Running in Bad Air Quality with the Lahore Runners
Occasionally having to navigate running on days of poor air quality can be difficult, but it’s a daily consideration in Lahore, Pakistan, which has the worst air quality in the world.
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9pm June 27, 2023 - Chicago laid claim to having the worst air quality in the world. Murky images of a hazily-obscured city skyline, comparable to a scene from dystopian sci-fi epic Blade Runner, circulated the internet causing much discussion.
Usually averaging an air quality index (AQI) of 9, Chicago’s AQI that day was 175.
The drifting Canadian wildfire smoke that caused the Illinois sky to turn orange is stretching across the US once again, negatively affecting the air for an estimated 20% of US residents.
Here in California, wildfire season was generally accepted as May through October, but lately seems to have extended to being a year-round thing. We’re used to it here. We’re prepared for it… in theory. We know it happens, at least!
That meant that some of that online dialogue centered around West Coasters bizarrely dunking on their East Coast compatriots seemingly not knowing how to deal with breathing in vast quantities of very dangerous smoke. Wildfire one-upmanship. What a world.
People that don’t usually need to check their local air quality before going outside were asking questions about whether they should exercise or whether their COVID masks would help or what to do if the windows don’t close and they have infants at home.
The good news for Americans is that the air quality is generally ok. Los Angeles has its smog, of course, causing an average AQI of 12 - the highest in the USA - and wildfires temporarily make the air quality awful, but it’s temporary. L.A. largely has an AQI of single figures, which is fantastic for outdoor activity.
That’s not the case everywhere, however. I spoke with Babar Riaz from the Lahore Runners to find out what it’s like to run in the city that was crowned earlier this year to have the worst air quality in the world, averaging 97 AQI annually.
“We have a very small window of running during the year. Even these days, it’s very difficult to run, but still we are running,” he laughs.
Traditionally, July and August have the best AQI in Lahore (around 50) but with lows of 27°C/80°F and highs of 35°C/95°F, temperatures are very high to be exercising outdoors. Currently the AQI there is 140. There are no fires. That’s just what the air is like in a city of 11 million people. Pakistan has the third worst air quality in the world.
A heavily-polluting sulfur-based fuel used in the megacity’s vehicles contributes much of that, with shrinking green belts, ever-increasing construction, and poor urban planning compounding the problem. It will take time for any legislated mitigations to be felt by the Pakistani people.
Do you check Lahore’s AQI before running?
“Frankly speaking, no. We’re too used to it, so we just go for the run. The worst time for air quality is November and December (AQI 190), but still we run. When we go out and it looks like there is a lot of smoke, we try to avoid that. Not to run for three months is very difficult.”
Have you noticed any ill effects?
“Last year I had difficulty breathing and the doctor said, ‘You’re becoming pre-asthmatic . You need to avoid running.’ I took rest for a few days but again, I was on the road because once you are running outside, in the parks or on the roads, it's difficult to run on the treadmill.”
The US AQI is the Environmental Protection Agency’s index for monitoring air quality. It measures 5 major pollutants from the Clean Air Act (ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide) and calculates an easily-understood figure.
When there are wildfires, it’s the particle pollutants that make up the smoke that are the major concern - especially PM2.5. They are microscopic particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter that can pass directly from the lungs into the bloodstream.
Running in air with an AQI of over 150 can result in shortness of breath and eye irritation. Due to the decreased oxygen and reduced deep breathing, cramping and side stitches will occur more quickly. Respiratory infections can follow from breathing in so much particulate matter, so deeply.
How can you find out the air quality near you?
You don’t need to sit in front of the TV and wait for the news. It’s as simple as going to your browser and searching the internet for “AQI.”
You’ll likely be served the the government-approved site of whatever country you’re in first, and then another one using that data. That’s AirNow.gov in the US and IQAir.com. Next, you can enter your location and you’ll get up-to-the-minute readings of the air quality in your area.
I have the IQAir app on my phone and that is updated regularly with the AQI wherever I am, but plenty of options exist.
What can you do on a day with exceptionally bad AQI?
The best solution is to exercise indoors with a HEPA air purifier, but as Babar points out, running on a treadmill is no match for running outdoors. Maybe convince yourself that some strength training or a yoga session is a good substitute, because both are.
If you must run outdoors in poor air quality, however, the advice is to wear a well-fitting mask. Yeah, like the ones we got during the pandemic or when sanding the wooden trim in your house.
Personally, I am extra cautious and do not run when the AQI is over 100. That’s a personal choice. I run primarily for my health - I’m not training for any races - so I can be vigilant and not worry about introducing any negatives.
Here is a handy chart that I made. Maybe it’ll help.
Back to discussing the running scene in Pakistan, Babar talks excitedly about an emerging long-distance running scene, with a full marathon in Islamabad the most well-established race. Organized by Islamabad Run With Us, the capital city hosted over 1,500 runners for the third iteration in January 2023.
Babar himself hopes to add to Pakistani running culture by organizing a race in Lahore later this year, maybe a half-marathon. Otherwise, he bemoans a lack of consistency and desire among Pakistan’s general population, acknowledging the difficult climate (85% humidity), a preference for cricket, and the wonderfully distracting food.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Why are you running? You should go join some gym.’ I try to motivate them. This is the best sport I have ever seen. This is something you can do ‘til the last breath of your life.”
Lahore Runners came to be back in 2018. Babar was running alone in Race Course Park AKA Jilani Park in the middle of Lahore. Along the 2.7km (1.7mi) track, he met a friend, and then another, until they decided to run together.
“The idea was to promote distance running and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
“When you go to Islamabad, where you have embassies, you have more foreigners, you see a lot of people running. In Lahore, the community is growing. Because we have blue shirts when we have group runs on Sundays, people ask what we’re doing.”
“One of the achievements is that we have a lot of new runners who were beginners - they were walking - but now they're running.”
Indeed, last month they boasted 100 people at a time trial event, but there’s also a very practical aspect to how Lahore Runners have built the community in regards to the air quality.
“We plan our year. This year we planned that most of the runners will complete 1500km (930mi), so we started a challenge. First they had to run 500km (310mi) in the first quarter, because those months were good weather, so we kept a higher goal.”
With 400km (240mi) in Q2 and 300km (185mi) in the blistering Q3, that leaves a smaller percentage of distance to be run in the months with the worst air quality. These distances are all adjusted for ability, as well.
It’s a smart training technique. I do similar. Right now, and for the next 3 months, running in Los Angeles is utterly miserable due to the summer heat and then the autumn/fall usually gets smoky, so I try to load up on miles in the winter and spring as much as possible.
While the running culture in Pakistan might not be as strongly embedded into society as it is in New York or Los Angeles, Babar and the Lahore Runners are doing everything right, and with a pure heart.
“We are trying to build this culture where you can change the distance, get used to every type of weather during the year, and stay connected to the sport. You should not run for two or three months, then leave running.”
“For Lahore Runners, motivating people to keep running regularly is the basic thing that we are focusing on.”
“We just want people to run.”
Don’t we all.
Follow Lahore Runners on Instagram and do go and download an air quality app of your choice so you can easily monitor nearby AQI on your phone.
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