Smoking is an addiction for many reasons–the nicotine, the MAO chemicals, the habit, and the social aspect of smoking create a perfect cloud.
Once caught in it, smokers can struggle to break free for the rest of their lives.
Fortunately, it’s not always a life sentence. Some smokers are able to quit “cold turkey”. Others need a support structure. Those who do better with structure may want to consider running as their route to a smoke-free life.
The Reasons to Quit
Firstly, smoking and sports do not mix. A myth pops up now and then that claims smoking can actually help runners, but that is false. It is debunked further down in this article, for good measure.
Myths aside, most people know why athletes (and most people) should not smoke. Lung capacity, hemoglobin function (hemoglobin carries oxygen in the blood), and endurance are all reduced when an athlete smokes. This means that they cannot breathe as well, their blood cannot carry as much oxygen, and they simply can’t go as far or as hard as their non-smoking counterparts.
Runners and non-runners alike are well aware of how important a runner’s breathing can be. The more oxygen a runner can take in, the more energy their muscles have. This lets them run further and faster. It also lets them run without discomfort, whether it comes in the form of side stitches or leg cramps. Lung capacity – the amount of oxygen a person’s lungs can hold – is key to proper breathing. The average person can hold about 6 liters. Smoking can cut that in half. Less oxygen in the lungs means less oxygen in the blood, which leads to a sluggish and winded runner
Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen in the blood. This is what gives a runner’s muscles the energy they need to keep going and carry the runner to their goal. Smoking, however, interrupts this process. Carbon monoxide enters the blood when a person smokes. This chemical then bonds to hemoglobin and reduces the amount of oxygen the proteins can carry which leaves the muscles with less energy. Runners who kick their smoking habit often report an increase in their energy levels. This is thanks to the improved function of the hemoglobin their blood and, in turn, the extra oxygen in their muscles.
Endurance and Nutrition
A runner’s endurance is largely tied to their lung capacity and hemoglobin function. But it goes deeper than that. Runners with poor lung capacity and damaged hemoglobin will feel tired sooner. Smokers also have to deal with cravings, however. Whether they’re training or in the middle of a marathon, the pressure of a craving can be an overwhelming distraction. Smoking also tends to reduce a person’s appetite which may lead them to neglect their body’s nutritional needs. Distracted runners become injured runners. And underfed runners become runners with anemia, among other issues.
“I Don’t Feel the Effects.”
Runners who smoke often claim that they cannot feel the effects of cigarettes or that they are entirely unaffected. Multiple studies have, for better or worse, shown that most of these athletes are wrong. Smoking is often a life-long habit. This means that smokers often don’t have a non-smoking baseline to compare their performance against. A very lucky few may be less affected by the impacts of smoking due to genetics. These people are few and far between, however. Smoking negatively affects the majority of runners. They just don’t realize how badly.
Running to Quit
There are a million smoking cessation products on the market. Hundreds of programs and groups designed to help smokers kick the habit can be found online. But running offers something unique that gum or an online chat board cannot. Running can help smokers replace their smoking habit, offer a community of like-minded people, and wean their brains off the endorphin rush of smoking with the endorphin rush of exercise.
Replacing the Habit
Many smokers maintain their addiction because it is a habit. Their “smoking times” are heavily ingrained in their daily routine. It is second nature to reach for a cigarette when they’re reading something or watching something on TV. Commutes and work breaks are all flavored with cigarette smoke. It is a key part of the smoker’s day. And while running cannot replace every cigarette throughout the day, it can make a start. A walk or light jog replaces a lunch-or-break time cigarette. Jogging in place replaces the cigarette during an after-dinner TV episode. A weekend jog replaces a few of the daily cigarettes. Some people even take to jogging in place (or on a treadmill) any time the urge to smoke hits them.
Running is an excellent habit replacement, in part, because of the endorphins it releases in the brain. Smoking releases similar chemicals but at lower levels. People who replace smoking with running often report feeling happier after a run than they feel after a cigarette, even if that run is just a ten-minute jog in place. Generally speaking, endorphins are the brain’s “happy chemicals”. Exercise releases a higher level at a fairly steady rate instead of the low-level endorphin “dump” that nicotine generates. This leads to a longer-lasting feeling of happiness.
The Social Factor
The social aspect of smoking can be almost as addictive as the nicotine or the habit. Humans are social creatures by nature. We like to belong to a group and smokers often bond with the people that they share smoking spaces with, even if the bond is temporary. Many smoking cessation products and programs don’t address this need. Sure, there may be a group meeting or an online chat board. But that does not replace a habitual meetup with someone who shares a common interest. Running groups, on the other hand, are ideal replacements. This is particularly true if the running group is designed by and for people who were once smokers. Members can commiserate on the struggles of kicking the habit while bonding over other, healthier habits.
Finding a Group
As with most things, the internet is a great place to find a smoking cessation running group. Canadians can search the website for Walk or Run to Quit. This is a nationally recognized and supported running program designed by and for smokers who want to quit. QuitRunChill is a similar online platform but it lacks the key aspect of real-world social support.
Facebook, Meetup.com, and other social media sites are wonderful resources. Many local groups have pages on these sites and post information on meetings, training schedules, and group runs. Local doctor’s offices and smoking cessation hotlines may also have leads on smoking cessation groups for runners. And, if all else fails, runners can always start their own groups using platforms like Facebook or Twitter to reach local smokers and runners!
The Pro-Smoking Myth
Surprising as it may be, there is a myth floating around that says smoking is actually good for runners. The myth claims that smoking increases hemoglobin levels, controls a runner’s weight, and increase the volume of their lungs. This myth also suggests that running can essentially “un-smoke” a cigarette.
A cigarette cannot be unsmoked. Some of the negative effects may be reduced. But the net result reults is negative. The other three points require a little more explanation, though it should be clear that all three points are couched in a misunderstanding of what, exactly, they’re saying.
Smoking does, in fact, increase hemoglobin levels. And this is a bad thing. Smoking leads to an increase in hemoglobin levels because the smoker’s body is scrambling to get more oxygen to the muscles. Instead of a normal level of functioning hemoglobin, smokers have a higher level of damaged hemoglobin. And, even with this higher level, their muscles are still not getting enough oxygen.
In addition to this, female runners who smoke are increasing the risk that they will develop Runner’s Anemia. Not only that, but they are increasing the risk that their doctor will miss the anemia diagnosis because their hemoglobin levels are so high.
Some people find that cigarettes help curb their appetite. This will help keep their weight down, but it is not a healthy weight control method. Smokers are at higher risk for missing vital nutrients because they’re not eating as much. Smoking also damages their taste buds which means they are more likely to go for highly salted or high sugar foods, impacting their overall nutrition. In addition to all of this, there is no guarantee that cigarettes will help reduce weight. It has the opposite affect on some people, which completely defeats this point of the myth.
This point is where the myth relies most heavily on misleading language. Smokers may experience increased lung volume, but that just means that their lungs are large. Their lung capacity is still reduced. Lung volume means that the tissue of the lungs is thicker. This happens when the lungs are trying to cover damaged tissue or become inflamed due to conditions like COPD.
The Bottom Line
Nobody is making runners quit the smoking habit. And nobody says that smokers have to pick up running as a means of kicking the habit. But exercise in general – and running specifically – offers a comprehensive support system that can help people kick the habit for good. Whether the runner’s addiction is couched in the habit, the social aspect, or the endorphins, running has them covered. It won’t happen overnight. It may only be a decrease in smoking levels at first. But it’s a start. And the more a smoker runs, the more likely they are to kick the habit entirely.
- Charlotte Observer, When Athletes Combine Smoking and Exercising
- Tonic, Running Might Be an Effective Way to Help Smokers Quit
- LA Times, Exercise Can Do a Smoker’s Body Good
- Science Daily, Running Group Helps Half its Graduates Quit Smoking
- Shape, How Running Helped Me Quit Smoking For Good
- The Sun, Want to Quit Smoking?
- NCBI, Cigarette Smoking