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Report: Smoking may be beneficial to long distance runners

Skeptical? That’s what the report in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said— smoking may be beneficial to long-distance runners. Yet the report wasn’t condoning smoking for long-distance runners or any other athlete as much as it was showing how easy it is for scientists and the media that reports on science to cherry pick data to prove pretty much anything.

Last winter the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a fascinating article by Ken Myers discussing the (as-yet unexamined) benefits of cigarette smoking on endurance running performance. Ken is a friend and elite distance runner (we used to literally run with the same crowd while I was doing my undergrad in Calgary) so I was very excited and a bit confused when I saw his article. Could smoking really be beneficial for distance runners like myself?

Here are Ken’s arguments:

-Serum hemoglobin is related to endurance running performance. Smoking is known to enhance serum hemoglobin levels and (added bonus), alcohol may further enhance this beneficial adaptation.
-Lung volume also correlates with running performance, and training increases lung volume. Guess what else increases lung volume? Smoking.
-Running is a weight-bearing sport, and therefore lighter distance runners are typically faster runners. Smoking is associated with reduced body weight, especially in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (these folks require so much energy just to breath that they often lose weight).

In the discussion, Ken goes on to point out that:

Cigarette smoking has been shown to increase serum hemoglobin, increase total lung capacity and stimulate weight loss, factors that all contribute to enhanced performance in endurance sports. Despite this scientific evidence, the prevalence of smoking in elite athletes is actually many times lower than in the general population. The reasons for this are unclear; however, there has been little to no effort made on the part of national governing bodies to encourage smoking among athletes.

Ken Myers isn’t accusing scientists of outright being deceitful, just that they should be careful in how they interpret data. And also to the media, who like to pull even crazier conclusions out of scientific papers without even checking to see if it makes any sense.


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