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 marijuana 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 marijuana 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 weed-related workouts. Namely, why athletes turn to weed when they’re contemplating a workout. Amid evidence that marijuana 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. The notion of combining weed and workouts is also debated on the r/running subreddit.
“I notice that I usually run really well when I’m high, I stay so focused on the run and my body,” wrote u/PurpleMonkeyRunner in 2015. “I either run faster or I feel like a run faster, I haven’t fully tested if it helps me or not. I sure do enjoy the runs though and have never had a bad experience doing it.”
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 marijuana do so because it makes their workouts feel better.
Most people believed that marijuana 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 marijuana and exercise on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 meaning they “strongly agreed”). Asked if they felt that marijuana 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 marijuana 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 marijuana, 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 marijuana (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 marijuana 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 marijuana 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.
Abstract: Scientific literature examining cannabis use in the context of health behaviors, such as exercise engagement, is extremely sparse and has yielded inconsistent findings. This issue is becoming increasingly relevant as cannabis legalization continues, a situation that has been associated with increased initiation of use among adults, and increased potency of available products in legalized states. Physical activity is among the most important health behaviors, but many Americans do not meet minimum exercise recommendations for healthy living. Common issues surrounding low exercise rates include inadequate enjoyment of and motivation to exercise, and poor recovery from exercise. It is unclear whether cannabis use shortly before and/or after exercise impacts these issues, and whether this co-use affects exercise performance. The present online survey study examines attitudes and behaviors regarding cannabis use with exercise among adult cannabis users living in states with full legal access (N = 605). Results indicated that the majority (81.7%) of participants endorsed using cannabis concurrently with exercise, and those who did tended to be younger and more likely to be males (p < 0.0005 for both). Even after controlling for these differences, co-users reported engaging in more minutes of aerobic and anaerobic exercise per week (p < 0.01 and p < 0.05, respectively). In addition, the majority of participants who endorsed using cannabis shortly before/after exercise reported that doing so enhances their enjoyment of and recovery from exercise, and approximately half reported that it increases their motivation to exercise. This study represents an important step in clarifying cannabis use with exercise among adult users in states with legal cannabis markets, and provides guidance for future research directions.