Air pollution, a worth opponent? How pollution levels impair athlete performance across physical, technical, and cognitive domains.

Beavan A, Härtel S, Spielmann J, Koehle M. Sci Total Environ. 2023 Jul 27;900:165707. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.165707. Epub ahead of print.

Take-Home Message

High levels of nitrogen dioxide and coarse particulate matter in the air were associated with poorer athletic performance, technical ability, and cognitive functioning.


Air pollution impairs athletic performance. Considering that 99% of the global population is exposed to air that exceeds the recommended pollution limits, we need to better understand how air pollution impacts overall performance, including technical ability, physiological functioning, and cognitive ability.

Study Goal

The researchers investigated whether air pollution concentrations on the day of performance testing related to elite soccer players’ physical, technical, and cognitive performance.


The researchers collected data from 799 male and female elite soccer teams in Germany (U12 to professional). Players completed a battery of tests to assess their physical (sprint test, change of direction, jumping, and aerobic capacity), technical (The Footbonaut assessment tool), and cognitive performance (cognitive flexibility, response inhibition assessment, and working memory). The researchers then cross-referenced this data with the average daily air pollutant concentrations from the area where the assessments occurred. The air pollutants included course particulate matter (PM10), ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.


Higher particulate matter concentrations were associated with slower sprint speed and change of direction testing. Particulate matter also negatively impacted technical performance as measured by The Footbonaut assessment, specifically affecting accuracy. Greater nitrogen dioxide concentrations related to poorer cognitive function and aerobic capacity.


Overall, this study provided further evidence that air pollutants decreased performance while adding a new dimension to the literature: cognitive impact. These results also build on a prior study by these researchers that showed greater exposure to these air pollutants during training sessions or games related to impaired performance (e.g., less total distance ran and higher perceived exertion) and led to worse wellness the next morning. While generalizability remains a challenge when conducting this research, it is clear that high levels of pollutants, specifically nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and coarse particulate matter, negatively impact an athlete’s physiological functioning, technical sports performance, and cognitive functions. It would be interesting to know if air pollution increases someone’s risk of injury. Furthermore, it would be interesting to know if exposure to air pollution before testing influences these results or if the impaired performance is primarily because of exposure while performing the assessments, training sessions, or games. This knowledge would help clarify whether moving training sessions indoors would solve some problems.

Clinical Implications

Clinicians should monitor local air pollutant concentrations. They may rely on government-operated monitor/reporting websites/mobile apps or other weather-related resources. The Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology offer recommendations for personal strategies to reduce the impact of air pollution during sports and exercise. This study also supports potential work to advocate for policies and the use of technology, such as air filtration systems,  to protect athletes from additional exposure, which could be prevented.

Questions for Discussion

Do you have experience with varying environmental conditions impacting performance? If so, how have you used that information in your clinical practice?

Written by Kyle Harris
Reviewed by Jeffrey Driban

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