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How to Exercise Safely in the City: Run, Walk, Cycle

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Living in a big city means you have a glut of galleries, theaters, museums, bars, clubs, and restaurants to keep you entertained any time of the night and day.

Though the city may offer art, culture and plenty of entertainment, it also means noise, traffic, pollution and plenty of people; in other words, everything that could make the most mild-mannered of runners irate.

Fear not, here’s how to keep calm and run safe in the city.

Avoid heavily trafficked roads

Rush hour can see the amount of traffic on the roads quadruple. And that means a massive increase in fumes and pollution.

Traffic exhaust fumes can be noxious in the short term, leaving you gasping for clean air, and may even cause long term health problems if exposure is prolonged and frequent.1 Still, the overall evidence generally agrees that the health risks of being inactive are greater than those of been exposed to air pollution during your workout.2

Try to time your runs so that traffic is relatively light or, if this is not possible, avoid the busiest roads. If available nearby, run, walk, or cycle in the park, public spaces or trails. Not only do these spaces tend to be low emission zones, but research also shows that greenspaces have a positive impact on our health and wellbeing.3

If there are no greenspaces where you can exercise, try to keep away from heavily trafficked roads. Research shows that busy roads have higher levels of air pollution. Exercising in a parallel side street can significantly reduce exposure to air pollution. One study found that up to 4 times lower carbon monoxide levels in parallel side streets compared to main roads.4

If you are very concerned about exhaust fumes and the potential damage they may do to your health, consider buying an activated charcoal anti-pollution mask.

Check the Forecast

Air pollution varies with the weather. After rainy or windy weather, the air is generally cleaner. On the other hand, on hot, sunny days, air pollution is generally at its highest.5,6

Furthermore, air pollution may aggravate pollen allergies. Therefore, if you suffer with pollen allergies keep an eye on the pollen count too, especially on days when pollution is likely to be high. According to research, pollen grains may interact with chemical air pollutants.7

Check out the air pollution forecasts in your area before you set out.

Avoid rush hour

The more traffic on the road, the greater the risk of crossing paths with other road users. Increased traffic, congested roads, the pressure of time and impatient, frustrated drivers don’t just make running on busy streets a little more risky, but when roads are very congested, you often end up expending as much energy dodging traffic as you do moving forward.

For both safety, performance and for the sake of your sanity, try avoid running during rush hour. Even the busiest cities are quiet and almost traffic-free early in the morning and late in the evening, making it an ideal time to run. Though it may be dark, most city roads are well-lit, and running on quiet roads early in the morning or at night can be wonderfully therapeutic and relaxing.

If you must run at this time, plan your route so that you avoid major thoroughfares as much as possible.

Run against the traffic

When running on roads, run toward traffic rather than away from it. If your back is to any oncoming traffic, you may not be aware of an impending hazard approaching you.

If you are facing oncoming traffic, and even if a driver fails to see you, you are forewarned and therefore better able to move out of the path of hazards.

Don’t take unnecessary risks

Runners like to run without interruption but that isn’t always possible when you run in traffic. Congestion, traffic lights and stop signs all conspire to block your forward progress. Though incredibly frustrating, don’t cut corners, jump lights or otherwise do things that increase your risk of accident and serious injury.

Shaving a couple of seconds off your best time by dodging dangerously in and out of traffic, will seem pretty stupid if you get hurt. Don’t do it, no matter how tempting it may be or how invincible (happy hormones from running) you might be feeling. You risk losing months of training or even worse if you get hit by a car, truck or bus.

Don’t stand still

Running in the city can be a bit of a stop-start affair. When you stop running your heart rate drops and you may lose some of the benefit of your workout.

Rather than simply standing still or going for the dangerous option of running round an obstacle to avoid stopping, jog on the spot until it is safe for you to continue forward. Also take this opportunity to retie your shoelaces, remove or add a layer of clothing or take a quick drink.

Forget about setting records

Most runners have personal bests (PBs) for various distances such as one mile, five miles or even ten miles. Though it’s always nice to set a new PB, running in traffic is really not the best time (maybe worst?) to try and do it.

Congestion means you have to stop and start and stop again which is not conducive to running a good time. And trying to set a new PB in heavy traffic will seriously tempt you to take crazy stupid risks as you attempt to dodge traffic to cut a few seconds off your time.

Save your PB attempts for when the roads are quiet and you are free to run without obstruction.

Be visible

If other road users can see you, they are more likely to be able to avoid you so it pays to be seen. While black might make you look skinny, it does nothing for your visibility – especially at night. Ninjas wear black for a reason.

So wear high visibility clothing, stick to well lit areas and, if necessary, you might even want to wear a head torch on very dark nights to ensure you can see and be seen.

Keep the music down

Listening to music can make running so much more interesting, as you can tune out the cacophony of city noise and enjoy music, audio books or podcasts while you run.

Music being rhythmic is also awesome at helping you run evenly, in pushing you forward as you run step for step to the beat of the song and can be incredibly motivating (hence world-class athletes have their Beats by Dre headphones glued to the ears right up until they have to compete). And research does support music in boosting athletic performance.8

Unfortunately, while music does have benefits, it also means that you are less aware of your surroundings. Your ears give advanced warning of impending dangers – especially traffic approaching from behind – so make sure that, if you listen to music, you keep the volume somewhat low so you can still hear approaching dangers.

8 sources

  1. Brook RD, Rajagopalan S, Pope CA III, et al. Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: an update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2331–2378.
  2. Giorgini P, Rubenfire M, Bard RL, Jackson EA, Ferri C, Brook RD. Air Pollution and Exercise: A Review of the Cardiovascular Implications for Health Professionals J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev. 2016;36(2):84-95.
  3. Barton J, Rogerson M. The importance of greenspace for mental health. B J Psych Int. 2017;14(4):79-81.
  4. Yazid AW, Sidik NA, Salim SM, Saqr KM. A review on the flow structure and pollutant dispersion in urban street canyons for urban planning strategies. Simulation. 2014;90(8):892-916.
  5. Elminir HK. Dependence of urban air pollutants on meteorology. Sci Total Environ. 2005;350(1-3):225-237.
  6. Westervelt DM, Horowitz LW, Naik V, Tai APK, Fiore AM, Mauzerall DL. Quantifying PM2.5-meteorology sensitivities in a global climate model. Atmospheric Environment. 2016;142:43-56.
  7. Sedghy F, Varasteh AR, Sankian M, Moghadam M. Interaction Between Air Pollutants and Pollen Grains: The Role on the Rising Trend in Allergy. Rep Biochem Mol Biol. 2018;6(2):219-224.
  8. Waterhouse J, Hudson P, Edwards B. Effects of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20(4):662-669.

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