Healthy Running in Smoky Conditions

Wildfires are ripping through California, and as powerful winds sweep through the state, the death toll climbs and firefighters are stretched to the limit.

Officials have issued unhealthy air quality warnings throughout the San Francisco Bay area, leading to the cancellation of historic races such as the Monterey Half Marathon and the North Face 50 mile due to the unsafe running conditions.

Keeping up our fitness routine is a low priority for many in California. Nonetheless, it prompts the question of whether or not it is safe to continue to exercise despite the low air quality. The American Lung Association advises limiting activity and exposure if you’re sensitive to smoke. But would a few days of running outside and breathing smoke really do much damage?

The answer is yes, yes it does. Here is how to stay healthy when it’s smoky.

Why Wildfire Smoke Makes You Sick

Wildfire smoke includes particles from burning vegetation and building materials mixed with gases from the flame itself. If your eyes sting, smoke exposure could also be inflicting other damage. Vegetation and building particles are likely getting into your respiratory system.

Symptoms of exposure include chest pain, a fast heartbeat or wheezing or bring on an asthma attack. Besides coughing and trouble breathing, many people experience symptoms similar to a sinus infection, such as headaches, sore throat, a runny nose and tiredness.

The Center for Disease Control says smoke can be especially harmful to the elderly, pregnant women, children and people with chronic heart and lung diseases. Because children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and their airways are still developing, they may experience more severe symptoms.

Active people are especially sensitive to smoke. Exercise causes deeper breathing and more particulates traveling through our respiratory system. Breathing the polluted air triggers inflammation and oxidative stress that increases your risk of asthma, stroke and heart failure.

Is The Workout Really Worth it?

Wind direction plays a pivotal role in air safety. Checking weather satellites can help you plan a route that avoids the downwind smoke. You also need to check news updates on the fire’s growth, its damage and road closures.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index provides real-time updates about the levels of pollution in the air. It’s valuable information for determining whether outdoor activities are a good idea.

Finally, base your decision off what’s right in front of you. Don’t trust a dust mask to protect you if smoke compromises your vision. In addition to fine particles, wildfire smoke also contains a mixture of gases, including toxic carbon monoxide, that the masks don’t filter out.

If you’re experiencing irritation, such as a cough or stinging eyes, keep your workouts indoors or just rest until the smoke clears.