin and plenty of other cities have air that is deemed “unhealthful” at least a few times per month in the summer.
Although there are dozens of pollutants, a runner must be most concerned with four: carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur and ozone. Carbon monoxide is—by far—the primary pollutant. It is tasteless, odorless and colorless. CO2 occurs mainly as a byproduct of the combination of fossil fuels, such as coal and gas, and is most prevalent on busy roads or highways and industrial areas. The more we drive, the more we pollute our air. And the more we run, the more we breathe it in.
Carbon monoxide has a cumulative effect on us. As it diffuses into our blood through the lungs, it occupies the oxygen bonding sites on red blood cells. The CO2 is only slowly removed from our body and, as the amount of it in our blood increases, there is less and less blood available to carry oxygen.
For runners—for any athlete—this is not a good thing. In some cities that have especially heavy smog, your ability to exercise can be so adversely effected that heavy exercise like running is not advised. But even here, the smog and other pollutants can have a significant drop in our ability to process oxygen which makes running slower and more difficult.
The other three primary pollutants are just as noxious as CO2. The family of gasses containing nitrogen are varied and include, nitric acid which reacts with sunlight to form nitrogen dioxide, the pollutant which causes the yellow pall that suffocates many cities. Oxides of sulfur work to foul the flavor of the air and give it that revolting taste. This is usually the result of combustion of fossil fuels.
Ozone is a little different. It is actually essential to life and occurs naturally in the upper reaches of the atmosphere to screen out harmful rays of sunlight. But as pollution has increased, a second layer of ozone has formed near the surface of the earth which, when inhaled, is harmful.
All these pollutants are often trapped near the ground and not enough fresh wind is available to disperse these pollutants. Especially in summer. But the pollution levels can vary greatly during a day.
The air is freshest in the morning. It feels better because it is better. But the amount of pollution increases in big cities, such as Austin and San Antonio, during prime commuting hours as more vehicles hit the roads. Pollution also worsens as the sun rises because the sun intensifies the effects of pollution by stimulating secondary pollutants. As the day goes on and the sun becomes more intense, the air becomes dirtier, stinkier and more lethal.
You don’t need a Ph. D. to know that filthy, polluted air is a bad thing for runners and other life forms. Air pollutants irritate the tissues lining the air passages and lungs, resulting in an accumulation of fluid in the lungs and a reduction of the oxygen that gets delivered to them. This impacts runners with a wheezing and coughing, characteristic of asthmatics.
There’s no question that high concentrations of air pollution has all sorts of negative impacts on runners such as difficult breathing, increased coughing, irritated eyes and other irritants. Pollution also results in a drop off in your ability to run.
Just how detrimental is air pollution to your ability to run well? Extremely. One study in New York City of healthy, non-smoking runners showed that just 30 minutes of running in particularly high areas of air pollution, was the equivalent (in terms of carbon monoxide) to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. That’s why if you ran through the smoke and haze generated by the wild fires we had in 2011, you may have felt like a wheezing smoker afterward.
Making matters worse, air pollution can accumulate in a body exposed to it for longer periods. This can only have dangerous long-term effects as constant exposure to carbon monoxide is known to be a major factor in coronary heart disease.
Thus, it is absolutely crucial for runners living in major cities, such as San Antonio and Austin, with known dangerous levels of air to take several precautions.
Here are some tips to minimize the effects:
1. Run early. Air pollution rises during the day so an early-morning runner is exposed to less pollution than someone running in the afternoon or evening.
2. Avoid running near highways or busy roads. Air pollution is highest where the concentration of vehicles is highest. Running parallel to I-35 is never a good idea. If you must run near a highway, even staying 1-200 hundred meters away from it helps.
3. Take vitamin E and C supplements. Although this hasn’t been proven, there is some indication that taking those supplements can reduce the oxidizing effect of some of the worst chemicals in smog.
4. Monitor daily pollution levels. If the air quality is especially unhealthy, either reduce your run, don’t run that day at all or run indoors on a treadmill.