When a run is a wheeze
A running programme will help smokers give up their tobacco addiction for a fitness addiction
We all know smoking is bad for our lungs but a programme of running will ensure that we will realise that truth. Photographs: Getty Images
Q I smoke half a packet of cigarettes a day and get winded quite easily. I am 35 years old and have not done any serious exercise since being on the school football team. Does this mean I can’t do your “Run, Fat Bitch, Run” programme? I get breathless quickly and was thinking that maybe there is a gentler programme that might be more suitable.
I had planned to give up smoking as a New Year’s resolution as well as take up running but it’s already the end of January and I haven’t managed to do either. Please don’t make me feel any worse about it. Jeff
A I won’t make you feel any worse. We have all been there, some of us are there right now – experiencing crushing disappointment with ourselves at having failed to keep our New Year’s resolutions, so please don’t lose heart.
You are very much in the majority, which is why I recommend not making any of the damn things, so we don’t start the year feeling like failures for not having met our – often – ridiculous expectations.
Good news: smoking is no barrier to embracing the eight-week programme set out in Run, Fat Bitch, Run or any other running programme including the excellent one right here with The Irish Times (just log online at irishtimes.com/getrunning).
More good news: You don’t need anything gentler. Au contraire. As a smoker you are going to find any running programme tougher, but consider this added grit factor to be a necessary medicine – inspiring you to quit, the fags that is, not the running.
My inkling is that once you have begun your running programme, you are going to come to hate those cancer sticks every bit as much as they are hating you. What do you mean they hate me? Let me name just a few of the ways:
Smoking literally destroys your lung capacity. How? By decreasing the surface area over which oxygen absorption can take place.
The smoke breathed in kills off the tiny alveoli in your lungs that facilitate oxygenation of the blood. Added to that, smoke coats those alveoli and every surface with which it comes into contact, with tar.
Spit it out
Visualise your shrivelled lungs coated with thick black tar and gasping for air.
Smoking increases carbon monoxide levels in the blood which also interfere with the blood’s ability to take up oxygen and smoking constricts your blood vessels. Plus, it just loads up your blood with cancerous toxins.
All of which makes it unsurprising that your heart has to pump so much harder to be effective and your breathing becomes shallow and laboured.
You know smoking is bad for you, but what running is going to drive home – possibly for the first time – is the actual experience of quite how bad. Because knowing something is not nearly so powerful as experiencing it. This is all going to help you kick those fags for good.
You suspect no doubt that the fags are the reason for your shortness of breath, but running is going to show you because your lungs will scream for help as they struggle and pant for air and oxygen.
Eventually, you are going to need the full capacity of your lungs so you can take on a hill without feeling as though you are about to die, and you are going to “get” rather than merely “know” that the only way to succeed is to quit the fags.
The running programme may be harder for you – suck it up. You may start coughing up a lot of gunk from those smoke-addled lungs – be horrified.
But hold fast to the notion that one day you are going to wake up and want to run further and faster and the only thing standing in your way is your smoking habit. It boils down to a very simple choice.
The inner grit you will have acquired through your chosen running programme, the extra fitness, the awareness of your body, and an increased desire to cherish it all will help you make the right choice: to quit smoking.
Maybe not today or tomorrow, but the more you run, the greater commitment that you give to whatever running programme you embark upon will increase your motivation to give your lungs back their life.
Lace up your trainers and get outdoors. Begin it now.
The Grit Doctor says: Think of all this as replacing a negative life-sapping toxic habit for an incredibly positive life-enhancing one. You are an addict after all, a smoking addict turned running addict in just eight weeks. Make it happen.
Ruth Field is author of Get Your Shit Together and Run, Fat Bitch, Run