By Carl Valle
Modern athletes have more information than ever at their fingertips, and using that knowledge requires the right plan to recover deeper and faster. For years, I have seen mystery illnesses and poor regeneration, and wish I did more investigation of air quality. Training demands that rest be complete and without complications, and poor air quality certainly interferes in the recovery of an athlete.
Not surprisingly, many coaches in elite sport search for marginal gains by looking at small areas in performance that they can manipulate. However, from what we have seen, most of those cases need to focus on bigger factors. In this article, I tackle a fresh topic for SimpliFaster, an investigation into common and sometimes rare problems that can make a difference between an athlete winning or sitting on the sidelines.
The Horrors of What Athletes Will Breathe and What to Consider
You could argue that what I am sharing is fearmongering, and I will be honest—the goal is to wake the reader up to how bad the air quality is sometimes. Some environments are utopian, and the air is clean and pure, while in other areas simply walking outside is a health hazard. Take a look at Beijing, where training indoors is necessary because there is too much pollution outside.This article’s goal is to wake the reader up to how poor the air quality can be sometimes. Click To Tweet
Outdoors is not the only problem, however; indoor air is also a health hazard. Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers the radon scare that permeated the news cycle. I have visited plenty of training facilities nationally and internationally, and the conditions are awful sometimes, even for pro teams. There are moldy air conditioning vents, chemical fumes, and even biohazard areas left open and unorganized. Imagine being an elite athlete learning PRI breathing next to an air vent blowing dust and pollen particles. So many athletes in sports try to master breathing patterns, but have no clue what they are breathing in.
When I consider problem-solving, I try to look at the severity of the problem first. How many environments are bad, and how bad is the typical challenge we face? I spent years trying to polish the basics with training camps to get athletes a literal breath of fresh air, when I should have invested in a year-round air purifier for apartment living and for those in areas with low air quality. Summarizing my strategy, I think of the four following points:
Air Pollution: Depending on where you live, air quality can range from excellent to a major hazard. Most educated experts will point out that your zip code or coordinates are a general estimate, as specific issues such as where you train outdoors matter. A rural area is great if you are running on the trails, but a gym that is next to an auto body shop can mean trouble. Details matter, so look at specifics such as traffic areas, not just what city you live in. Air quality even affects when you train, as different parts of the year and day, as well as weather conditions, vary.
Altitude: Elevation is not for everyone, and neither is an altitude tent. Many athletes either live at altitude or simulate altitude, and while it’s nice to find ways to improve capacity, sometimes elevation comes with smog and is not worth it. Even if the air quality is good, altitude is simply stressful and may not be congruent with training programs and a coach’s calendar. Higher elevation challenges the body, and even if you are genetically gifted and acclimated to elevation, it’s still additional strain.
Stress Levels: You can move to the cleanest city in the world and make your home an example of perfect air quality, but it can all be wasted if you have sleep apnea and are not coping with stress well. Capnography research is very promising, but additional biomarkers such as inflammation measures are recommended to see the real internal cost of emotional stress on the system.
Indoor Air Quality: A new house or building is a risk, as new buildings are designed to run energy efficiently, meaning they trap air from insulating materials inside. Offices are known to cause health problems if they are not managed and evaluated, as building codes are generally a little lax. Newer laws have changed the definition of a safe workplace, but sometimes even compliant offices have issues such as poor circulation during cold and flu season and other difficult factors. Offices are not like restaurants, as boards of health look for violations that may cause disease or injury, not optimization of health.
Many variables exist beyond the primary four mentioned, but stick with the list first before exploring tangents or smaller factors.
Testing Your Home: Hire a Professional and DIY Methods
Athletes are all about performance, and not necessarily health. With some sports, like swimming, an athlete is either in the pool or weight room, and they spend a lot of time resting from heavy training, usually indoors. Heavy training and multiple sessions usually mean athletes are going to relax and rest inside most of the time.If an athlete spends most of their day indoors, that time needs to be as healthy as possible. Click To Tweet
A typical athlete spends 16 hours indoors—the majority of the day—in a house or dormitory. A recreational athlete spends even more time indoors because they typically work at a job that increases the period of time even more. As you can see, nearly every coach talks about the other hours of training during a 24-hour period, but if it’s spent mainly indoors, shouldn’t that time be healthy for the athlete?
Toxic chemicals, allergens, mold, viruses, bacteria, and even harmful gases affect indoor air quality. Radon is still a problem, even with inspections and stricter standards put into law. Both long-term and short-term health make testing your residence and the athlete’s living quarters a very wise and ethical decision. Many good coaches and athletes simply don’t want to think about doing something productive because of budgets and the possible need to make changes if a problem is found to exist.
Getting a professional to test the air is a wise investment, as one round of assessments can identify the root problem, not just give you data on indoor air quality. Testing with a pro usually includes advice on what to do, but some companies offer the testing alone for a small fee and bundle the consulting into a larger package. Some testing services are not exhaustive, such as mold testing. The broader the test battery, the more expensive the testing. Some companies can get immediate data, while other companies use monitors to see the issue over days to fully capture the whole story.
Some DIY testing products are available and going to a Home Depot or Lowes to buy them is OK, but home testing units are not sensitive enough to really know if a home is safe, and only some types of tests are valid. You can easily conduct radon and mold testing for small rooms, but it’s a good idea to look at the cleaning products and house paints first. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, could be a cause for those with sick homes who have no issue with mold or dust mites. Most of the DIY home kits look for obvious off-the-charts issues for those who have symptoms or know a problem is likely, and subtle issues over long periods of time worry me. Home testing is convenient in areas where expertise is not available, but I recommend doing both: getting an inspection before a move, and then a follow-up test with DIY options later.
Deep Sleep: Air Purifiers to the Rescue
One simple advantage an athlete can have is spending one-third of their day breathing in better air, and an air purifier can sometimes make a big difference. Indoor air can be worse than outside, as plenty of toxic chemicals are in a house, as well as natural problems like pollen and dust. Some available research supports the notion that air purifiers actually do make a difference, but only when the problem is a major issue. On one hand, there are homes in rural areas that have natural air passing through, and on the other hand, there are high-rise condos and apartments with central air and sealed windows that can be trouble.
While some athletes live in relatively healthy homes, travel in planes and stays in hotel rooms contribute to travel stress and general risk. In my experience, if you want to invest in changes, the use of a purifier in the bedroom is the most important step next to testing. It’s not going to make anyone into a champion, but it can keep talented athletes in the game by giving them the best opportunity of showing up at the competitions that matter.
Some purifiers have a light fan noise and, to me, it’s white noise with the additional benefit of clean air. A light breeze is nice and cooling, and it’s better to have a quality purifier in a smaller area such as a bedroom than in an open area of the house it can’t possible clear. Most purifiers are excellent at handling the problems that we take for granted, such as dust and allergy removal, and newer ones focus on mold, bacteria, and viruses.
We need more discussion about having a room clear of dust mites, as there is conflicting research. Dust mites are tiny creatures that feed on human skin flakes and mold. Using environmentally friendly cleaning agents, reducing the humidity in the air and constant vacuuming all contribute to the health of those who don’t tolerate dust mites. Also, proper cleaning and treatment of bed linens and pillows is highly recommended, since those are areas where dust mites are known to congregate.Pillows are the most important investment for health, after getting rid of pollution. Click To Tweet
Finally, pillows are the most important investment for health next to pollution. The reason is simple: They are closer to our airways and are known to be a cesspool of organisms, which sometimes include fungi and mildews that can lead to mold. It doesn’t matter if they are synthetic or natural, as both can be problematic. Some synthetics are also toxic, so doing your homework and getting the right pillow is everything. You even need to consider the way you wash your pillow, as the wrong process will not remove irritants. Remember: You can sweat gallons when you sleep, and that moisture increases the growth of various fungi and other living organisms.
Power Breathing and Mindfulness Breathing
As I shared earlier, a big issue we see is athletes affected by stress, which can render all the right environmental investments worthless. While it’s nice to live in a town that personifies clean air, sometimes we need to look inward if the outside environment is right. Interest in breathing training comes and goes every decade, each time promising the same benefits as the years earlier.
Learning to breathe better is great in isolation, but making a habit of knowing what could be causing restricted and shallow breathing is more important. Controlling autonomic state from mindfulness and mechanical breathing is a major advantage to recovery, and vegetative training is growing. While I love evaluating function of the body, coaches need to be careful about overthinking breathing and athletes. True, sometimes an athlete has a real dysfunction, but trends make any part of training too much of a big deal. Evaluating simple function of the respiratory system is foundational, and are part of the “key three” skills I consider paramount for athletes:
- Fully maximize oxygen transfer from proper inhalation and exhalation mechanics.
- Demonstrate motor control of breath during ballistic activities.
- Be able to stay comfortable breathing during fatigue or intense conditioning.
Great workouts teach great breathing, as most breathing retraining is usually necessary for serious, complex problems. Preparation methods, such as intense ballistic training, coordination exercises, and conditioning development, all promote power breathing. Candidates for actual breathing rehab are those that don’t respond to gentle prodding from conventional training. We should realize that breathing the cleanest air is a priority, and the inability to capitalize on that is a near tragedy. Pulmonary function tests have become nearly obsolete in North America, but you can add several protocols outside of typical spirometry or capnography.
A lot of strength and power training, such as heavy Olympic lifts and maximal force exercises, can reinforce good breathing habits. While it’s great to teach relaxation during calm periods of time, which is a benefit I believe in, during stress it’s important to focus on ensuring that function is still in effect. Coaching breathing isn’t just about lying down on a trainer’s table and blowing balloons—it’s about being in the wild and expressing it during fatigue and in high-demand environments.
Damage Control When Training Outside
All endurance athletes and speed and power athletes will eventually train and compete outdoors, but endurance athletes have a harder time staying indoors. A triathlete training inside is OK for short periods of time, but eventually getting outside will be necessary. Simply taking more antioxidants in the diet isn’t a solution, so looking at the air quality index and getting away from the city from time to time is key.
There is some promising and interesting research on parks in urban areas, but simply running in Central Park or similar isn’t enough if you do a lot of training right after rush hour (because of exhaust fumes, etc.). Outside of training at specific times, such as early morning, picking the right course may be enough if the area has less industrial activity. Even within a mile, the landscape of air quality can go from excellent to poor, so doing your homework as an athlete or coach makes all the difference.
If you can, choose an area that is more wooded as trees are enough to make a difference. Sometimes an extra 10-minute drive to a greener area is worth it. For example, in Boston, some areas are full of tall buildings that trap pollution, but running near the Charles River can be enough to really get the benefits of fresher air. The extra work of hunting for the right air quality location is worth it; you just have to do your homework in terms of timing and geography.
Lastly, training indoors is sometimes going to be a reality. Most athletes train indoors at the wrong time, meaning they do so when the weather is not cooperative instead of when the air quality is poor. Sometimes the heat makes pollution worse; sometimes there is more pollution in the air because of the burning of fuels during winter—no universal perfect time exists. It’s better to have a great workout with great air than the ideal conditions temperature-wise with poor air quality. When in doubt, train indoors in a facility or location that gets fresh air that you know is pollution-free.
Take Action and Manage Your Air
Don’t freak out about air pollution and air quality; just respect the realities of what happens when humans tamper with Mother Nature. The issue with air quality is that, in most cases, everyone else is dealing with the same problem, so don’t think that teams are winning because they are in better environments. Every location has its pros and cons, and some areas are better than others.Most teams have an air quality problem, so don’t think they’re winning due to a better environment. Click To Tweet
I have learned the hard way that putting your head in the sand and not “sweating the small stuff” is just hoping that you don’t discover a problem. Ignorance is not bliss as air quality is a health responsibility, not a marginal gains strategy. The next time you think about recovery methods, ask if the modality is more important than breathing good air, and soon you will make better investments. I believe in all of the methods that provide comfort or recovery, but nothing is more powerful than pure air in the modern age.