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Light up the track


Sasha Gonzales (
Jun 12, 2012

Talking to Petrina Wong, you would hardly guess that she was a smoker. Fit and active, the 32-year-old journalist regularly takes part in triathlons and plays tennis and golf weekly. It is baffling why she would damage her body by smoking.

But for Wong (whose name has been changed for reasons of confidentiality), smoking seems to give her what nothing else can: a feeling of relaxation. “I’m usually very anxious, and smoking calms my nerves,” she says. “I know it’s not healthy, but I’m addicted and I’m lucky I have no breathing issues.

“I find that a stick just before a big race boosts me emotionally, and that helps me perform better. Cigarettes are like a legal steroid,” she adds.

It is well known that smoking is detrimental to human health. But that has not stopped top athletes like footballer Wayne Rooney, basketball legend Michael Jordan and tennis star Anna Kournikova from lighting up. So why do competitive athletes smoke when they know the habit is bad for them?

Dr James Oliver from Island Health Family Practice says that, according to some reports, about 4 per cent of marathon runners smoke. But it is unlikely that the reason is to relieve race anxiety.

“If it was, the smoker would suffer slower times and lower stamina levels due to the effects of smoking, as opposed to the negative effects of stress,” he says. “Stress induces adrenalin, and this helps the body go into flight mode, which could be beneficial to running speed.”

Wong thinks that a cigarette before a race is calming. But it’s no more than a psychological security blanket. “Smoking decreases oxygen intake by up to 10 per cent during exercise training,” says Dr Winnie Mui from Dr Lauren Bramley and Partners in Central. “So it’s not true that smoking before a race can help improve one’s performance.”

Carbon monoxide is among the most poisonous of the chemicals in cigarettes. It binds to haemoglobin in the blood and interferes with oxygenation. According to Mui, “decreased oxygen to the brain, heart, lungs and muscles can increase mental and physical fatigue. For athletes, this translates to decreased endurance, stamina, performance, strength, recovery and overall quality of training.”

Oliver adds that smoking also causes blood vessels to constrict, making it more difficult to get adequate blood flow to the muscles. This, combined with decreased oxygenation throughout the body, can result in athletes experiencing fatigue faster, thereby affecting their endurance. Smoking also causes shortness of breath. In asthmatic athletes, this can be disastrous.

Nicotine puts pressure on the cardiovascular system as it increases heart rate and blood pressure.

Passive smokers, and even those who smoke occasionally, are also at risk, says Mui. In the short term, passive smokers may also experience headaches, eye irritation, wheezing, sore throat and/or dizziness, all of which can affect training and athletic performance.

“Although there are no conclusive studies on the effects, one can expect that the negative effects on [sporting] performance will be half or slightly less than that of an active smoker’s,” says Oliver.

Iggy Cheung, a 32-year-old dragon boat paddler, smokes “just a few cigarettes a week”. Cheung says that he makes up for his bad habit by exercising at the gym daily and eating a plant-rich diet.

But Oliver says exercise and diet will not counter the effects of smoking. The only solution is to quit.

The great thing about stubbing out is that you notice the benefits right away. Quitters experience significant increases in oxygen concentration and exercise duration.

Mui suggests medication such as Zyban or Chantix/Champix, psychotherapy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy or hypnosis, or traditional Chinese medicine. There are also programmes at Smoking Cessation Clinics run by the Hospital Authority, which is part of the Department of Health.

As for nicotine replacement therapy, Oliver says that these products do have their place in stopping smoking. But they are only useful if the dose is gradually reduced until cessation.

“The aim should always be the resolution of all cigarette and nicotine addiction,” he says.

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