Cannabis users are often stereotyped as lazy couch potatoes satisfying their munchies with junk food.
But a new study from the University of Colorado pushes back against that generalization, highlighting how marijuana plays an important role in fitness for some and how the substance even can be used as a motivational tool for exercise.
The study, published last month in Sports Medicine, evaluated 42 runners and compared data points from their experiences exercising both sober and after smoking a joint. Participants were able to choose whether the strain of cannabis they consumed was high in cannabidiol (CBD) or tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The latter produces the feeling of being high.
Runners booked three, 30-minute running sessions on a treadmill at the university – one to set a baseline, one sober and then one high – and were periodically asked questions about their motivation and pain levels, and the enjoyment and difficulty of the workout.
The vast majority of participants (90.5%) reported feeling more enjoyment from the exercise after consuming cannabis, researchers found. Most also said it decreased their pain (69%), increased their focus (59.5%) and helped them stay motivated (57.1%).
Anglea Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU, said the results aren’t too surprising given she recruited runners who already embrace cannabis as part of their workout routine. Still, she hopes the results will motivate others to get active.
“We have an epidemic of sedentary lifestyle in this country, and we need new tools to try to get people to move their bodies in ways that are enjoyable,” Bryan said. “If cannabis is one of those tools, we need to explore it, keeping in mind both the harms and the benefits.”
According to the study, folks don’t need to get high to reap the benefits of cannabis in this way. Participants who consumed CBD-dominant cannabis more often reported feelings of euphoria and the so-called runner’s high than those who consumed THC-dominant strains.
Even if runners had more fun while under the influence, marijuana did not strengthen their abilities. Less than a third (28.6%) reported that cannabis improved their performance, noting the workout felt harder and more intense. That supports findings from one of Bryan’s earlier studies, in which participants ran 31 seconds slower per mile after smoking weed.
“We know with 100% certainty that THC is not performance enhancing. If anything, it hurts performance,” Bryan said.
Experts previously believed endorphins caused the runner’s high, but newer studies suggest it could be a reaction in the body’s endocannabinoid system, Bryan said. That might be one reason cannabis enables runners to tap into positive feelings.
An open secret
Bryan’s interest in cannabis use and exercise dates back to the early days of legalization in Colorado. As a scientist studying how to get people to adopt healthy habits, she worried wider access to marijuana might lead to more problematic health outcomes.
“From an epidemiological perspective, it turned out that not only were cannabis users not less healthy, they were more healthy. They had less incidents of type 2 diabetes, they were less likely to be in a high BMI category. They had better waist-to-hip ratio, better insulin function — none of the things you would suspect,” Bryan said. “When we looked more specifically into physical activity, it turned out cannabis users are more likely to meet activity guidelines than non-users.”
That inspired her to want to better understand the relationship between exercise and the intoxicating plant. This study is the first to measure the acute effects of commercially available cannabis on exercise in a controlled environment, she said.
Local journalist Josiah Hesse said cannabis use among athletes has long been an open secret. For his 2021 book “Runner’s High,” Hesse spoke with more than 60 athletes about how they use the substance and found it is common for even professionals to indulge to enhance pleasure and vigor during training or to treat pain. Many said it helped them reconnect to their passion for sports beyond competitions and careers. (Hesse also participated in the CU study.)
“I heard that from ultramarathon runners, who are running 250 miles through mountains for days and days, that they use cannabis in those experiences. Olympians, professional basketball players, hockey players, and they’re all telling me 60-70-80% of their fellow athletes are using cannabis,” Hesse said.
Those cultural norms have led to policy shifts in professional sports. In 2019, Major League Baseball removed marijuana from its list of banned substances and as of 2023, players in the National Basketball League will no longer be drug tested for the substance. MLB even has an official CBD partner now.
However, stigmas around cannabis use remain. In 2021, running phenom Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended and ultimately missed the Tokyo Olympics after failing a drug test for marijuana. Though pot is largely understood not to be a performance-enhancing drug, the World Anti-Doping Agency believes it “violates the spirit of the sport.”
“How is it that using a THC gummy before a workout violates the spirit of the sport and drinking a six-pack of beer doesn’t?” Bryan said. “It doesn’t make sense unless you think about the stigma that’s associated with cannabis that’s not associated with alcohol.”
Bryan said systemic racism has always been a driving force behind the stigma around cannabis and that its impacts are evident today, for example, when it comes to who is willing to participate in studies like hers.
Until recently, Bryan wouldn’t even recommend using cannabis as an adjunct to exercise. But after someone pressed her about her position in the face of mounting data about the substance’s perceived benefits — medical marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2000 — Bryan reconsidered.
“I’ve changed my tune, I guess,” she said. “Now I view it as a potential tool in the toolbox.”
Bryan plans to continue studying cannabis in the context of exercise in hopes of looking at various consumption methods like edibles and use in other sports beyond running. (She was quick to note that marijuana isn’t a panacea and that she has concerns about high-THC concentrates concerning addiction and mental health.)
Both she and Hesse hope studies like this will encourage people to keep an open mind about the plant’s potential applications beyond getting high.
“There are still large swaths of this country living in Nancy Reagan’s America,” Hesse said. “Science like this goes a long to eradicating those misconceptions.”
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