Before a long run, Flavie Dokken likes to ingest a capsule or gummy with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the molecule from the cannabis plant most famous for its psychoactive effects. “It works really well for me. I get an energy boost,” says the U.S. Army veteran and former bodybuilder who’s now a competitive ultramarathoner based in Boulder. During a five-hour run, she might take half a gummy before the workout and then consume the other half a few hours in to give herself a second wind. What she gets from THC isn’t just overall energy but also a feeling of “being tuned in and present during the workout,” she says.
As marijuana legalization has spread across the country, it’s not just couch-dwelling stoners who are reaching for THC. Dokken is one of many athletes who are finding ways to incorporate the drug into their training programs, and she’s one of several athletes sponsored by cannabis edibles company Wana Brands. And although cannabidiol (CBD) has received a lot of attention for its potential to reduce pain and inflammation without the psychoactive effects of THC, some athletes find that THC can also be a useful component of their workout and recovery programs.
“We had no idea so many people would say, ‘Yeah, I use cannabis and exercise together.’”
Scientists were surprised
To be clear, there’s very little scientific evidence on the use of cannabis and exercise. “Most of the research on exercise is anecdotal and not in the form of clinical trials,” says Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, a former academic who now serves as Vice President for human and animal research at Canopy Growth Corporation, a cannabis company based in Ontario.
What’s known about athletes and cannabis comes mostly from surveys and self-reports. For instance, a 2019 study of behaviors and attitudes about cannabis provides a few clues about the use of cannabis among exercisers even if that wasn’t the researchers’ original intention. “We wanted to ask actual cannabis users why they use it and what they saw as the benefits,” says Angela Bryan, PhD, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado.
Bryan and her colleagues were surprised by how many people reported using cannabis with exercise. More than 80% of the survey’s 494 respondents — cannabis users recruited via social media and medical cannabis card registration clinics — endorsed using cannabis either before or after exercise. Bryan’s group hadn’t expected that people were using cannabis in conjunction with physical activity. “We had no idea so many people would say, ‘Yeah, I use cannabis and exercise together,’” she says. If they’d known it was so common, they would have revised their survey to ask more specific questions about how people use cannabis with their workouts, she says, noting, “I think our study raised more questions than it answered.”
Improving the exercise experience
More information comes from the Athlete PEACE Survey, which collected responses from more than 1,100 self-identified athletes recruited via social media and email blasts. The results, published on PLOS One in 2019, found that 26% of the athletes who responded were current users of cannabis.
Athletes in the survey used cannabis before and after exercise, but very few reported using it while they were training, says the study’s lead author, Joanna Zeiger, PhD, founder and CEO of the Canna Research Foundation and an Olympian and former World Champion triathlete. Some people reported using cannabis before exercise to improve their exercise experience. Athletes also reported using it for recovery after exercise. About 71% of respondents said cannabis helped them sleep, 69% said it reduced pain, and 58% said it calmed them. People using a combination of THC and CBD reported the greatest benefit to their overall well-being and sense of calm with minimal adverse effects.
There was no single way that cannabis is being consumed by respondents in Zeiger’s study. “They were using it in all sorts of ways — they were smoking it, they were consuming edibles, they were using topicals,” she says. “I was actually quite surprised by the number of athletes who said they were smoking and vaping. I didn’t expect that.”
Some of the benefits reported in Bryan’s survey included increased enjoyment of physical activity, improved motivation, and enhancements to recovery. A few people in her survey also said it aided performance, but “the data that cannabis enhances performance are really scant and not convincing,” Bryan says.
Her group has published one of the few studies to examine how cannabis influences exercise. It was a small study of 28 cannabis users and 136 nonusers with subjects age 60 and older. Researchers looked at differences in exercise behavior, body mass index, and cardiovascular fitness in cannabis users compared with nonusers who were taking part in a trial testing an exercise intervention. “We showed that older adult cannabis users actually exercise more than nonusers,” Bryan says. They also achieved similar fitness gains from the prescribed exercise intervention as nonusers did. The results are preliminary, but they suggest that cannabis use doesn’t reduce the benefits of exercise and may even be helpful for reducing pain and inflammation in older adults, Bryan says.
“If you think of a ‘runner’s high,’ that’s happening because of the activation of the body’s endocannabinoid system by exercise.”
The runner’s high
While CBD has received a lot of the focus for medicinal uses, THC has been “sort of demonized,” Bonn-Miller says — which is too bad because THC can also be useful to people who aren’t just seeking to get stoned. It’s important to understand that CBD and THC have similar pathways biologically, he says. “If you think of a ‘runner’s high,’ that’s happening because of the activation of the body’s endocannabinoid system by exercise,” Bonn-Miller says. Even though CBD is so often heralded as the medicinal type of cannabis, THC also has pain-relieving properties and can enhance the exercise experience.
“Many athletes, including myself, find THC to be a good tool for focus and motivation,” says Antonio DeRose, co-founder of Green House Healthy, a health and wellness company that promotes the benefits of cannabis. “[THC] can boost your mood, which helps some people find exercise more enjoyable, and it can reduce pain levels, making exercise and training possible for athletes who may be experiencing pain or soreness,” he says. Edibles help him stay focused and manage any soreness he might feel during a long run. He also uses topical products to target aches and pains in specific areas of the body, like the knees and ankles.
“People ask if I feel it distracts me or makes me lose my focus, and it’s really the opposite,” says ultrarunner Dokken. But she emphasizes that getting an energetic effect depends on not overdoing it. “I’m not going to take a full dose,” she says. “I’ll cut the gummy in half.” For recovery, Dokken likes a product that has a 2:1 ratio of CBD to THC.
“It’s not going to work for everyone for everything. It can do a lot of things for a lot of people, but it’s just part of a toolbox. You still need to take care of your body and sleep well and eat well.”
Start low, go slow
So how does an athlete give cannabis a try? First, talk with a medical professional to make sure it is appropriate for you and won’t interfere with any other medications you’re taking, Zeiger says.
Once you’ve decided to take the leap, “There’s a mantra in the industry, ‘start low and go slow,’ and that’s good advice,” Bonn-Miller says. Begin with a low dose and increase it only as needed from there. This advice goes double for edibles because they take 45 minutes to an hour or more to kick in. Give yourself plenty of time to assess how you’re feeling before taking more of an edible, lest you fall prey to the newbie mistake of assuming it’s not working, taking more, and getting yourself further in than you’d intended.
A legal dispensary is the best place to purchase cannabis because that means it has been tested by a state-regulated lab. “You can be fairly certain what’s in it,” Zeiger says. CBD can be purchased in many other settings and is subject to less regulation and fewer testing standards than THC. Third-party tests of CBD bought off the shelf have shown that what’s in CBD products doesn’t always match what their packaging says, Zeiger says.
Don’t rely on strain labels to tell you how a particular product will affect you. “Quite frankly, strain names don’t mean a whole lot, nor does the whole indica versus sativa thing,” Bonn-Miller says. There’s a lot of folklore out there about indica strains of cannabis provoking certain effects while sativa produces others, but Bonn-Miller (and most of the other experts consulted for this story) say that these distinctions aren’t very relevant now with so many different strains and names coming from various companies. “It’s going to be a little bit of trial and error, unfortunately,” Zeiger says.
“It’s important to pay attention to how different types of cannabis products, methods of consumption, and servings affect you personally,” DeRose says. There’s no one best way to consume cannabis, but instead, you need to act according to your tolerance levels, needs, and goals.
“I’d love to get to the place where we could say, ‘This kind of cannabis in this dosage and this preparation might be helpful for exercise,’ but we’re not there yet,” Bryan says. She is planning another study (currently on hold due to Covid-19) that will have people exercise on a treadmill after ingesting cannabis to measure things like pain and mood and compare this to what they experienced doing the same activity without the cannabis. “We want to assess what physical activity feels like for someone under the influence,” Bryan says. “It will be really helpful in drilling down the actual impact instead of just having people remember what they did six months ago.”
Zeiger says that when she began her academic research in this field she had “a very negative attitude toward cannabis,” but what she’s learned since then has changed her attitude. She now uses THC for sleep and a combination of THC and CBD during the day to help with the pain and nausea she’s been living with since a freak bike accident during a race more than a decade ago.
“It can be a wonderful medicine,” she says, but it’s important to understand its limitations too. “What I’ve learned is that it’s not going to work for everyone for everything. It can do a lot of things for a lot of people, but it’s just part of a toolbox. You still need to take care of your body and sleep well and eat well.”