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?
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
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