From ParkRuns to Podiums: Navigating Air Quality in the World of Sports

We've been investigating the impact of air pollution on sports, performance and health 🏃‍♂️🍃

Will Hicks
March 23, 2024

For many of us around the world, sports and the environment are an essential source of joy, community, health and wellbeing. Together, they enable us to live a fulfilling life. However, they are increasingly under threat from air pollution. In our latest blog, we look at the impact of air pollution in sports, backed by compelling anecdotes, insights from our user research and experts and the latest research.

Lungs work overtime during sporting activities, drawing in air at rates over 100 litres per minute during intensive activity. Young athletes and long-distance runners are especially vulnerable to polluted air, which leads to decreased lung function, heightened cardiovascular stress, and an escalated risk of respiratory issues. Swollen lung tissues, increased mucus production, and reduced oxygen uptake from air pollution ultimately diminishes athletes stamina, performance, and recovery periods. Exposure to high particulate matter and ozone concentrations in the days leading up to your 5km ParkRun can increase race times by 12 seconds (this is the difference between an Olympic gold medal and 13th place). In the German Bundesliga, footballers’ physical activity gets 15% slower in poor air quality.

The problem is gaining global recognition. Initiatives like the World Athletics Air Quality Project and UEFA’s Cleaner Air, Better Game campaign are essential in highlighting this issue. World Athletics President Seb Coe suggested that air pollution could kill London as a sporting capital.  Increasing awareness of the impact of air pollution on health and performance is an essential first step, so we reached out to over thirty athletes across a range of sports—running, cycling, triathlon, football, cricket, and golf. Our athletes’ panel ranged from amateur enthusiasts to elites and professionals, with some training for the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. While there was a unanimous acknowledgement of the health risks posed by air pollution, many were surprised to learn about its specific impact on athletic performance.

Travis Bramley, an international gravel cyclist from Devon, highlights the respiratory issues sometimes experienced by riders after races or intense efforts, which could be attributed to particulate matter. He also points out the noticeable effects of cycling through areas of high car traffic during training. Both examples underscore the acute impact of air pollution on athletes' health and performance. Elise Windsor-Smith, a triathlete based in Australia competing in the Ironman World Championships, described how air pollution from bushfires has disrupted her training regimes. Claire Cashmore MBE, who is training for her 6th Paralympic Games, emphasised the critical need for precise, high-quality data on pollution hotspots. Alex Collins, a London-based ultramarathon runner, is also concerned by air pollution during long training sessions and intentionally slows his pace down at traffic congestion points.

Whilst awareness is important, Air Aware Labs is going further: we are working on building actionable solutions to solve this problem of personal exposure.  We are combining detailed, real-time air pollution data with the activity tracking capabilities of fitness and active travel based apps. Based on feedback from our panel, we are initially integrating our services within existing location-based services to enable athletes to plan training sessions in areas with cleaner air, whilst also minimising personal exposure.

We are keen to speak with anyone who is concerned by air pollution during their sporting activities or who wishes to test our emerging solutions - please send us a message and share your experiences of air pollution in the comments.