One OF the biggest secrets of the fitness world has nothing to do with supplements, steroids or spandex. It is the almost implausible combination of exercise and smoking.
There are people, it seems, who do both. We’re not talking about mall walkers who light up once a week. These are men and women who compete in marathons and triathlons and go hiking and train at the gym -- who also have a pretty steady cigarette habit.
In a recent online poll sponsored by Runner’s World magazine, 2% of the 2,500 people who responded said they smoked, unbeknownst to their running friends. About 4% said they smoked but that their running buddies were in the know.
Bart Yasso has seen his share of smokers in the more than 1,000 races he’s completed. The chief running officer of Runner’s World magazine and author of “My Life on the Run” says some runners light up before and after races. He even has a few friends who run and smoke.
“They’re very secretive about it,” he says. “They don’t want anyone to know, and I know they’re not proud of it. These are people you never would have guessed were smokers. I encourage them to quit. It’s that addictive element -- I understand where they’re coming from.” Yasso was once a smoker himself, but quit years ago when he started running.
Smoking has something of a place in the world of endurance sports. The Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado began as a challenge in 1956 from a nonsmoking doctor, Arne Suominen, to any smokers who thought they could beat him to the top of the peak and back down. A nonsmoker won, and the three smokers who ran never finished the race.
A smoker did beat Suominen to the top, but decided to smoke a cigarette instead of heading back.
The smokers profiled here are divided on how they ultimately see their habit, with some defiant and others wrestling with how and when they should try to quit. But for now, smoking and exercise continue to run in sync.
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Occupation: Mortgage broker, lives in Marina del Rey.
Sport: Has run two L.A. Marathons, the San Francisco Marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon, the Long Beach Marathon, and is training for the Pasadena Marathon and the Nautica Malibu Triathlon; also does yoga.
Smoking history: Started in high school, smokes five to 10 cigarettes a week, has quit intermittently.
Does smoking affect your athletic performance? “I’ve never felt it running. If I’m pushing for speed, that’s when I think it would be beneficial to stop or cut down. I can run a 10:30 pace for days. When I do track workouts or speed intervals or hills, when I’m really pushing myself, I don’t know if it’s the cigarettes, but I’m dying.”
Do your athletic friends know you’re a smoker? “We’ll go out after big runs and everybody has a beer. I’ll smoke around them. It’s nothing, they just laugh. I’m definitely not the only one. My boyfriend had a cigarette when we were in Aspen [Colo.] after a 40-mile bike ride. Everyone is looking at us like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Have you tried to quit or cut down? “Nothing huge. I’m usually busy, or sometimes I’ve done it during training. I’m never going to smoke a pack of cigarettes and then go for a 10-mile run tomorrow. I do think about my body, I try to hydrate well, it’s just everything in moderation. I didn’t notice any difference when I quit, except my voice. If I’m running and smoking too much, it affects my voice. Sometimes I don’t even want one. If I’m deep in training, I’ll have one puff and say, ‘Get this out of here.’ It’s totally random. You have to listen to your body.”
And in the future? “I think it gets to a point where it grosses you out anyway. If I had kids, I’d want to be healthy for my kids. But I feel pretty good. And that’s my thing -- if I don’t feel good, I’ll reassess.”
Occupation: Receptionist at Body Builders Gym in Los Angeles; lives in Los Angeles.
Sport: Gym-based strength and cardiovascular training.
Smoking history: Started smoking at 16, currently smokes about a pack a day.
Does smoking affect your athletic performance? “I’m sure that smoking affects my [muscle] development. I know muscles need more oxygen, and when you smoke it constricts your vessels, making it harder for the oxygen to get to the cells. So it definitely impairs my ability to do better when it comes to exercising. But I don’t know that I feel any effects from it, but I’m sure there are effects. I know the negatives outweigh the benefits.”
Do your athletic friends know you’re a smoker? “I don’t hide it. People do give me a hard time, though. They say, ‘You should quit smoking. I can’t believe you work at a gym and smoke.’ I just kind of toss them off. When it’s time, I’ll do it.”
Have you tried to quit or cut down? “I’m in recovery, so I gave up drugs and alcohol, and started going to the gym. Smoking is like my last vice. I’ve thought about quitting, because my mom died two years ago. She was a smoker, and she died from lung and brain cancer. So it’s on my mind. I would love to quit smoking, but there are factors that keep me from doing it. I’m afraid of gaining weight. Smoking is a big comfort. It’s something I do before I eat, after I eat, before I go to the gym, after I go to the gym. It’s all habit.”
And in the future? “Hopefully, maybe this year I can quit smoking. It needs to be soon. Another thing that makes me seriously think about it is the whole Amy Winehouse thing, that she has early signs of emphysema already. I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that person with emphysema and cancer.”
Occupation: Associate producer at a commercial editing facility; lives in Hermosa Beach.
Sport: Has run several marathons and half-marathons, including the Palos Verdes Marathon and the L.A. Marathon; triathlons include the Ironman 70.3 (in Oceanside). Training for the long course Santa Barbara Triathlon this month. Also plays beach volleyball.
Smoking history: Started smoking in college, has quit intermittently; smokes half a pack a day.
Does smoking affect your athletic performance? “With any endurance sport, I’ve never felt any detriment. Not at all. . . . The only time I feel it now is when I’m swimming. Maybe I don’t have the lung capacity. If I didn’t hit my breath every third stroke, I could tell immediately. Do I think it’s from smoking? It’s got to be. For any other sport, I’ve never had an issue with breathing.”
Do your athletic friends know you’re a smoker? “Smoking is just not a popular thing. Everyone looks down on it. I’m self-conscious about it when I’m around my running friends or friends I cycle with. I don’t really smoke around them, unless it’s a social situation. I feel like I’ll be looked down upon, so I’ll do it in my car, away from them.”
Have you tried to quit or cut down? “I can go for a couple of weeks, but as soon as I associate something with it, like a beer -- it’s having those two together. Maybe I have to break that psychological tie, or maybe I have to give up both. If my friends talk me into going out, if I have a drink in my hand, a pack could be gone in a couple of hours.”
And in the future? “Maybe I’m getting too old to do this all the time. I did a half Ironman in Oceanside last March, and when I got out of the water and got onto my bike, I felt pretty good. But then I was biking in the hills, and I started sucking wind. I’ll bet if I wasn’t smoking, maybe I’d be knocking through these.
“My ultimate goal is that I want to cross the line at Ironman, and the things that might be standing between me and completing it are smoking and drinking.”
Occupation: Video and film director, lives in Los Angeles.
Sport: Ran the L.A. Marathon in 2007 and 2008, plans to run it next year. Also plays pickup basketball games and does gym workouts.
Smoking history: Has been smoking since he was 22; currently smokes about half a pack a day.
Does smoking affect your athletic performance? “I’m not going to live as long, but it’s not going to change my running. My cardiovascular is through the roof; my lung capacity is through the roof. I had a V02 max test at my gym [a test that measures maximal oxygen uptake]. I told my trainer, ‘By the way, I smoke,’ and she freaked out.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a performance enhancer. But I can keep up with anybody.”
Do your athletic friends know you smoke? “If I go and meet [running friends] for a drink, and I have a smoke, they all look shocked. I say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, and I’m going to kick your ass next week.’ I really don’t care what people think.”
Have you tried to quit or cut down? “I’ve thought about it recently, and I realized that it’s harder than I thought it would be. I wake up and say, ‘I’m not going to smoke today,’ but by the third stressful phone call, I find myself with a cigarette in my hand. I didn’t figure I’d be smoking this long. When I turned 30, I was going to stop.”
And in the future? “You can’t be a chain-smoker every day. I’ll be the guy who’s older, having a cigarette once in a while, but not chained to carrying it around, like I have to have tobacco. But it’s definitely a release, like a cocktail relaxes you at the end of the day. Plus, I think it’s cool.”
Quitting “is easier said than done, apparently. But I’m not too worried about it. I do more in a day than most people do all week. There’s a trade-off.”
“It’s how I’m going to live my life. There are so many people who never smoked and got cancer. I don’t know, if you live your life worried about what’s going to happen, it’s not the best quality of life. I could die for a million reasons tomorrow, so it’s all about enjoying myself while I’m here.”
Occupation: Senior media specialist with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center; lives in Los Alamitos.
Sport: Ran three L.A. Marathons, plans to run it and the Boston Marathon next year.
Smoking history: Started in college; has quit intermittently, often before races. Is currently involved in a hypnotherapy program to stop smoking. Smokes about five to 10 cigarettes a day.
Does smoking affect your athletic performance? “When I have quit, I have much more lung capacity and more energy. This past L.A. Marathon I could tell the difference [after quitting]. I definitely feel stronger and less tired, and I can run longer without feeling it as much. On short runs I can’t feel it, but long runs are a lot easier.”
Do your athletic friends know you’re a smoker? “I run alone a lot. But I’m very open anyway, and I’ve told people about it. I like that people are supportive of me quitting. [The physicians I work with] are very supportive. I don’t like to hide stuff anyway. People aren’t judgmental.”
Have you tried to quit or cut down? “When I decided to train for the L.A. Marathon, I knew I would have to be committed to not smoking, so I used the patch. It went fine. It helped me to quit to be running more. You have to be committed, and focused, and you’re eating better, and you feel better about those things. I started up about six months after that. I thought, ‘I’ll have one cigarette,’ and you think you can stick to that.
“There’s no arguing that this is something good for me. I can only say that it makes me feel good on some level, just like running does. I know I need to stop, and I make efforts, but it just takes a lot for me to do it. I don’t know if I should be ashamed or happy that I keep quitting.”
And in the future? “I haven’t always considered myself an athlete. At this year’s L.A. Marathon, I was 17th in my age group. Now, as I get more into really being a runner, [smoking] bothers me more and more. I’m already doing a really fast marathon, so why not do it better? I want to start thinking of myself as an athlete. And athletes don’t smoke.”