Should I Run in Wildfire Smoke ?

Much of the west is on fire and it’s still early in the season. These early season wildfires have inundated many PNW towns and cities with visible smoke, and with this new blanket of smoke, many athletes are questioning  the safety and practicality of exercising in these conditions. And rightfully so! Is it safe to run in these conditions ?

Let’s break it down!

First off, what is smoke? Smoke is a mixture of different chemicals, vapors, minerals, and particulate matter.  The levels of these chemicals and matter (nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, etc.) vary depending on many different factors relating to the fuel that’s burning as well as environmental factors. The biggest concern for us humans (and our animals) with wildfire smoke exposure, is particulate matter. These tiny particulates (solids and liquids suspended in the air) can be inhaled into the deepest part of the lungs causing a plethora of serious health issues. Don’t believe me ? (I’ve seen some of you running around out there without masks).  Read the following excerpt from Page 13 of “Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials” Published by the EPA, CDC, USFS, and California Air Resources Board:

“The effects of smoke range from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more
serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death … short-term exposures (i.e., days to weeks) to fine particles, a major component of smoke, are linked with increased premature mortality and aggravation of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Children, pregnant women, and elderly are also especially vulnerable to smoke exposure. In addition, fine particles are respiratory irritants, and exposures to high concentrations can cause persistent cough, phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty
breathing. Exposures to fine particles can also affect healthy people, causing respiratory
symptoms, transient reductions in lung function, and pulmonary inflammation. Particulate matter may also affect the body’s physiological mechanisms that remove inhaled foreign materials from the lungs, such as pollen and bacteria.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s not something I’m willing to risk for a few days or weeks of heavy training. So what are our best options to stay fit while our beautiful trails and streets are blanketed in wildfire smoke ? Is it practical to continue training ? Is it worth it ?

The best thing you can do is take your activity indoors AND reduce the duration. When we exercise, our air intake rises 10 to 20 fold over resting levels, which means you run the risk of breathing in 10 to 20 times more particulates while exercising in a polluted environment. But why do we need to reduce the duration of our activities ? Isn’t being inside good enough ? Well, simply because you’re indoors, doesn’t mean you’re not being exposed to the harmful particulates you can see outside. Even in air conditioned homes using recirculated air, particulate can matter penetrate the structure and it’s ineffective filters, leaving humans susceptible to harmful particulates.

Keep in mind too, that moving your strenuous activity into your garage is not going to protect you from the irritants outside. Because of poor insulation and a lack of air filtration in most garages, air quality in your garage is likely to be similar to the air quality outside. If you do decide to continue exercising indoors at the same volume you have been exercising, consider doing so at a commercial gym, in a newer building, with a high quality air filtration system.

If you insist on going outside, wear a particulate respirator rated N95 higher. Covering your face with a bandana, buff, or even a one strap medical mask will not protect you from breathing in particulate matter. You must use a particulate respirator with a rating of N95 or higher; this will capture 95% of particles, but it must fit properly with a good seal – sorry guys, the beard has to go! Just keep in mind that you’ll be transporting less oxygen to your working muscles and brain; you’ll need to SLOW DOWN, take breaks, and listen to your body.

You can find an approved mask here.

And learn how to properly fit and use your mask here.

Before you make a decision to cease, reduce, or bring your activity indoors, it’s a good idea to check the air quality in your local area by using the EPA’s AirNow website here. The Air Quality Rating scale from the EPA is as follows:



It’s important to note too that not everyone will be negatively effected by short term wildfire smoke exposure. Healthy individuals who do experience symptoms are likely to make a quick recovery and will, in most cases, not have long term health issues due to this type of smoke exposure.  Even so, when any of my healthy athletes ask for my opinion on exercising in smokey conditions, my answer is always the same: Don’t risk it. Keep your global goals in mind. Stay healthy, stay happy, and remember that this too shall pass. This is a great time for unplanned recovery.