Athletes struggling to breathe in the Windy City are up against stronger forces than just the city’s infamous gusts. Air pollution triggers asthma symptoms for many Chicago runners and cyclists, whether they know it or not.
Take local runner Emily McCoy, 20. McCoy competed for two years at the NCAA Division 1 level for Loyola University’s cross country and track teams and couldn’t understand why she was having so much trouble breathing.
“It was so frustrating because the rest of my body would feel fine but my breathing would be getting shorter and shorter and shorter,” McCoy complained.
She reported her breathing difficulties to Loyola’s athletic trainers who encouraged her to get an asthma inhaler prescription. McCoy later visited a doctor who conducted breathing tests and determined she had both exercise-induced asthma and vocal cord dysfunction.
Before learning of her health conditions, the long-distance runner repeatedly had to cut short her running and training workouts.
McCoy’s struggle is common among many athletes throughout Chicago and beyond. Two of her teammates, Kelly Janokowicz and Cassie Bloch, also suffer from asthma.
Exercising near busy roadways, including Chicago’s Lakefront Path alongside Lake Shore Drive, exposes local runners and cyclists to hazardous pollutants from diesel-powered vehicles idling in commuting traffic. There are diesel-powered construction equipment operating at roadside building sites as well.
Diesel engines emit tiny particulates that lodge in human lungs and cause a myriad of health problems, including asthma and lung cancer. And when diesel-powered vehicles have outdated, dirty engines, they emit much higher levels of diesel particulates that are far more hazardous to athletes and anyone else who come into close proximity while they’re operating.
While diesel pollution is an ongoing problem for Chicago runners and cyclists, environmental and health advocates, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Respiratory Health Association, are working with city officials to reduce the levels of hazardous exposure throughout the city.
How Asthma Can Affect Your Training
Asthma is a condition that occurs when the smooth muscles in a person’s airways constrict due to some type of trigger, explained Loyola Exercise Science Professor Jeremy Fransen. This constriction in the airways impedes airflow and makes it more difficult to breathe.
“Asthma is triggered by different things for different people–for some it’s allergies, for some, exercise or environmental pollutants,” said Fransen, who has a PhD in exercise physiology.
Chicago athletes face all three of these triggers, increasing their chances of breathing trouble.
The Loyola runners who regularly use the Lakefront Path and do workouts around Montrose Harbor – both within breathing range of Lake Shore Drive–are used to altering their training patterns to avoid these asthma triggers.
Bloch, 21, routinely checks the air quality index in the summer before heading out for a run, and if certain allergen counts are high, she opts to run on indoor treadmills instead.
She takes two puffs of her asthma inhaler before nearly every run regardless, and alters her running route if she sees a construction site up ahead.
Janokowicz, 21, uses an inhaler and takes allergy medications to make her symptoms manageable. Despite those precautionary measures, Janokowicz still experienced a month-long “bad episode” this fall, which started with a cough and aching chest and progressed to a bad cold. She was not able to run most days and had to stop racing entirely for the season.
“I guess it was the allergens in the air that exacerbated it, but I also think it was that really hot day when it was 100 degrees and we had a workout outside,” Janokowicz recalled.
She’s certain that cleaner air would have helped alleviate her symptoms and shorten the month-long break from her training she was forced to take.
McCoy now does breathing relaxation exercises after races and difficult workouts to relax her lungs, but still has to stop or cut runs short on occasion.
The Loyola runners’ struggles are shared by many Chicago athletes, according to Fransen. He explained how these interruptions to an athlete’s training are often unavoidable.
When a person is experiencing asthma symptoms while exercising, oxygen is being demanded from both the lungs and the muscles used in running or cycling, he said.
“If you can’t get oxygen in these areas, you would have to slow down your pace to continue, which would lead to a decrease in performance,” Fransen explained.
How Can Chicago Improve Its Air Quality?
Although exposure to heavy traffic and construction are unavoidable for Chicagoans, there are measures the city can take to clean up the air.
Newer diesel engines are over 90 percent cleaner than outdated engines because they filter out most of the dirty diesel particulates that would otherwise get spewed into the air. Old engines can be retrofitted with similar clean technology. However, no city ordinances require that old engines be retrofitted or replaced. This means trucks, trains and construction equipment can use outdated and dirty engines for years without penalty, said Susan Mudd, Senior Policy Advocate for the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), a Chicago-based non-profit organization.
If the City of Chicago upgraded its fleet of diesel equipment and vehicles to cleaner engines, or implemented electric-run CTA buses, it would set a precedent for clean diesel practices, said Mudd.
ELPC, in collaboration with other environmental and health advocacy groups, is educating Chicago residents about the hazards of diesel pollution and seeking effective implementation of city ordinances meant to address it.
The Chicago City Council passed an anti-idling ordinance in 2009 which limits all on-road diesel-powered vehicles to three minutes of idling within any 60-minute period. City residents can call 311 to report diesel idling they witness.
The ordinance marked progress towards improving the city’s air quality, but fails to serve its purpose if not enforced, ELPC’s Mudd asserted.
“The ordinance is a good start, but more needs to be done if we want to make a noticeable difference in Chicago’s air quality,” she added.
For local athletes like Bloch, Janokowicz and McCoy, who have had to cut runs and miss races due to asthma symptoms, these measures could go a long way to improving their running success.
As Mudd said, “When Chicagoans can exercise outside without dirty air irritating their lungs, everybody wins.”