The three biggest questions about how marijuana affects athletic performance

420 Games stoner olympics 1634
420 Games stoner olympics 1634

(The 420 games may or may not do much to change marijuana stereotypes.420 Games)

As more and more states have made the decision to legalize marijuana, we've started to get a more accurate picture of how people use cannabis.

Among a number of fascinating revelations, this stands out: a number of people use marijuana to fuel workouts.

"Marijuana relaxes me and allows me to go into a controlled, meditational place," elite triathlete Clifford Drusinsky, a Colorado gym owner who also leads training sessions fueled by marijuana edibles, told Men's Journal in 2014. "When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form."

The World-Anti Doping Agency has banned competing while high for years now, at least partially because they say there's a possibility it could boost performance by reducing anxiety and potentially improving blood oxygenation and the ability to focus.

But does it actually work that way? How does marijuana affect working out?

We ... don't really know.

The reason we don't know illustrates what's still the biggest problem about marijuana research. It's still really hard, if not impossible, to study marijuana in the ways that people actually use it.

But a 2015 commentary on marijuana research in the journal Sports Medicine by Arielle Gillman, Kent Hutchison, and Angela Bryan from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder helps clarify exactly what we do and don't know about marijuana's effects on fitness. They explain that while we still don't know much about marijuana's effect on fitness, we can say what the three biggest questions are and what we know about them.



1. How does marijuana affect athletic performance itself?

The only reason we have to think that marijuana might help runners crank out long miles faster is that some people anecdotally report that they feel better running (or skiing, climbing, or engaging in some other pursuit) while high.

Gillman tells Business Insider via email that there are some in the running community, especially ultrarunners, who say cannabis can make runs "more fun and interesting" and that it can also reduce pain and nausea. It's possible that a change in the way runners perceive time has an effect too. But it's hard to know many people actually use marijuana while working out. Gillman says that some small and preliminary surveys of undergraduates in marijuana-friendly Boulder have reported that between 20 and 30% have used marijuana before exercise, but she says she thinks the majority of people fall into the "I could never exercise/run while high" category.

Still, even if it is rare, those reports seem like a good reason to study how marijuana affects performance. But researchers can't give premium quality marijuana from a Colorado dispensary to study participants — even in states that have legalized recreational usage, "research weed" still has to come from very limited DEA-approved research facilities. Not only is that hard to get access to, it's usually different from what recreational users purchase. Plus, Gillman says, it's hard to convince the review boards that approve studies that it's ethical or safe to study how stoned people do on a treadmill.

trail blazer
trail blazer

(Philipp Guelland / Stringer / Getty Imagers)

The few studies we do have illustrate just how little this has been researched. One study the Colorado team analyzed found a slight decrease in power for cyclists. Another study demonstrated a very slight decrease in the amount of time a cyclist could maintain maximum speed, but they also found decreased lung resistance and increased metabolic rate for those cyclists, things that could potentially improve performance.

Still, these studies had few participants and used cannabis with less than 2% THC, which is the main psychoactive component (cannabinoid) in marijuana. Average THC levels are now around 20% and many people who report using cannabis while working out don't smoke it, they eat it or vaporize it, which may have different effects, especially on the lungs.

2. Does marijuana affect the motivation to exercise?

The research doesn't tell us much to confirm or debunk the stereotype of the Doritos-munching stoner, but the Sports Medicine commentary helps provide some perspective.

People who use marijuana are less likely to be obese than the average American, but we have no idea if that's because cannabis users are more likely to eat well or exercise than non-cannabis users or if it's due to some totally tangential reason.

Marijuana is loaded with cannabinoids, including the well-known THC and CBD (thought to decrease inflammation), but there are also many more. Our bodies also make cannabinoids, and Gillman explains that some of those may be partially responsible for the feeling of a runner's high. She says it's possible that by bonding to the same receptors that our natural endocannabinoids do in the brain, marijuana cannibinoids could have two wildly different effects. They could impair a runner's high by blocking those receptors or they may enhance it — we just don't know without watching the process in a number of people.

marijuana dispensary
marijuana dispensary

(David Ramos/Getty)

Complicating the picture further is that we don't know how different blends of cannabis with different levels of cannabinoids will have different effects and we won't know that without studying it more thoroughly in the ways people use it.

"In our work we strongly argue that scientists need to study multiple strains of cannabis with different ratios of cannabinoids in order to gain a more nuanced (and true) understanding of the effects of cannabis, in all its forms," says Gillman.

3. How does marijuana affect the recovery process?

Most of the actual physical transformation that occurs from exercise happens as your body heals itself after you've already completed a workout. Here, the same questions about marijuana persist.

By decreasing pain and reducing inflammation, marijuana might might it easier to push through some long workouts and may make the recovery process less painful. However, other research has shown that anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen (in Tylenol) may reduce the gains people get from working out.

Exercise-induced inflammation creates certain healing compounds that help your body get stronger. Suppressing that initial inflammation may harm that strengthening process.

Again, without studying it, we won't know how cannabis fits into the picture.

Unfortunately, Gillman says it's unclear when it'll become easier to research cannabis. It seems that ongoing state legalization has increased interest but not necessarily made things easier to study. Federal legalization for recreational use would likely be necessary for medical review boards to decide some of these studies are safe.

In the meantime, all we have is anecdotal reports and extremely limited research.

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