It’s a typical Wednesday evening. After a long run, Andrew*, who works in digital media in New York City, is following his standard cool-down routine.
The avid runner and cyclist, whose racing résumé includes the Umstead 100 Ultra, often sparks up immediately before his athletic activities and usually within an hour or 2 of his post-workout sweat session.
Does marijuana promote effective exercise? Or will it convince you to stay at home and embark on an existential journey into a pack of Oreos?
Ultrarunners, including Avery Collins and Jen Shelton, have spoken openly about running under the influence of marijuana. Former professional runner Chris Barnicle, a cannabis advocate living in Los Angeles, calls himself the “world’s fastest stoner” on Twitter.
This being said, put a bag of Fritos at the other side of the room during a smoking session to see just how fast potheads can move. “World’s fastest stoner” might be quite a bold claim to make.
Several pro-cannabis running groups, like Run on Grass in Denver, are dedicated to staying fit and educating others about cannabis. Outside of meatspace, online communities like Cannafit and NORML Athletics also promote the link between healthy living and cannabis. Take that, kale!
A recent study by the University of Colorado Boulder suggested that people who use cannabis may be more likely to exercise than those who push Seth Rogen-style stereotypes would have you believe.
Andrew didn’t always light up before a workout.
“As I started getting into longer distances like marathons, I noticed my mindset was very similar when I’m running and when I’m high,” he says.
“If I don’t smoke before a run, I’m constantly thinking about the miles and how much further I have to go, rather than just enjoying the experience.” Marathons look a lot shorter when viewed from the astral plane.
Science backs up this sensation. Research has shown high levels of anandamide in the bloodstream of people after exercise. This is a cannabinoid that the body naturally produces.
Ingesting cannabis mimics the natural process of increasing exercise-induced endocannabinoids, says Gregory Gerdeman, an assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College. Those who don’t choose to smoke before exercising might end up getting high on their own (blood) supply anyway.
“That runner’s joy — whether natural or marijuana-induced — can minimize distraction and help exercise be not just a means to an end but an enjoyment,” said Gerdeman.
A quick refresher course on how weed works: When you ingest dried flowers of the cannabis plant called marijuana — whether through smoking, vaping, or eating edibles — its chemical compounds, or cannabinoids, combine with your brain and body’s receptors to regulate pain, emotions, appetite, and memory.
Two main compounds provide the buzz for which Snoop Dogg seems to have expressed a great deal of enjoyment:
- Cannabidiol (CBD) is non-psychoactive and is said to bring a calm and relaxed feeling — a “body high,” not a “head high.”
- Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a psychoactive chemical that generates feelings of euphoria, relaxed inhibitions, and drowsiness.
In other words, THC is the ingredient that will get you “high,” while CBD soothes the body.
Consuming CBD oils, pills, and drinks is one of the hottest new trends on the health and wellness market, despite limited research into its effectiveness and a lack of clear guidance from federal authorities.
High-profile professional athletes like Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Megan Rapinoe of the USA Women’s Soccer team have signed endorsement deals with CBD businesses.
In a competitive world, it’s not unusual for runners to go beyond the basics to enhance their performance, whether that means wearing compression gear, plunging into ice baths, or even downing pickle juice during a race (seriously, it’s a thing. No, really, how did this become a thing?).
Some athletes even wear 3D holograms on their wrist that they believe unlocks the spiritual energy to help them win. Is it so far-fetched that cannabis can help them reach a… higher score? (I’ll close the door on my way out).
Very few studies are available on how cannabis can help or hinder athletes. The studies currently in circulation tend to focus on the adverse effects, says Amanda Feilding, director of The Beckley Foundation, a nonprofit in the UK that devotes it’s time to consciousness around drug policy research.
However, plenty of pro-cannabis advocates, as well as some studies, point out potential benefits of pairing pot and running. (Despite this, they have not come out in favor of drug running. Which is a different deal altogether.)
In general, these positive effects indirectly relate to the sport itself, Feilding says — such as helping people relax before or after a competition. Athletes may feel the urge to use cannabis due to its effects on anxiety and well-being and its promotion of better sleep before a race.
“You snooze, you lose” apparently has no place here.
A 2011 study also suggested that cannabis can have the following positive effects on athletes:
- increase how much oxygen reaches tissues
- improve vision and concentration
- help athletes forget previous traumatic experiences related to the activity, such as falls or injuries
- reduce muscle spasms
- aid in pain relief
- vastly improve a person’s ability to quote Wiz Khalifa lyrics (this is not in the study, but can also prove advantageous in some situations)
Researchers maintain that much more research is necessary to determine the performance-enhancing effects of both THC and CBD.
In September 2019, the NIH announced its intention to award $3 million in research grants to improve the understanding of cannabinoids’ impact on the human body. Three million buys a lot of draw. Hopefully, they make it to the lab.
Plus, inhaling smoke is not exactly an ideal delivery method, explains Dustin Sulak, DO, a licensed osteopathic physician and advocate of integrative medicine. And healthy lungs should be of concern to dedicated athletes.
Instead, runners and active folks may want to use edibles, tinctures, or tablets. These alternatives won’t harm your lungs or expose you to the toxic substances in smoke. However, they can also hit your system harder and last longer (up to 10 hours!) than smoked THC.
Edibles can also sneak up on you like a ninja. It’s best to use cannabis products in moderation until you understand your own tolerance. Because it can take much longer to take effect than smoking, you can take too much.
Give it a couple hours before you try more. (Feeling like you can levitate 7 feet above the ground is not the most useful way to improve a lap time, especially if it catches you off guard.)
If you live in a state with recreational cannabis and want to try THC before exercise, use caution and/or talk to a medical professional beforehand.
Though the verdict is still out on the benefits of weed for runners, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence from pro-ganja athletes.
Tyler Hurst, a writer, runner, and cannabis enthusiast in Portland has been using cannabis regularly for about 5 years. He typically noms a small edible before long weekend runs.
“It’s pretty great to run through a field, across a bridge, in a forest, or up a mountain while being hyperaware of your environment,” Hurst says. “I’ve recovered faster in the past year than I ever have before, all while running longer and eating the same.”
He says cannabis helps relax his muscles once they become fatigued, making it easier to foam roll and stretch post-run.
Former NFL star Percy Harvin recently said that smoking marijuana before games was one of the only things that prevented him from debilitating anxiety and headaches.
Is cannabis actually safe to consume before a workout? It’s too soon to say for sure. More research is necessary to fully understand the effects of marijuana, both on running and in general, Feilding says.
Use of cannabis in those under age 25 is linked with long-term negative effects on memory and learning. Studies show changes in brain structure and how decisions are processed for young chronic users.
For example, cannabis also increases the heart rate, meaning that runners might reach their limits more quickly, she explains.
Then there’s what we’ll call “the stuff our parents warned us about.” Much of what you learned in DARE class may have been overblown, and nobody ever “smoked 20 marijuanas” and started to decompose on the spot.
However, research studies do connect cannabis with short-term impairments in alertness and executive function — though it’s not conclusive about whether that impairment is long-term.
Finally, we’re all familiar with smoking’s impact on the body. Although cannabis has lower risks of lung disease compared to tobacco, participants in a study on marijuana smoke’s impact on the lungs experienced problems like wheezing, breathlessness, and increased mucus production.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a link between vaping THC and the mysterious lung disease of 2019 that has caused over 30 deaths out of about 1,600 cases across the nation.
However, many victims used black-market cartridges that weren’t from approved, legal sources. Tonk vapes might not be quite so tonk for your bod.
And while edibles may spare your lungs, even they come with their own risks.
“Eating cannabis can change the quality of the effects, which come on much more slowly, and edibles can vary greatly in strength, making it difficult to measure or gauge how much you should take,” says Feilding. “Taken in ignorance, people often overdo it.”
“Low and slow” is the common advice that greets those new to edibles. Choose edibles with low concentrations of THC, being sure to eat only small amounts at a time. Also, it’s best to avoid edibles from a source that’s not a legal, state-approved seller of cannabis products.
Your friend might make the best peanut butter space muffins. Just get them to make you the same thing without THC, then buy edibles from a dispensary. Subtly, so you don’t hurt their feelings.
Oh, and there’s that little issue of it still being against the law in all 50 states, at least federally. Cannabis regulation advocates have made progress on this front in the last few years: Cannabis is now fully legal for adult recreational use in 11 states and the District of Columbia.
The House passing the SAFE Banking Act to protect banks that lend to cannabis companies and the Hemp Act of 2018 to remove hemp (cannabis material without THC) from the DEA’s list of controlled substances were both seen as landmark legislative steps toward mainstream acceptance of cannabis.
However, the laws are muddy at best, so it’s best to approach marijuana with caution even in the states where you could buy it in the same way you can buy socks, a Butterfinger, or an assault rifle.
For now, though, any athlete experimenting with marijuana cannot be an elite competitor, since the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has banned cannabis. However, they removed CBD from the list of banned substances beginning in the 2018 competition year.
Some athletes disagree with the current classification of THC. “I don’t think cannabis should be considered a performance-enhancing drug,” Gerdeman says. “Good nutrition is ‘performance-enhancing’, but it’s natural — cannabis falls closer to that end of the spectrum.”
However, the strict laws around cannabis make research challenging, and the cannabis available isn’t regulated or consistent. Bummer.
“It has varying amounts of CBD and THC, the product’s two major active constituents, which can have different effects on individuals,” she explains.
Gerdeman, like Feilding, believes more research is vital to understanding the pros and cons of cannabis.
“Biomedical research points to a lot of potential benefits that are really too premature to go out broadcasting,” Gerdeman says. “We’re just at the cusp of learning a lot more about it.”
Barnicle, the speedy stoner from L.A., just asks that everyone keep an open mind, man.
The former track athlete kept his habit under wraps while competing for the University of Arkansas but wishes more big-time athletes would announce their love for cannabis to increase worldwide acceptance.
“Unfortunately, athletes themselves seem to be really in a secret society about it,” Barnicle says. “The whole system just needs to be changed.”
*While cannabis has been decriminalized in New York, Andrew has requested that his last name be withheld for privacy reasons.