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Smokin' athletes!

Cigarettes and exercise might seem mutually exclusive -- except to athletes who light up. 'It's that addictive element.'

August 04, 2008|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

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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jeannine.stein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nicole Fitzpatrick

Age: 31

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."

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Jon Delaney

Age: 29

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."

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