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Running on fumes

13 June, 2012 0 comments


running on fumes

We runners dream of the summer months - a time to dig out the shorts and head into the great outdoors for a lovely breath of fresh air. The only problem is that ‘fresh’ air may not be exactly what we’re getting.

“Concentrations of airborne particulates and the gases nitrogen dioxide and ozone - or, most likely, a combination of all three – are elevated in areas of high pollution,” warns Professor Frank Kelly, chairman of The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP). “While ozone tends to be higher in rural areas than in cities, particulate and nitrogen dioxide concentrations are usually higher in cities.”

In fact, if your favourite run winds around a busy road or through heavy traffic, you could be loading your lungs with harmful air pollutants in the form of cigarette smoke, car exhaust fumes and particles in the atmosphere. The result? The pollution may irritate your airways, compromising both your workout and your health.


But there is some positive news - research shows that the levels of air pollution are much lower now than they were in the 1950s. However, the most recent data also reveals air pollution causes annual health costs of around £15bn to UK citizens. “Exposure to elevated levels of pollution can increase hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions,” agrees Professor Kelly. “The effects of pollutants will not be obvious to many people most of the time but it can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions, which may be noticed by sensitive individuals.” According to Asthma UK, two-thirds of people with asthma report that traffic fumes make their asthma worse and 85 per cent are concerned about the effect that fumes will have on their health.


That’s not to say that non-asthmatics needn’t worry about airborne toxins. Studies show that runners are also vulnerable to air pollutants when training outside. One such study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2010, found that higher levels of pollutant particles in the air were associated with slower running times for female marathon runners. Of course, it’s not just women marathoners who may be affected by air pollution. Previous research has shown that people running a marathon inhale and exhale roughly the same volume of air as a sedentary person does over two days, which could easily increase exposure to airborne contaminants. “Runners usually spend more time outside than the general population, and this can increase their exposure to air pollution,” suggests Professor Kelly. “Even some people without asthma may find that they are sensitive to high levels of ozone and have discomfort breathing when exercising in hot conditions.”


So, what’s the answer? Retreat to the gym to crank up the mileage on the treadmill? No, of course not. After all, running outside is one of the best ways to bolster your fitness, battle boredom, boost your levels of vitamin D, improve bone density and elevate your mood, as well as put your coordination, core stability and balance to the test. You just need to minimise exposure to potential problems with these tips...


Avoid the rush

Traffic fumes can be responsible for up to 70 per cent of air pollution, so avoid jogging along busy roads during rush hour. Better still, avoid roads completely by planning a route that sticks to green areas. There are plenty of tools online to help you do this such as our mapping tool (


Take your time

When you run can be as important as where you run when it comes to reducing your exposure to air toxins. Air pollution tends to be worse on days when there is little wind to disperse the pollution, while ozone pollution can be particularly bad during the afternoon or when it’s hot in rural areas.


Find out more

Check the air pollution reports and don’t run when pollution is ‘high’ or ‘very high’, especially if you have noticed the effects of airborne pollutants while exercising. Websites, or, as well as many smartphone apps, will help keep you informed about air quality.


Do your bit

If no pollution is created, there’s no need to avoid it - so you can do your bit for the environment by reducing the amount of pollution that you create. Walk or cycle instead of using the car, and share a vehicle when possible.

Further information on air pollution is available on the COMEAP website at 



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