The bushfire situation in Australia right now is unprecedented. As too, the weather we’re experiencing with it. But whilst we’re doing what we can (by donating time, money and resources to those who need it) the rest of the country needs to somehow continue with life as usual. And this includes training.
But how exactly do you best manage an outdoor session without breathing in harmful levels of smoke and dealing with high humidity?
Let’s start with the effects of smoke inhalation. The harm is done when small particles, listed in air quality indexes as “PM2.5”, penetrate deeper into the lungs. These smaller particles are more harmful than bigger, more visible smoke particles that are associated with visibly thick air pollution. Prolonged exposure has been known to cause respiratory illnesses in previously healthy athletes without existing lung conditions, not to mention the effects for those of us with existing respiratory conditions.
In Australia, we have never seen such dense and prolonged levels of bushfire smoke pollution, so it’s hard to predict how dangerous it is to train in smoky conditions. That said, if you have a known respiratory illness (even just mild asthma) or your training doesn’t actually require you to be outside, we’d suggest you stick to indoor training for the time being.
If you absolutely must get out in the heat and smoke, the key is to reduce the intensity or duration of your sessions.
As the mercury rises, it’s more difficult for the body to offload the heat generated by cells burning fuel, which leads to an increase in your bodies core temperature. The biggest factor affecting your training in hot weather is the body’s ability to cool down. Knowing that sometimes we’ll try to smash out that session anyway, our body has a natural defense mechanism which simply reduces how hard you can work in an attempt to gain control of the heat build up.
Put simply, a session completed in prolonged or extreme heat is going to be less beneficial than exercising in cooler conditions.
Some key tips for exercising in heat and smoke
- Check the weather forecasts for smoke, heat and wind to find the best opportunity to get outdoors. Keep an eye on PM2.5 score as best indicator of harmful air quality (See https://aqicn.org/city/sydney/ for current, recent and predicted levels of air quality in Sydney)
- Move training indoors with air conditioning if possible. It’s time to get creative with your sessions or throw in some cross training.
- If you need to train in smoky conditions, plan shorter outdoor sessions. Less exposure is more important than more training.
- In hotter conditions, adjust your high intensity sessions to have shorter intervals and longer rest breaks. This improves heat dissipation between reps.
- Limit and monitor total exposure to smoke each week. The best medical advice is to reduce exposure to fine particle pollution, so the higher the PM2.5 level, the less time you should spend training outdoors. Given that we’ve never experienced these conditions before, there are no defined numbers – just common sense.
- Whilst a well-fitted P2 mask can be effective for filtering out fine particles it will also restrict airflow through the mask, which significantly impacts your ability to work at high intensity. Use this for low-intensity outdoor sessions such as slow recovery runs or rides only.
- Use eye drops and moisturiser to reduce post-session irritation to skin and eyes