I had a blast on a recent four-mile run, and it wasn’t because of the location (same old neighborhood streets), my playlist (same tired one I keep forgetting to update), or the storied “runner’s high.” It was because I was actually high.
For the record, this was purely a research endeavor (the combo of the two activities, at least), as everywhere you look now, it seems like athletes and trainers are proselytizing about how marijuana boosts their performance while training and competing, despite its reputation as a substance that generally encourages overeating Doritos on the couch.
Endurance athletes like triathletes and ultra-marathoners say cannabis helps them get in the zone and focus on form, bodybuilders say it helps them with recovery and therefore leads to more muscle gain, and NFL players tout its pain-relief benefits. Professional skiers and snowboarders (and probably most people you know who are really into either sport) are especially vocal about using marijuana. Freeskier Tanner Hall recently told the New Yorker that marijuana helps him with the anxiety of competition, and that he’s won every one of his medals with it in his system.
In fact, the case for cannabis as performance-enhancer is so prevalent that the World Anti-Doping Agency bans the use in competition—and with legalization slowly rolling out in states across the country, it’s no longer a topic that’s too taboo to touch.
So what does the science say?
“Right now, there is really no modern experimental work demonstrating what the acute effects of cannabis on exercise are,” says Arielle Gillman, a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder who recently published an extensive review of the current research that exists on cannabis and exercise science. “We need to be able to directly test questions regarding how cannabis, as it is used in the real world, affects performance in the moment,” she qualifies.
Gillman also points out a huge issue: the literature so far treats all cannabis as the same, when in fact different strains “vary substantially in their chemical makeup.” Not to mention the differences that may exist between smoking (which by the way, is not exactly a great idea before exercising given its affect on the lungs), vaporizing, or consuming edibles that contain marijuana.
It’s possible that cannabis enhances the runner’s high, which could improve exercise motivation.
In terms of performance, the studies that exist are a little all over the place, and Gillman says her best guess is that it’s likely more about the psychological than physiological effects. “That is, cannabis may reduce anxiety having to do with sports performance, or may help people turn their attention to particular sensations—such as being more attuned to bodily sensations, or conversely, to dissociate themselves from their body during exercise and instead focus on other things.”
Next, exercise is an inflammatory process (though its long-term effects are the opposite) that causes muscle tissue damage, pain, and soreness, and marijuana has been shown in studies to help reduce pain and inflammation, although none have specifically looked at these effects specifically related to exercise.
Finally, in terms of motivation, a recent study showed that the brain system that’s stimulated by marijuana, the endocannabinoid system, is also involved in producing the “runner’s high.” “So it’s possible that cannabis could enhance the runner’s high, which could improve exercise motivation,” Gillman says. “On the other hand, it could also interfere with these pathways, making exercise less motivating.” Sigh.
My high started to peak towards the end, on about the last quarter mile of my run. I felt totally in sync—my body, mind, and breath sort of gliding through space with minimal effort.
Here’s what I can say, based on my not-even-close-to-scientific experiment: maybe a lot of it is just about pleasure. I messed up the timing a little in terms of how long before the run I ate my spoon of weed-infused coconut oil (yes, that’s how health journalists enjoy their marijuana), so my high started to peak towards the end, on about the last quarter mile of my run.
As it rolled over me, I felt like my feet were suddenly floating over the sidewalk to the beat of “Sorry” (sorry). I felt totally in sync—my body, mind, and breath sort of gliding through space with minimal effort. I was looking up and noticing how blue the sky was and how nice it was to feel the warmth of the early-spring sun. I felt supremely calm and happy and was just having a great time. Ask a behavior expert what makes people stick to exercise habits and they’ll have one thing to say: enjoyment.
Don’t live in a weed-legal state? Try meditating before your next run, instead.