Running is smoke can have lifelong effects that just aren’t worth it.
As it quickly becomes fire season out west, some of the most common questions I see is:
Can you run in smoky air?
How do you run in smoky air?
Is running in smoky air dangerous?
Is running during wildfire season dangerous?
Should you run outside when it’s smoky?
What is AQI?
I will never forgot the day I went outside in Northern California at 8 am and it was dark and smoky. I thought: is it actually 8 am? I thought I was mistaken. It was dark. I realized then that running in the smoky air probably wasn’t the best. But poor air quality isn’t limited to just smoke. What many people don’t realize is that running in smoke can damage your lungs for life and that just isn’t worth it.
Like anything, the best option is the safe option. No run is worth damaging yourself for years to come.
What AQI is deemed “Unsafe” for Running?
I had no idea what AQI even meant until I lived on the west coast. AQI stands for air quality index and it is a range. The higher the AQI, the worst quality the air is. Rarely there is an AQI with “0” but anything below 50 is still deemed healthy. AQI is simply a quantify air quality.
AQI uses five major air pollutants regulated by the clean air act.
- Particulate matter (PM)
- Carbon monoxide
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Sulfur dioxide
The higher the AQI, the more dangerous it is. You’ll likely see an AQI rating on your weather app on your phone, but what do the ratings mean? I didn’t even notice until I moved out west.
- Under 50: The air is generally clean and ok.
- 51-100: The air is safe for most people, but those with breathing issues such as asthma might take more precautions.
- 101-150: The air is problematic for sensitive groups. What does sensitive mean? Typically those with existing lung and heart conditions, including heart failure and asthma. Most other people should start moving workouts indoors or decrease the length of time they are reworking out.
- 150+: It’s time to move workouts inside.
- 300+: Try to stay indoors as much as possible. It’s not safe to even be outside, let alone work out.
While this is just “me” and how I handle smoke, I may do an easy run in AQI up to 100. I won’t run hard efforts in 51-100 and anything above 100, I prefer to run indoors. Running in smoke just doesn’t do it for me, and while I’ve done a few runs in smoke up to 150, I felt like garbage afterward and it wasn’t worth it.
What happens if you run in smoke or work out in bad air quality?
First, it feels like you’re just running through secondhand smoke. Why would anyone want to do that? Seriously think of running on a treadmill and someone just smoking a cigarette next to you. That’s what it feels like when you run in smoke.
Here are some more dangerous effects of running in smoke:
- It impacts the immune system. You could easily get sick!
- Less oxygen to support the muscles and slower recovery.
- Itchy eyes, burning throat, brutal to breathe.
Long-term effects of running in smoke are still relatively unknown:
But keep this in mind. When you are running through wildfire smoke, you are generally breathing in both carcinogens from the air as well as metal. Those can’t be good for you long term, and no one run is worth damaging your health for the rest of your life.
Smoke fire is made up of gases and fine particles produced when wood burns. These fine pieces usually have less than 2.5-millimeter diameter. When running outdoors, you breathe them in, which can become embedded in the lungs and bloodstream and cause inflammation. Regular exposure to these particles can cause both heart and lung disease.
One of the main issues with running long-term in poor air quality is how the body needs to process the heavy metals and carcinogens from the air. And this is where thinking about not just today’s run, but your long-term running can help you make a choice.
So you live in a wildfire area. How can you run outside when the air quality is terrible?
Check a website such as AirNow each time you head out for a run. You might be able to find a better local area just based on how the wind is blowing. It might just be best to run inside that day. Ask yourself: is running outdoors worth a severe health condition? Probably not. Usually, the answer is no.
Safety is always the best answer. If you are concerned the air quality might not be good enough to run outside…then don’t. There is no shame about running indoors or on the treadmill (or just not running that day).
Questions for you:
How do you protect yourself from harmful air quality?
What is the smokiest air you’ve seen?
For a few days in Napa, it was above 500 Aqi.