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Weed has made headline news over the past week for barring American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who would have been a contender for the 100-meter gold medal in Tokyo, from competing in the Olympic Games. Although there is no evidence that it’s a performance enhancing drug, THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is listed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list as a substance of abuse along with heroin, cocaine, and MDMA. (For those curious, here’s the Agency’s reasoning.)
Though there are strong arguments to be made that WADA shouldn’t be testing for marijuana consumption, if you are an elite athlete it’s best to avoid the the herb during competition. But because THC is only tested for and prohibited in-competition, in the context of training alone athletes can legally use cannabis in regions where it is, of course, legal. (At this point, 19 states plus Washington D.C. and Guam have legalized the recreational use of cannabis and another 36 states having legalized it for medical use.)
Outside the context of professional sport, as weed becomes destigmatized for legitimate medical treatment, it’s worth exploring whether runners can reap any benefit from a plant that has been hailed as a remedy for ailments ranging from insomnia to depression, bone fractures to muscle pain. And, if marijuana can indeed help runners, how can those potential benefits be obtained safely?
Extracting what’s objectively true about what weed can and can’t do has been a challenge due to a dearth of research on marijuana’s effect on healthy individuals and pesky federal laws barring scientists from distributing the drug in a controlled way. However, there do appear to be a few potential areas in which it can indirectly benefit a runner’s performance when used judiciously.
Potential Benefits During Exercise
First, it begs repeating that weed is not a performance enhancing drug. It goes without saying that you should not light up before a 5K race or mile repeats on the track, as you can actually degrade your peak performance by using cannabis.
However, according to Dr. Jordan Tishler, M.D., an expert in the field of medical cannabis therapeutics, the herb may offer some benefits for individuals seeking to enhance present-mindedness during a light jog or strength session.
“In situations where one is looking for peak performance, greatest strength, greatest speed, cannabis can be counter-productive,” explains Tishler. “But in the training or exercise approach, where peak performance is not necessarily the goal, but endurance or enjoyment is more the focus, then using small amounts of cannabis during exercise can influence people’s pain threshold and ability to tolerate prolonged exercise and generally increase people’s enjoyment of that experience.”
To understand how cannabis may have the ability to boost focus on a run or light workout, we need to unbraid two definitions of “focus.” One conception of the term defines focus as attention paid to an external goal, i.e., hitting a consistent 6:30 minute mile pace on a 5 mile run. This is something Tishler says cannabis is not particularly useful for.
Others would define focus as being present-minded and free from distractions—being aware of your breathing, for example, or noticing the colors of the natural world around you. And that is something where cannabis can perform pretty well by increasing the sensory awareness in some athletes to assist their muscle movement for a more efficient workout.
There’s also been a lot of discussion in recent years about the recovery benefits of cannabis after intense exercise like running. Some claim, for example, that cannabis or certain cannabinoids — chemicals found in cannabis — have potentially anti-inflammatory benefits similar to ibuprofen.
“That’s pretty much unclear at this point,” says Tishler. “And certainly I don’t think it would rise to the level of efficacy that we see with things like ibuprofen.”
On the other hand, he notes, we do know that THC is a muscle relaxer. In this way it can be helpful for reducing pain or muscle spasms post-workout. “Cannabis and THC in particular is a pain reliever, and so, in that sore, recovery phase, cannabis can be used gently as a way of treating the discomfort that goes along with that,” he explains.
One of the most important recovery treatments for runners is simply high quality sleep, when your body does most of its muscle rebuilding. However, insomnia, a common sleep disorder that has been on the rise in the United States, has a tendency to plague runners, threatening to undercut performance.
Tishler doesn’t necessarily believe that cannabis can enhance muscle repair beyond what a good night sleep can do, but he does note that if you’re someone who has trouble getting a good night’s sleep, cannabis can certainly be effective. While there have been a slew of studies that have looked at the effect of cannabis on sleep, many of them did not closely examine the amount of cannabis used. That’s because of federal regulations that have prohibited researchers from giving subjects cannabis and consequently knowing the amount of cannabis being consumed by the participants. This has complicated the research on the effect of marijuana on sleep, resulting in mixed conclusions. Some studies have shown that cannabis is helpful with sleep, others showing that it interrupts REM sleep and is thus counterproductive.
“The few studies that have tried to account for dose have shown that lower doses are effective [for sleep] and higher doses can be counterproductive,” says Tishler. “That’s also true in the treatment for anxiety.”
He notes that his own patients have come to him often with insomnia and have done very well on cannabis. “In fact, of all the things that cannabis can treat I would say that insomnia is probably the best thing,” Tishler says.
Guidelines on Safe Cannabis Consumption for Exercise
If you do want to try weed (assuming you live in an area where it’s legal) to enhance a light run or recovery after a workout, or to help falling asleep, what is the safest approach to do so? Here are some guidelines:
1. Plan a safe activity and location.
It’s imperative that your planned activity and location are safe if you’re using cannabis. Avoid traffic or any area that could potentially pose any danger.
“Obviously using cannabis comes with a fair amount of intoxication, which in this case may be helpful for the exercise, but it’s also important that we note that it can alter people’s perception of risk and it can alter people’s perception of time,” warns Tishler. Thus, cannabis can be a problem if you consume it before going on a run in a busy downtown area heavy with traffic. You’ll be safer if you’re going on a treadmill at home, on a familiar, quiet trail, or on the sidewalks around a suburban neighborhood.
2. Use a medium potency strain.
“You don’t want the super high potency,” advises Tishler. “Not only because it’s hard to get the right dose, but also because the medium potency stuff is more effective for health benefits than for just getting stoned.”
3. Consume it right.
Tishler notes that if you’re an athlete, you probably shouldn’t literally smoke cannabis, as exposing yourself to smoke isn’t exactly healthy for your lungs. Similarly, vaporizer pens have a concerning amount of carcinogens and should be avoided.
One of the best methods for consuming cannabis safely is through a flower vaporizer — a device that allows you to insert the ground-up botanical material and set the temperature at exactly 350 degrees. The machine is able to extract the medicine without burning anything and creating toxic chemicals.
If the idea of inhaling anything makes you uncomfortable, you might also consider trying one of the many edible or drinkable cannabis products on the market.
4. Dose with caution.
If you do as Tishler advises and use a medium potency strain, each puff (if you take a full, deep breath) contains somewhere in the range of 3 to 5 mg of THC. If it’s your first time trying this, don’t take more than one puff. You can add more later if you don’t feel it’s enough, but you can’t exhale it back. Two puffs puts you in the average dose zone, and anything beyond that is what Tishler considers a high dose. (Note: This is still well below what most recreational users would consider noticeable.)
Other factors to consider include your personal reaction to THC, the type of strain you’re using, your environment, and the aim of your use. But following these guidelines will help ensure that you maximize the health benefits you can reap from the herb with the least intrusive intoxication.