Training and racing in a fresh indoor air environment is vital to our health and performance. Is the air in your Pain Cave causing you more harm than good?
We wear it on our jersey sleeves like a badge of honor. A symbol of our ‘No Pain Cave, No Gain’ cycling mentality. Proof of our ability to withstand abnormal amounts of discomfort with a smile by doing so in a place where even sunlight fears to dwell. But poor indoor air quality may be lurking in the shadows.
Where the walls sweat as much as we do and the air is so thick it can stop a stationary bike, your subterranean suffering studio makes you thankful for your evolutionary gift of nose blindness.
Judging the quality of our workouts by how uncomfortable we feel during and afterward may not be the healthiest habit, however. Scaling strewn debris and hurdling heaps of soiled chamois is a good warm-up, but breathing in excessive amounts of polluted and contaminated indoor air is a serious health risk.
Asthma is the Most Common Chronic Condition in Athletes
The prevalence of asthma and exercise-induced breathing disorders is markedly increased in elite athletes. The authors of a 2012 study cited asthma as the most common chronic medical condition experienced by both Summer and Winter Olympic athletes.
The researchers of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggest that the lining of the airways is damaged during exercise. The damage occurs in competitive athletes performing high-level training, mainly when the exercise is performed in extreme environmental conditions such as cold and polluted air.
High-Intensity Exercise Damages the Lining of Our Airways
The cells which line our airways act as a physical barrier against environmental toxins, therefore maintenance of their integrity is vital. When this barrier is damaged, there is a greater potential for infection by bacteria and viruses, and penetration by pollutants and irritants.
The rapid and deep breathing that occurs during intense aerobic exercise causes significant dehydration and cooling of the lining of our airways, causing dehydration stress. There is also a more significant amount of mechanical shear and stretch forces from rapid and deep breathing during high-level exercise that damages the airways.
The repeated injury and repair process of the airway lining leads to changes within the airways and is an underlying cause of asthma.
Indoor Air Can be More Dangerous than Outdoor Air
For the virtual cyclist, the health risks are magnified by the exposure to indoor pollutants while engaging in high-level exercise.
The Causes of Indoor Air Problems
Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles into the air are the primary causes.
Combustion sources of indoor air pollution include:
Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that interferes with oxygen delivery to our body and can be fatal if not recognized in time.
Inadequate ventilation causes increased concentrations of pollutants and prevents indoor air pollutants from leaving your home. Most homes are air-tight by design, and unless they are built with additional mechanical means of ventilation, pollutants accumulate.
Biological contaminants of indoor air include:
Identifying Air-Quality Problems
Notify a health professional immediately if you suspect environmental exposure.
I tried out a few of the air-quality detectors on the market intended for home use. I chose the one which I felt best suited my needs and that of my fellow virtual cyclists for the mini-experiment I conducted in my ‘Gain Cave.’ The will share the interesting results in Part Two.
To detect air quality issues in your home, step outside for a few minutes, and then upon reentering your home, note whether odors or a feeling of stuffiness are noticeable.
The Basic Steps to Control Indoor Air-Quality Problems
Opening windows and doors, operating window or attic fans, or running your window air conditioner with the vent control open increases the outdoor ventilation rate.
Steps to Control Basement Exercise Area Air-Quality Problems
The careful maintenance of our virtual cycling environment is not only essential to our respiratory health but has a significant impact on performance as well.
A cool (not freezing), dry, and well-ventilated training environment promotes evaporative cooling and decreases the performance-limiting effects of even small increases in body temperature.
In addition, repetitive damage to our airways and a higher incidence of infection and illness are never good for training progress.
In the second installment of this series, I will bring you the results of a mini-experiment I conducted in my ‘Gain Cave.’ The air quality results will surprise you!
Your Input is Essential
Do you have any tips to improve the indoor air in your cycling studio? Your fellow virtual cyclists could use all the help they can get.
Fitch KD An overview of asthma and airway hyper-responsiveness in Olympic athletes British Journal of Sports Medicine 2012;46:413-416.
Kippelen P, Fitch KD, Anderson SD, et al. Respiratory health of elite athletes – preventing airway injury: a critical review, British Journal of Sports Medicine 2012;46:471-476.
“The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality – EPA – US EPA.” 22 Oct. 2020, https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/inside-story-guide-indoor-air-quality. Accessed 15 Jun. 2021.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit, and through its work and the pages of this site, Chris is committed to helping others with his bike. His gain cave is located on the North Fork of Long Island where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two college student children.