Study: Air pollution exposure leads to slower NCAA race times

According to a recent study from Stanford, Columbia, and Mount Sinai researchers believe air pollution is affecting race times of NCAA track & field events.

Researchers found that runners competing in 5K races in areas with air pollution levels that fall in the Air Quality Index’s (AQI) good-to-moderate classifications were associated with slower race times.

pollutionA recent story from The Stanford Daily detailed what researchers found in regard to the AQI affecting NCAA race times.

Below is an excerpt from The Stanford Daily story.

“These findings reinforce the accumulating research indicating that even low-level air pollution can hold people back from achieving optimal performance across various domains, including athletics and cognitive ability,” said co-author Nicholas DeFelice, an assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at the School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

High air pollution events, like the recent wildfires in California, have impacted many sporting events, due to smoky air conditions. However, research on the impact of lower air pollution levels on athlete’s performance has been limited, according to first author Marika Cusick.

Based on data from 46 universities across the United States, the researchers examined the performance of 334 NCAA male track and field athletes. From there, the study mapped race times with air pollution values athletes experienced prior to their races, combining 20 days of pollution exposure data at their university training location with data from the day of and day prior at the meet location.

“From the study, we can’t really make any conclusions about the health of the athletes; it’s purely focusing on running performance,” said Cusick, who is a second-year Stanford PhD student in health policy in decision sciences. “We started looking into this because we thought it could be an interesting way for people to start caring about the fact that [air pollution] does affect athletic performance.”

For many track athletes, this study confirms what they say they’ve recognized in their sport for years.

Based on his experience as Stanford’s Director of Track and Field and Cross Country, J.J. Clark agreed with the findings of the study. “We’ve had student-athletes who were struggling with air quality in those ranges and had to stop running,” he said.

Cusick hopes that this study can help change current NCAA policies on air pollution. Currently, the NCAA states that when air pollution levels are at an AQI of 300 or above, which is the “hazardous” classification: “outdoor activities should be moved indoors or canceled if indoor activity is not an option.” However, the policies for monitoring less extreme air pollution levels are vague, stating that event coordinators should “consider” moving indoors.

To read the full story from The Stanford Daily, click here.