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Sports and environment: does air quality affect athlete performance?

Sports and environment are two aspects that, generally, go together, being usual to see people exercising in both urban and natural outdoor spaces. In fact, sports practice is one of the main medical recommendations aimed at improving people’s health. But what happens when this physical activity takes place in an environment with questionable air quality? What effect does pollution have on sports performance and the health of people who practice sports?

Exercise in polluted environments

The health benefits of sport outweigh the negative impact of exposure to a certain level of air pollution (Giles & Koehle, 2013). But when the air quality is bad, these positive effects are reduced, and it may even be counterproductive to exercise outdoors.

In order to better understand the effect of air pollution, it is necessary to take into account the changes experienced by a person’s breathing when doing sports (Carlisle, 2001; Aydın, Cingi, San, Ulusoy & Orhan, 2013; Laeremans et al., 2018):

  • Increased ventilation per minute, which can lead to an increase in respiration frequency, causing the amount of inhaled contaminants to be higher.
  • Multiplication of the fraction of air that is inhaled through the mouth, thus avoiding the filtering mechanism provided by the nose.
  • Increase in the velocity of the air flow that enters the lungs and transports the contaminants deeper into the respiratory system.

Therefore, and taking into account these physiological responses, knowing what air quality is like is fundamental. ENVIRA provides this information thanks to the use of calibrated sensors in accredited laboratories that can be installed in sports facilities, public roads or in spaces frequented by professional or amateur athletes.

What is the turning point?

There are scarce research works that propose limits of pollutants from which to do sport can be detrimental. In the establishment of these ranges, diverse variables concur, such as the age of the participants or the intensity of the exercise.

However, Grotto (2017) suggests, for example, the following limit values ​​for PM2.5 particles, from which it is estimated that it would be necessary to cancel sports activities outdoors:

Regarding the duration of the exercise in contaminated environments, Pasqua et al. (2018), citing previous articles, points out that “the health benefits that aerobic exercise provides could be mitigated after only 15 minutes of exercise in the most polluted cities. In addition, after 75 minutes, the additional exercise can cause adverse health effects due to exposure to air pollution”.

Three examples of the effect of pollution on sport

In order to show more clearly what effect pollution has on the performance of athletes, we have selected three sports that are usually carried out in the open air with a large number of practitioners: athletics / running, cycling and soccer.


Running has become a popular sport due to its low cost and minimal required skills. But its practice in polluted environments may not be advisable. Thus, Pun & Ho (2019) suggest that inhalation of suspended particles is associated with an increase in systolic blood pressure after the exercise.

  • Selection of the location or route.
  • Check the air quality for that area in web pages, mobile applications and information panels that show the data collected by the air quality monitoring networks. These informative resources, which ENVIRA is responsible for installing and configuring, provide updated information to the population.
  • Avoid exercising during peak hours.

In the case of professional athletes, Guo & Fu (2019) estimate, for example, that a marathon runner among the top 10 would need almost 5 more minutes (12 minutes in the case of an average runner) to finish the race running in pollution conditions like those experienced in the 2014 Beijing Marathon (1).


The bicycle, in addition to having become a means of transport within the city, is an article that, every day, brings together hundreds of fans who pedal by sharing space with motor vehicles. And it is precisely this shared space that causes cyclists to be exposed to high levels of pollution. The studies carried out, such as that of Berghmans et al. (2009), point out that, in addition to NO2 and other compounds, cyclists inhale many particles in suspension, finding, however, differences in their concentration along a route. Thus, for example, traffic lights are “black spots” where particle pollution is triggered since the speed of vehicles is erratic.


Air pollution has endangered the celebration of football/soccer events in some countries. The FIFA under 17 World Cup held in India in 2017, for example, aroused the concern of both players and spectators because of the high pollution rates shown by some of the venues (2).

In this regard, it should be noted that various publications suggest that suspended particles have a clear negative effect on the performance of players. In fact, Lichter, Pestel, & Sommer (2017), in a study conducted in the German professional football league, suggest that a 1% increase in PM10 concentration leads to a 0.02% decrease in the performance of professional soccer players (measured by the number of passes in a match), also pointing out that “productivity decreases significantly if the concentration of particles exceeds the EU regulatory threshold of 50 micrograms per cubic meter, […] starting to materialize at around 20 micrograms per cubic meter”.

In summary, although sports practice is a healthy activity, it is necessary to consider the impact on health caused by air pollution, and it is convenient to balance the benefits of one and the negative effects of the other. In addition, at the same time, smart cities have a great challenge ahead with the implementation of actions that contribute to the improvement of the air quality of large cities.


  • (1) Associated Press (2014). Imagine running a marathon in heavy smog. That just happened in Beijing. https://mashable.com/2014/10/19/runners-wear-masks-as-beijing-marathon-is-held-in-heavy-smog/?europe=true#boTYVOXKaEqG
  • (2) Air pollution could put a dampener on the Under-17 Football World Cup. (2017). https://thewire.in/environment/u-17-football-world-cup-air-pollution
  • Aydın, S., Cingi, C., San, T., Ulusoy, S., & Orhan, İ. (2013). The effects of air pollutants on nasal functions of outdoor runners. European Archives Of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology, 271(4), 713-717. doi:http://doi.org/f5vr2t
  • Berghmans, P., Bleux, N., Panis, L., Mishra, V., Torfs, R., & Van Poppel, M. (2009). Exposure assessment of a cyclist to PM10 and ultrafine particles. Science Of The Total Environment, 407(4), 1286-1298. doi:http://doi.org/fhvwm9
  • Carlisle, A. (2001). Exercise and outdoor ambient air pollution. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 35(4), 214-222. doi:http://doi.org/cv43f4
  • Giles, L., & Koehle, M. (2013). The health effects of exercising in air pollution. Sports Medicine, 44(2), 223-249. doi:http://doi.org/f5r6vj
  • Grotto, I. (2017). Physical activity and sport competitions under severe air pollution conditions. Prehospital And Disaster Medicine, 32(S1), S190. doi: http://doi.org/c342
  • Guo, M., & Fu, S. (2019). Running with a mask? The effect of air pollution on marathon runners’ performance. Journal Of Sports Economics, 152700251882270. doi: http://doi.org/c344
  • Laeremans, M., Dons, E., Ávila-Palencia, I., Carrasco-Turigas, G., Orjuela-Mendoza, J., & Anaya-Boig, E. et al. (2018). Black carbon reduces the beneficial effect of physical activity on lung function. Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise, 50(9), 1875-1881. doi:http://doi.org/c34x
  • Litcher, A., Pestel, N., & Sommer, E. (2015). Productivity effects of air pollution: evidence from professional soccer. IZA Discussion Paper, (No. 8964). http://ftp.iza.org/dp8964.pdf
  • Pasqua, L., Damasceno, M., Cruz, R., Matsuda, M., Garcia Martins, M., & Lima-Silva, A. et al. (2018). Exercising in air pollution: the cleanest versus dirtiest cities challenge. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 15(7), 1502. doi: http://doi.org/gfc2cc
  • Pun, V., & Ho, K. (2019). Blood pressure and pulmonary health effects of ozone and black carbon exposure in young adult runners. Science Of The Total Environment, 657, 1-6. doi: http://doi.org/gfwz4p
Sports and environment: does air quality affect athlete performance?

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