Running and Smoking: What You Should Know

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How smoking impacts your running performance. Running and Smoking: What You Should Know

Unlike a number of “grey” issues, the topic of running and smoking is pretty black and white. Smoking is bad for your health, period. And yet there are a number of really good runners out there who cool down with a cigarette in hand and appear to be completely unaffected. So what exactly is the deal with running and smoking? Just how bad is it for you? And can running help you kick the habit, should you wish to? Let’s find out.

The Unvarnished Truth

But before we have a look at the impact of tobacco smoke on the runner’s body, let’s just remind ourselves what exactly is in a cigarette. A little tobacco wrapped in paper doesn’t sound too harmful, right? Think again. Because in reality, a smoker is exposed to more than 7 000 different chemicals each time he or she lights up. This includes an established list of 93 harmful and potentially harmful constituents, which are classified as being carcinogens (cancer-forming), respiratory toxins, cardiovascular toxins, reproductive or developmental toxins and/or addictive substances.

Together, these constituents wreak havoc on the human body, and contribute to the following types of cancer:

  • Cancer of the mouth
  • Lung cancer
  • Cancer of the voice box
  • Cancer of the throat
  • Kidney cancer
  • Cancer of the esophagus
  • Cancer of the cervix
  • Bladder cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Cancer of the pancreas
  • Cancer of the stomach
  • Myeloid leukemia
  • Cancer of the colon

But smoking doesn’t only cause cancer. In addition, it causes damage to the heart, blood vessels, reproductive organs, mouth, skin, eyes and bones. Which, let’s face it, is not a pretty picture.

Smoking and Running Performance

In addition to the illnesses and conditions mentioned above, smoking also has a distinct impact on running performance. So what exactly happens to the athlete’s body when it inhales cigarette smoke? In very simplified terms, carbon monoxide, one of the byproducts of burning tabacco, binds super strongly to haemoglobin. And if you think back to high school biology, you’ll remember that haemoglobin is responsible for transporting oxygen through the blood. So, in effect, by inhaling cigarette smoke, an athlete is blocking the binding sites for oxygen in the blood, which results in less oxygen being transported to the working muscles. Which contributes to a less than ideal running experience.

This was confirmed by Suminski et al. in 2009, who found that maximal oxygen consumption (or VO2max) is significantly lower in heavy smokers than in non-smokers. Which, in essence, translates to a decreased running performance for smokers when compared to that of non-smokers on the same amount of training.

And while it’s impossible to list all the negative impacts of smoking on the runner’s body here, there are two more worth highlighting. Did you know that smoking may contribute to energy depletion in the body? A team from the University of Louisville found in 1999 that, when smoking at rest, study participants expended 3.6% more energy than non-smokers. This almost doubled to 6. 3% during light exercise – energy that you would no doubt rather be spending on your running efforts.

In the same study as above, cigarette smoking was also found to cause a significantly greater increase in heart rate during light exercise. Which all just shows that smoking taxes the athlete’s body in a number of less desirable ways.

Can Running Help You Kick the Habit?

So what is the best way to kick the habit? Unfortunately statistics isn’t very encouraging in this regard. In the UK alone, a promising 63% of all smokers are believed to be eager to stop. Sadly, only 3 to 5% of unassisted efforts to stop smoking are successful after 6 to 12 months. In reality, the majority of individuals who stop smoking will re-light within eight days.

But there is good news too! And the news is even better for running smokers. There is convincing evidence that activities such as running can lower your desire to smoke. UK scientists reviewed 19 different studies on the subject in 2013 and found a negative correlation between physical activity and smoking in each and every one. After as little as 5 to 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, the craving to smoke decreased in all of the study participants. Which underlines the value of a single running session when the craving to smoke strikes. Simply lace up and run!

And for non-running smokers the news is pretty good as well. Because not only will the act of taking up running help curb your nicotine cravings, it will also give you a healthy habit (or addiction, if you will) to replace smoking.

Take, for example, Ken Thomas, who went from smoking 2.5 packs of cigarettes per day to running ultra marathons. Nearing retirement, Ken wanted to enjoy the next chapter of his life, and not spend it sick and unhealthy. So he tackled small benchmarks at a time. Every time he felt like smoking, he put on his running shoes instead and ran to the postbox. The distance he’d run would increase every time, and soon he found himself running around the block. According to Ken, running gave him something else to focus on (instead of smoking), and it made him feel really, really well. Which encouraged him to run even more and stop smoking for good.

The Takeaway

So if you’re serious about your health and your running performance, do what you have to do to give up smoking and get healthy. Not only will you feel significantly better, but you’ll end up getting so much more out of life and running as well. You can do it!


  1. William O. Roberts, MD, Runner confesses unhealthy habit , Online publication, Apr 13, 2015
  2. T.W. Glass & C.G. Maher, Physical activity reduces cigarette cravings, Scientific journal, May 25, 2013
  3. Michelle Hamilton, Exercise curbs nicotine cravings, Online publication, May 31, 2013
  4. Andi Whaley, The effects of smoking on running, Online publication, Sep 11, 2017
  5. R.R. Suminski et al., The effect of habitual smoking on measured and predicted VO2max, Scientific journal, Sep 05, 2009
  6. J.F. Walker et al., The effect of smoking on energy expenditure and plasma catecholamine and nicotine levels during light physical activity., Scientific journal, Dec 01, 1999
  7. US Food and Drug Administration, Cigarettes, Website,
  8. American Cancer Society Staff, Health risks of smoking tabacco, Online publication,
  9. Ken Thomas, Ken Thomas: How I Stopped Smoking and Started Running, Online publication, May 02, 2013
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