-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training: what is the impact of smoking on runners?

Here’s another really interesting question sent in by a reader:

18 months ago at 35 years old I decided to start marathon running for health and so as to cut down wine drinking and quite smoking.

However, I never managed to quit but have made great progress while smoking 20 cigarettes a day. . . and I do smoke with little to no inhalation.

[I have run marathons in] Tokyo Feb 07 I did 3:57:00; Kawaguchiko Nov 07 I did 3:29:00; and Tokyo Feb 08 I did 3:03:00.

I know I am an idiot to smoke and I try and quit several times a week. But how much faster could I go if I quit? How many other runners secretly smoke as per your experience? There is no mention of smokers who run anywhere, yet I know another runner and an Iron man who do, and are as ashamed as me.

There are two major questions here. First, are there other runners that smoke out there and — second — what are the impacts of smoking on runners?

Smoking Runners
I would guess that my American readers are thinking to themselves that they already know the answer to this one. It is true that, in my experience anyway, there are very few American runners that smoke. I’m sure that there are smokers among our runners out there, but the concept of health and running are so tightly tied together that the number of people that both smoke and run is probably fairly low here.

But I have noticed that there are much greater numbers of smokers among Japanese runners in my travels. At the Honolulu Marathon, which attracts about 60% of its runners from Japan, you should not be surprised to see runners smoking WHILE running the race. I searched through my photos this morning, but couldn’t find a particular photo that I shot of four Japanese runners sitting down for a smoke break on the race course. I recall seeing a few runners actually running the race with cigarettes hanging from their lips.

In writing this article, I noted references in other running forums regarding Chinese runners also combining smoking and running. (You can read a bit of discussion between some runners about this topic by clicking here.) There are also some other runners that admit to it here and there in the running forums on the net.

It may be that there are higher rates of smoking in some countries and/or less of a tie to health and fitness with running. I can’t say this for sure, but I can say that you’re not alone as a smoking runner.

What is the impact of smoking on runners?
Now on to the more important topic: how does running impact your performance as a runner. Smoking cigarettes does several things that runners will want to avoid. Smoking increases airway resistance in the lungs, it lowers oxygen absorption by the blood, and it reduces physical endurance. Taken in combination, all of these factors are limiters to performance in running.

Runners need healthy lungs to pull as much oxygen as possible out of the air around them. Oxygen is transferred in the lungs to the blood, which then transports it to working muscles. The muscles need the oxygen to produce energy. By constricting the airways in the lungs and lowering blood absorption of oxygen, the muscles are supplied less of what they need to do their job. This diminishes performance, adds to fatigue and decreases endurance.

Airway resistance –Inhalation of smoke from a cigarette can cause a two to three-fold increase in airways resistance, the rate at which air moves in and out of the lungs. Smoking also causes chronic swelling of the mucous membranes of the airways, which adds to airways resistance. The tar in cigarette smoke adds to airways resistance. This tar coats the lungs, reducing the elasticity of the air sacs and resulting in the absorption of less oxygen into the bloodstream.

Lowered oxygen absorption — oxygen is transported in the blood by attaching to the hemoglobin within red blood cells. Oxygen has a great affinity for hemoglobin. However, carbon monoxide has a much greater affinity (200 to 300 times greater than oxygen) and so binds preferentially to hemoglobin. Raised levels of carbon monoxide in the blood also impair the release of oxygen from the blood into the cells. This has a significant effect on heart and other muscle cells where there is a high demand for oxygen.

Reduced Endurance — While exercise training can increase maximal oxygen uptake by up to 20%, smoking can reduce this effect by up to 10%. In a recent study adolescents who had smoked for five days had an 8% reduction in endurance time compared to controls. A US study of more than 3,000 naval personnel found smoking was detrimental to physical fitness even among relatively young, fit individuals. The study also found smokers have lower physical endurance than non or ex-smokers.

All of these factors together should be enough to tell you that if you are interested in increasing your performance as a runner, then quitting smoking is going to be a positive decision for you. As you push your body harder and faster, you need to supply more oxygen to your muscles and smoking cigarettes just diminishes your body’s ability to do that. If you really want to take it to the next level, then you should quit smoking.

Good luck with your running. Leave those cigarettes behind.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News

Filed under: Running,Training Tags:

13 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. iamsamiam March 26th, 2008 at 5:29 am

    Smoking makes the arteries ridged for appx two hours after you inhale. I applaud you for trying to quit and think it best for your heart if you do. I would imagine smoking and running puts a lot of stress on your heart. Caffeine too, which is my addiction.

    Best to you.

  2. 2. Christopher Parry April 4th, 2008 at 8:06 am

    Dear Coach English,

    Thank you very much for your knowledge and thoughts on this. You have given a balanced and reasoned response, and given good further reasons to stop which is what I need to break 3 hrs. I was also very amused by your recalling Japanese smoking athletes in Honolulu, to funny…

    Dear iamsamiam,

    i think you are very correct here on the 2 hours before. If I smoke on the day of a run, I can feel it, but if the day before, it is fine, so long as I had a good night sleep. Coffee though I feel helps if drunk 2 hours before.


    Thank you both so much…

  3. 3. incompetent fool August 26th, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    First of all by no means am i promoting smoking to anybody, its bad for you, my parents said it, my friends said it and now im saying it. DONT SMOKE. Now with that out of the way, ive been smoking for quite sometime, a pack a day. I run 3- 10 miles a day at a 7miinute pace, not very good, but good enough, Im 46 years old and i do compete in 5k and 10k races, i had a theory about how pro athletes train at higher altitudes ( hence less oxygen) well i do not have that luxury for i live in Michigan, we have no high elevation, but by smoking before i train and not smoking before a race, i do just fine, im not highly competitive, i go out and run my race, im not racing the other runners, because i have no idea who is in my age group anyway. Anyway, this is my two cents if anyone cares. lol

  4. 4. alex September 14th, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    it´s true that if smoking is stopped for a few weeks, endurance returns. The problem is that as one gets older, the time to recover feels longer and longer. DON´T SMOKE PLEASE! it´s such a wasted phrase, but it´s so true. One other habit that is detrimental for runners is alcohol, and not many people refer to that. In my case, I feel its abuse harms my running severly. any feedback on that?

  5. 5. Stuart September 16th, 2008 at 6:15 pm

    So, I’m a smoker and a runner. I run around 35 miles a week.

    I notice that when I smoke within 10 min prior to my run, I can push further and get less out of breath during my run.

    And, as I time myself often, I complete runs faster when I smoke while I’m running.

    I’m also in the Navy, and I always finish 1st or second when we run our PFAs, even though the officers will yell at me to put out my smoke…

    Granted, I know it’s not good for me. And if I were to quit all together, I’d probably see a decent increase in my abilities. But as for now, I do decent and have no intention of quitting.

  6. 6. Joe English September 23rd, 2008 at 11:24 am


    You definitely will see a long-term improvement in your running if you quit smoking.

    If I had to guess, the reason that you’re pushing harder when you smoke, is probably because smoking (perhaps the nicotine in the cigarettes) relaxes you and mentally allows you to push harder. But the long term impact on your lungs is that it will decrease their oxygen carrying capacity and thus your performance.

    But an even great point is that smoking causes lung cancer and that should be a big concern for you. Whether it impacts your running is a secondary issue compared to the much bigger issue of potentially dying from lung cancer later in life.

    Coach Joe

  7. 7. Kevin October 1st, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Hey stuart,

    If you weren’t a smoker you’d win that navy race every time and wip that guy’s butt who sometimes beats you now. Obviously have a natural gift for running which you are wasting.

    It’s about maximising your potential. Maybe your navy buddies don’t do as much running as you ie competiong in 5 k races etc

    I’m sure MIchael Phelps could beat most surf life savers if he smoked but wouldn’t stand a chance at the elite level if he smoked.

  8. 8. Seth October 6th, 2008 at 10:28 am


    I knew I wasn’t the only runner who smokes!

    I’m 31, training for my third marathon, smoke 3~4 cigarettes a day, and drink at least 4 shots of vodka every night. I train at a 7.5 min/mile pace, and run distance at 8.75 min/mile.

    However, four weeks ago when I ran 14mi, I decided to take two vodka shots and smoke a cigarette before I went. It took me about an hour to drop off my water bottles, but then I headed out for the run. The first 10 miles really didn’t feel different from my daily runs (other than it was more fun), but I started to feel it after that. I slowed down, got mildly dehydrated, and struggled for the last 2mi. I was also moderately sore the next day.

    So, yesterday when I ran 16 I did the opposite. I drank and smoked the night before, but about half as much. Before the run, I drank only Pedialyte and didn’t smoke. The run was relaxing and easier than 14, and I’m not sore at all today. I think hydration was the biggest factor in yesterday’s run, but not smoking may have helped, too.

    Generally speaking, I think distance runners feel like “more is better”. It takes an addictive personality to crave distance. But, I think before my next long run I may try to lay off smoking and drinking for 24 hours before the run and see how that works.

  9. 9. paddy December 22nd, 2008 at 6:16 am

    Hi guys!
    I thin you should give the smoking aid “chantix” a try, and continue with the running!
    best of luck

  10. 10. Mike January 19th, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Seth, smoking 3-4 cigarettes a day does not a smoker make. It cannot even be considered physically addictive in quantities of fewer than 10 a day.

    Considering yourself a smoker as such does an enormous disservice to real smokers who cannot survive a day on less than a pack of 20. ‘Social’ smokers deserve the contempt of both smokers and non-smokers alike!

    Presumably, you will ‘give up’ your three-a-day habit at some point and boast to women about how you gave up smoking because of your incredible ‘will power’!

  11. 11. Mary January 20th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    WOW, I thought I was the only “secret smoker”. I’ve read a few things here that make sense, especially the addictive traits of runners. I disagree with the theory that quantity=addiction. I smoke less than 10 a day, but become a demon if I can’t have at least my morning smoke. I have tried quiting several times and my longest attempt lasted a year (before I ran). I think as smoker/runners we just need to except who we are and make the reason to quit our own, not the embarrassment or thumb nosing of our beloved running community.

  12. 12. Bianca February 8th, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I run and smoke…and always thought it was okay until for the last 3 months i’ve had this horrible smokers cough. I’m 25, and I’ve never coughed up stuff this disgusting in my life. My main addiction is with marijuana, not ciggarettes (which i also have smoked in the past but usually only a pack in 3 days). But I agree with Mary. I hate smoking ciggarettes but have struggled with nicotine off and on since I started smoking in my teens. I think I’m done with the cancer sticks for good this time.
    I’m running a marathon (for the 1st time ever), in a few months….and i can’t honestly think I can run and smoke. So its time to give myself a break. I can’t say i’m ready to give up smoking marijuana forever….but for the few months i think its wise. My lungs hate me right now. And my smoking habit IS really counter-productive to my running. And fitness is extremely important to me.
    Stay strong my runners. Let’s remember, Runners don’t smoke-they run.

  13. 13. dini April 27th, 2009 at 3:26 am

    Ok I’m a smoker about 8-10 a day, absolutely have to have my mornings first to get moving AND I’m doing my very first half marathon this august. My brother has done numerous iron man races but has never done the “quit smoking” spiel with me..Now do I quit totally or train (such as it is) and cut down to maybe 5 smokes a day? BTW I’m 46 and about 15lbs overweight!

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