Can Pot Make You a Better Athlete?

With pro-marijuana legislation sweeping the nation, it's time to ask this very serious question.

Jan 16, 2015
Outside
Outside Magazine
marijuana, pot, drugs, fitness, running, exercise

"When we run, our bodies actually produce endocannabinoids, a naturally occuring form of THC."    Photo:William Van Beckum and Hannah McCaughey

I’m running like I’m being chased by a bear. Sweat is pouring off me, my heart is pounding, and my mouth tastes like pennies. Also, I’m stoned.

Exercising on drugs is a new experience for me. And except for some fun in my early twenties, I’ve never been a pot smoker. But about 15 minutes ago, I took a hit of marijuana and jumped on a treadmill to see how it affects my athletic performance.

I know what you’re thinking: What’s the point? The societal view of a stoner is of somebody couch-bound and snacking on chips. Even the vast majority of regular cannabis users will probably tell you that the effect of the drug hinders their ability to do anything athletic at a high level.

That’s what I always believed, too, and research seemed to back it up. A 1975 paper found that those who smoked pot experienced a 25 percent decrease in power output. Another study found that people who ingested THC lost motor skills and experienced decreased reaction time.

Still, the World Anti-Doping Association bans cannabis use during competition, citing studies that say the drug decreases anxiety, potentially helping athletes stay calm in the heat of competition, and acts as a bronchiodilator, which increases airflow to the lungs. Pro athletes who use marijuana are obviously reluctant to admit it, but in 2003, skateboarder Bob Burnquist told Thrasher magazine, “I have learned a lot of tricks while stoned.”

Some close friends, who also happen to be really good skiers, swear that the drug improves their skills on the mountain, claiming that they can “feel the snow better.” So last winter I gave it a shot. After popping a ten-milligram THC gummy, I experienced a slight yet very functional high. But something else stood out: I felt invincible and proceeded to attack the steepest lines without fear. That reaction doesn’t surprise Stanford Medical School professor Keith Humphreys. “We have cannabinoid receptors throughout our brains, and when the THC hits those receptors, it triggers a system that reduces anxiety,” he says. “That you would feel more aggressive is a natural reaction to the drug.”

That got me wondering: Could pot make me better at other sports? To find out, I contacted physiologist Stacy Sims, who recommended a battery of tests that I could perform both sober and while high to see if the drug affected my performance.

Which is what led me to buy a bag, take a hit, and jump on the treadmill. Earlier, for my control test, I set the pace at five miles per hour, increasing the ramp angle by 2.5 percent every two minutes. The goal was to see how long I could stay on. While sober, I made it 19 painful minutes.

While stoned, the experience is much different. I can still feel the pain, but I’m not fixated on it; my mind is lost in random thoughts. Finally, my legs stop turning over quickly enough and I hit the stop button: 19:30. Interesting. I repeat the test twice more over three days, both sober and stoned, and yield similar results, which Sims confirms is a substantial performance gain.

My experience is less surprising when you examine the science. When we run, our bodies actually produce endocannabinoids, a naturally occurring form of THC which, along with endorphins, are responsible for the runner’s high that athletes enjoy. Smoking pot simply puts you in that state before your body begins generating the chemical.

I do a heavy squat session while high, which would normally leave me sore for two days, but I’m surprisingly fresh 24 hours later. Even when not stoned, other aches and pains seem to dissipate, too. Humphreys says studies have shown that the drug has an anti-inflammatory effect, which is one reason why medical marijuana is so prevalent.

On a stoned mountain-bike ride after two weeks of testing, I feel flowy and fast, much better than when I’m sober. But soon I ride straight off the trail, unable to judge my speed correctly through a turn. “Distance perception is impaired, and reaction time is slower,” says Humphreys. “You might feel invincible out there, but you’re probably putting yourself in more danger.”

I’m also wheezing. Smoking for two weeks 
has definitely taken a toll on my lungs. Ingesting it or using a vaporizer could get around that, but a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed inconsistent results when the drug was consumed in ways other than smoking it.

So will I smoke before I exercise from now on? No. I still prefer the natural high of a hard run. But if I’m racing a 10K with bragging rights on the line, I just might.

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