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

Sci Total Environ. 2023 Nov 20;900:165707. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.165707. Epub 2023 Jul 27.


Introduction: Air pollution is a global issue known to effect on human health and performance. In the context of highly skilled athletes, the influence of air pollution on players' physical and technical abilities are established, yet its effects on cognitive performance have received little consideration. This study aims to address this research gap by comprehensively examining the influence of air pollution on the performance of highly skilled athletes using a holistic approach, including both the athlete's brain and body.

Methods: Between 2016 and 2022, a total of 799 soccer players (578 males, 221 females) belonging to a German professional first division club were measured on a battery of performance assessments, including physical, technical, and cognitive tests. The performance data were combined with the average daily concentration of three pollutants: PM10, O3 and NO2.

Results: Increased levels of PM10 and O3 were primarily associated with decreased physical and technical performance, including slower sprinting times, impaired change of direction and worse speed and accuracy in the technical assessment. For instance, if the assessment test was held when PM10 levels were at 20 μg/m3, players ran an average 22 ms slower on the 30 m sprint test, 36 ms slower on the change of direction test and showed a 1 % decrease in accuracy on the technical assessment (p < .001). Furthermore, higher concentrations of NO2 negatively impacted cognitive performance across four separate tests of athletes' executive functions (p < .05).

Conclusion: By encompassing physical, technical, and cognitive assessments, this study highlights the multifaceted nature of performance impairments resulting from air pollution exposure in a population characterized by have exceptional abilities across all three domains. These findings underscore the widespread impact of pollution on a diverse sample of athletes and emphasize the need to consider air pollution in the broader context of its effects on human health and the environment.

Keywords: Air quality; Cognition; Female athlete; Soccer; Talent assessment.

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Air Pollution* / analysis
  • Athletes
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nitrogen Dioxide / analysis
  • Particulate Matter / analysis


  • Air Pollutants
  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Particulate Matter