How Smoking Affects Runners

Can you be a runner and smoke, or a smoker and run?

We often think of runners as athletes: active, health-conscious, and fit. A runner wouldn’t ever let a cigarette touch his or her lips, right?

Surprisingly, a number of runners still light one up on occasion — or even regularly. An estimated 43.8 million people — that’s 19 percent of adults — in the U.S. smoke cigarettes. As a growing number of Americans turn to running as a way to improve health, it’s natural to wonder how exactly smoking cigarettes can affect running performance.

Decreased VO2 Max

Your VO2 max is how much oxygen your body can process at any given time. The more oxygen that your body is able to efficiently send to your blood, the better your body can withstand running faster.

Smoking lowers the amount of oxygen the blood can absorb, because carbon monoxide from the cigarette smoke will bind to the hemoglobin in your blood, according to Coach Joe English on his Blog, “Running Advice and News.”  runner, smoker, health

The larger amounts of carbon monoxide in your blood mean that your body is unable to release oxygen through the blood efficiently, thus impairing your VO2 max. Because of this, you will not be able to run at your peak performance if you smoke regularly.

Less Endurance

In order to run farther and longer, you need endurance. Cigarette smoking effectively decreases this component for any runner, but it’s especially evident in a distance runner. Because of your decreased VO2 max from smoking, your heart and lungs must work harder to distribute blood and oxygen throughout your body to fuel your jogs, runs, and long runs. Your body is working harder to take each step than it needs to just to run, let alone to run faster or longer.

Difficulty breathing

Airway resistance is also a factor here. Smoking constricts the airways, as well as enlarges mucous membranes, making it harder for your lungs to receive the oxygen that is needed for your body. Tar from cigarette smoke can also coat the airways, further decreasing the amount of oxygen available.

In other words, smoking will definitely not enhance running performance. It can decrease your performance drastically. But smokers can still start running.

In fact, one positive factor in the relationship between running and smoking is that when a smoker takes up running they become less interested in smoking. As they become healthier and stronger, quitting smoking becomes easier. Many former smokers will reap huge health benefits when they replace their smoking addiction with a running addiction.

If you want to run your best for life and help your entire body function better, it’s a great idea to kick your smoking habit and focus on supporting your get-fit efforts with a clean, healthy diet absent of cigarettes.


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  1. David says

    This is misleading, The effects smoking less than 20 cigarettes per day is minimal on vo2 max, approx 0.85 ml per k.. heavy smokers are at about a deficit of 2.5 ml.. Do the research.. :0

    • The Team says

      Thanks for your comment, David. There is a lot of research out there — some research demonstrates that cigarettes aid weight loss and increase lung volume — but overall the take-home message is that the consequences of smoking are detrimental to overall health and well-being. Smoking causes difficult breathing and increases risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and osteoporosis — none of which benefit anyone.

      Again, thanks for the feedback.

      Happy running!


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