As of this morning, we can only hope the worst of the smoke that has inundated us from wildfires is over. This heavy concentration of wildfire smoke has really put a halt to outdoor activity for almost all of us. That is not to say that everyone has put their running, biking or hiking on hold. I have seen a number of brave and perhaps foolish folks on Centennial Trail getting their miles in, die hards to the end.
First of all, if you have been exerting yourself outside in all this smoke, you have negatively impacted your health and athletic performance. Since a healthy runner typically takes in roughly 20 times more air than when they are in a resting state, it is fair to say they are putting themselves in the short term at risk of both upper and lower airway dysfunction.
The biggest reason for a significant drop in performance while exercising is that during a poor air quality event, particulates and oxidants slow oxygen bonding in your red blood cells. Once your red blood cells are compromised even a small amount, your performance drops quickly. Often the better your VO2 Max (which is the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use) the more you feel the impact of poor air quality even in elite athletes. Studies done around both the L.A. and Beijing Olympics found that after just two hours of exposure to poor air quality, some athletes saw an 11 percent decrease in their performance.
Since wildfire smoke contains a fairly high number of particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, they can enter your respiratory system very easily. Since this heavy smoke usually only lasts a short time, exposure only causes minor issues for most of us: runny eyes, a runny nose, scratchy throat, bronchitis, loss of energy and even depression. The good news is most healthy, active people generally are not effected long term by high levels of these particulates in the air. The bad news is that for people with pre-existing health conditions, this season is brutal on their health.
When is it safe to head out and start being active again? The basic guideline you should use is to avoid outdoor activities until air quality levels drop below 100. If you must get out in the smoke while the levels are still above 100, pace yourself and monitor your heart rate and respiratory exertion.
One question that has come up, does wearing a mask help in these smokey conditions when exercising outdoors? I have seen a couple of runners wearing a basic dust mask and unfortunately, those do little to keep the particulates out. However, you can buy anti-pollution masks, but make sure they have an N95 or higher rating to be effective for exercise.
Keep an eye on the Air Quality Index chart or (AQI). First, lets get a basic understanding of the AQI:
The Air Quality Index was developed to help people understand the levels of particles in the air. The higher the level of particles, the higher the chance of irritation you may experience with sinus, throat, lungs, eyes and respiratory irritation. These levels are rated between 0 and 500 and the higher the warning, the greater the risk factors can be for people with pre-existing conditions and for active people outside on the go.
Air Quality Index
101-150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
151 to 200 Unhealthy
201 to 300 Very Unhealthy
301 to 500 Hazardous
One of the best ways to evaluate the air quality is simply establish if visibility is less than 5 miles due to the density of the wildfire smoke. A great example is looking toward any of our regional mountains and noticing just how obscure they are. If you have a hard time seeing hills and mountains in the distance, then conditions have become very unhealthy. For both active people and folks with health conditions, its best to move your activity indoors or just have a few down days.
When air quality has been in the very unhealthy category as it has the last week, which for us has been hovering around 240 on the AQI chart, and you have spent a fair amount of time outside, it may take you a day or two to get back to your normal levels of athletic performance.
Keep in mind if you are an asthmatic, be very careful exercising during and even for a short time after the air seems to be clearing up. Even a small amount of poor air quality conditions can irritate your asthma condition leading to an asthma event very quickly.
Keep an eye on the air quality index at airnow.gov in your area. The problem with air quality is it moves around and a news forecast may not give you accurate air quality levels for your specific area.
If you do decide to go for an endurance type workout outside or participate in local activities during this unpleasant series of wildfires, be aware that your oxygen intake will be certainly impaired, your performance will suffer and you may experience discomfort both during and after your outside efforts are done.
Judd Jones is a director for The Hagadone Corporation and Certified Health Coach.