How Smoking Affects Running Performance, and Tips for Quitting

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Cross Training For Runners
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Written by :

David Dack

Runner woman running on beach in sunrise

We all know the dangers of smoking – from an increased risk of lung cancer and heart disease to a weakened immune system, the litany of health problems associated with cigarettes is well-established.

But what many runners may not realise is the significant impact smoking has on their physical performance. Recent research from the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) has only underscored the severity of this issue, highlighting the damage smoking does to the heart, a vital organ for any athlete.

Their study found that smokers have a smaller volume of blood in the left heart chamber and less power to pump it out to the rest of the body.

This directly translates to poorer cardiovascular performance, hindering runners from reaching their full potential. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Below, we’ll explore the science behind smoking’s impact on running performance and provide effective tips for quitting. 

How smoking hinders your run 

Smoking affects running performance in several key ways. First, it substantially reduces maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilise during exercise.

According to a study published in the Respiratory Care journal, smokers have a markedly lower VO2 max compared to non-smokers. For runners, this means that less oxygen reaches their muscles, leading to quicker fatigue and reduced endurance. In other words, muscles are like engines, and oxygen is their fuel. Smoking restricts the fuel supply, forcing your engine to work harder with less power output. 

Moreover, cigarettes damage the air sacs in your lungs. The harmful chemicals present in tobacco smoke, including tar and carbon monoxide, induce inflammation and narrowing of the airways, impeding the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream. Tobacco treatment expert Dr Maher Karam-Hage explains that as lung tissue is damaged, it becomes more fibrous, making it harder for people to expand their lungs fully with each inhalation.

As discussed in our previous post, 8 Ways To Increase Lung Capacity For Running, lung capacity is a determinant of how efficient your body is at converting oxygen into energy. If you’re a smoker, you’re actively making this process more difficult, leading to shortness of breath and hindering your ability to maintain a steady pace during runs. That said, quitting smoking is one of the most impactful ways to improve your health and running performance.

Effective strategies for quitting

Kicking the habit for good can be challenging. One of the primary roadblocks you’ll encounter is nicotine withdrawal, causing symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and decreased concentration.

A review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports and Nutrition also notes that short-term nicotine withdrawal (spanning 12 to 24 hours) might lead to a decline in physical abilities, affecting aspects like reaction time and sustained attention. To help manage withdrawal symptoms, runners can turn to alternatives like nicotine pouches and lozenges.

Nicotine pouches provide a controlled and smokeless release of nicotine without the harmful substances found in tobacco.

Pouches also come in a variety of strengths and flavours, allowing users to tailor their use according to their taste preferences and level of dependence. Some of the most popular brands on Prilla include On!, ZYN, and ZEO, each of which targets a slightly different market. ZYN pouches are designed with Americans in mind, come in 3mg and 6mg strengths, and have fresh flavours like wintergreen and peppermint.

For stronger pouches with unique flavour profiles, runners can try On! 8mg coffee or cinnamon pouches. Meanwhile, ZEO pouches are ideal for smokers needing an even higher nicotine content to support the transition away from traditional tobacco.

On the other hand, runners can also try out other alternatives like nicotine gum or lozenges, a form of nicotine replacement therapy. The brand Lucy, for one, has nicotine lozenges approved by the FDA for smoking cessation.

Similar to pouches, nicotine lozenges are a smoke-free alternative. Lucy nicotine lozenges are only available in 4mg strengths but have varied flavours like cherry ice and citrus, offering a convenient way to decrease nicotine dependence gradually and ultimately quit smoking. 

Quitting smoking is the only way for runners to improve their health while significantly enhancing their performance. With the support of smoking alternatives, runners can effectively transition to a smokeless lifestyle and achieve their running goals. 

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