At first glance, cannabis and endurance sports seem like an unlikely pairing. But a well-timed hit can break up the monotony of a long, grueling workout so effectively that the unlikely pairing has taken hold in some niche endurance running communities. A new survey published in Frontiers in Public Health suggests that using cannabis as a workout enhancer isn’t as niche of an idea as it once was, though.
This recent study, led by University of Colorado’s Angela Bryan, Ph.D., showed that 81.7 percent of 605 survey respondents in states where weed was legal reported using cannabis directly before or after exercise.
“We were stunned it was that high,” Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, said on Tuesday.
Her data helps fill a crucial gap in our understanding of cannabis-related workouts. Namely, why athletes turn to cannabis when they’re contemplating a workout. Amid evidence that cannabis will do little or nothing to improve athletic performance, her results suggest that people don’t actually smoke because they think it makes them better at their chosen sport. Rather, they believe it makes the experience more enjoyable and helps with recovery afterwards.
There are plenty of anecdotes that speak to the positive experiences of training while high. Endurance runner Avery Collins, a top finisher at some of America’s most grueling ultras, famously either “smokes a little” or pops an edible about 30 minutes before he takes off on a training run. This experience isn’t limited to elite-caliber runners.
While Bryan’s paper can’t answer questions about whether cannabis affects athletic performance, it does show that most athletes in the sample who use cannabis do so because it makes their workouts feel better.
Most people believed that cannabis strongly affected their enjoyment of the workout and their recovery afterward. Bryan came to this conclusion by asking her participants to rate a series of statements about mixing cannabis and exercise on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 meaning they “strongly agreed”). Asked if they felt that cannabis enhanced their enjoyment and recovery, participants gave average ratings of 5.3 and 5.7, respectively, indicating that they generally agreed that it enhanced each experience. When asked whether they felt cannabis impacted motivation or performance, their feelings were neutral.
As far as recovery goes, there is research pointing to the use of cannabis products for muscle recovery — in fact, the World Anti-Doping Agency actually allows cannabidiol (CBD), a minimally psychoactive component of cannabis, to be used during competition.
But from a public health standpoint, arguably the most important finding of this paper is that increased enjoyment leads to more exercise. Overall, people who combined exercise and cannabis (co-users) exercised an average of 159.7 minutes per week — far more than the 103.5 minutes per week typical of those who didn’t combine the two. Interestingly, the co-users tend to go harder in their workouts, reporting 30.2 more minutes of anaerobic exercise, the kind that is so intense that it leads lactic acid to accumulate in the muscles (causing pain the next day). The paper states that this new data, taken together, suggests cannabis may be a “useful tool for exercise among some users.”
The authors add that “this will be a fascinating research question as more states move toward legalization.” Many questions remain about combining exercise and cannabis, notably the potentially harmful effects that might come from combining the two. Nevertheless, in a society where people struggle to meet even minimum exercise guidelines, this early work suggests cannabis may be just what it takes to get some people moving and even make them enjoy the process — making it, in one sense, a performance-enhancing drug that some public health officials may actually get behind.
See our recent article about why Cannabis Users Weigh Less, Despite Having the Munchies