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Cannabis & Exercise

Cannabis & Exercise

Exercise. A thing that I have been told that people do. Whether it's running, cardio or pilates, don't you think most things are better after consuming cannabis? Turns out, lots of cannabis consumers seem to agree that including cannabis as a part of their workout routine enhances the experience, and now we have some science to back that up.

With medicinal and adult-use cannabis becoming legally available in more and more states each year, cannabis consumption has also been a topic of debate among the athletic community. A good example of this is the World Anti-Doping Agency. The World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, is an international foundation that was born in the wake of a 1998 doping scandal in cycling. In response to this scandal, the International Olympic Committee held the First World Conference on Doping in Sport. What resulted was the “Declaration of Lausanne” that basically allowed for the founding and funding of the World Anti-Doping Agency. WADA was established in 1999 to “protect athletes, promote the values of clean sport, and preserve the spirit of sport internationally”.

To make a long story as short as possible, WADA oversees Regional and National Anti-Doping Organizations (RADOs and NADOs) that adhere to the World Anti-Doping Code. Adopted in 2003, it first took effect in 2004 and there are currently around 700 sports organizations across the world that are signatories to the Code. Signatories range from the Association of Summer Olympic Federations, which includes the International Basketball Federation and World Rugby, to the Alliance of Independent Recognized Members of Sport (AIMS), like the World Armwrestling Federation.

In recent years, there have been calls for WADA to reconsider cannabis’ place on its list of prohibited substances. In 2022, the US Anti-Doping Agency said that they had been “advocating for WADA to change its approach to marijuana” and in September of the same year, WADA approved their 2023 list of prohibited substances, keeping cannabis among them. It’s important to note that THC is prohibited “in competition only, and only when the urinary concentration exceeds a threshold of 150 ng/mL,” and that CBD was removed from the list in 2018.

This is where we run into a common problem we have with cannabis related scientific research and data. There are three things WADA considers when evaluating substances for its list: whether it has the potential to enhance performance, if it presents a health risk to the athlete and if it “violates the spirit of sport” as defined by the Code. It’s fuzzy to me which two of these three were used to uphold cannabis’ place on their list, but whether cannabis may enhance or limit athletic performance is still in need of more scientific exploration.

According to an article I found on cannabis and athletic performance published to the National Library of Medicine’s website in 2021, some of the most relevant research that addresses athletic performance and cannabis use was published 35-45 years ago. We all know by now just how much not only the industry but the plant itself has changed since then. Fortunately, studies like the one just released by the University of Colorado Boulder are giving us some more up to date information on the possible benefits of combining cannabis and exercise.

The study surveyed 49 runners from the ages of 21-49 after a run in a “real-world setting” where they had consumed “legal market cannabis” beforehand (cannabis run) and one where they did not (non-cannabis run). Not only did participants report having “lower pain levels” after their cannabis run, they also reported feeling “greater feelings of positive effect, tranquility, enjoyment, and dissociation” as well as “more runner’s high symptoms”.

Interestingly, a 2021 University of Colorado Boulder article that seems to outline the beginnings of the recently released 2023 study, says that some studies suggest that the “runner’s high” or “endorphin rush” often experienced during exercise may actually be the result of our body’s naturally occurring (endogenous) cannabinoids interacting with our endocannabinoid system. This suggests that the cannabinoids found in cannabis (exogenous) like THC and CBD, may interact with our endocannabinoid systems in a way that mimics a runner’s high.

As a non-runner, I couldn’t tell you what a runner’s high feels like, but from all of the runners I’ve met, it sounds pretty damn good. It seems like every exerciser I meet or see online mentions the incredible endorphin rush that comes along with a good workout or put even more simply, just how good it can make you feel. If cannabis can induce this feeling earlier during a run or exercise routine as the research seems to reflect, this could lead to increased motivation for physical activity or, as the UC Boulder study says, greater enjoyment while exercising.

The study also reported that runners were, on average, 31 seconds per mile slower on their cannabis run, but that it’s not statistically significant.

The UC Boulder study concluded that “acute cannabis use may be associated with a more positive exercise experience among regular users”, but as with most science involving cannabis, more and varied research is needed.

Now, circling back to WADA and my starting query: does this count as performance enhancing? I'm not a sports professional by any means, but you bet that consuming cannabis before any physical activity is going to enhance my performance. Whether or not WADA would deem that within its criteria for list consideration is out of my range of expertise, unfortunately.

Moving on from whole cannabis and THC, we have CBD. In most cases, CBD seems to be considered in regard to recovery. From what I can tell, the general consensus is that the main goal of the use of CBD products among athletes, and I would imagine regular ‘ol exercisers as well, is pain management. As long as I’ve been involved in the cannabis community, topicals and other CBD products have been a cornerstone for pain management among patients, and it was only a matter of time before I realized it had, very logically, made its way to the athletic and exercise communities.

One thing I’m eager to see the scientific community explore further is the possible benefits of CBD on minor traumatic brain injuries (mTBIs), like concussions. According to the Cannabis and Athletic Performance article, there is evidence that CBD possibly “reduces dysfunctions relating to the anxious, aggressive and depressive behaviors often exhibited following mTBI”, and that the anti-inflammatory properties of CBD may play a neuroprotective role in athletes that are more prone to mTBIs. The article strongly encourages further research in order to “understand the mechanisms by which CBD may offer a neuroprotective benefit to athletes who are at risk of mTBI.”

Alright, let's do a little summary of the possible benefits of consuming cannabis as part of an exercise routine. Overall, you’ll likely have a more enjoyable experience, with less pain and more motivation. As a matter of fact, contrary to stereotypical belief, cannabis users aren’t more likely to live less active lives. In fact, a study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2021 that observed cannabis users and non users in “sedentary behavior” (SB), physical activity (PA), and moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and found no difference between how much time “users” and “non users” spent in sedentary behavior. The results they found suggest that “frequent cannabis users engaged in more PA than non-current users, but spent similar amounts of time in SB”. Age also seemed to play a part, with participants over 40 that consumed cannabis averaging 16 more minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity than non-users.

The fact that the older cannabis-using participants engaged in longer and more vigorous physical activity supports the theories of cannabis use for pain moderation during and after a workout. To avoid speaking for a demographic that I’m not a part of, I’ll use myself as an example. I have a physical disability that limits the type and amount of physical activity that I can do. I’ve been lucky enough to have communities willing to make accommodations for me in sports, field days or PE classes, so I’ve had some experience with exercise and exercise adjacent things, not to mention the few years I spent going to physical therapy in my childhood.

Now that it feels like my mid-thirties are rocketing at me, I have absolutely considered incorporating some kind of exercise into my life. In fact, over the years I’ve dabbled in a random yoga or workout app in the past and I was definitely consuming cannabis and struggling to keep up. Knowing myself, intentionally incorporating cannabis into an exercise routine is going to work exponentially by accidentally being stoned when I start working out, which is what’s usually going on.

There’s still much to be desired when it comes to how cannabis consumption relates to exercise and sports, as there is with many different areas of cannabis research, but the progress we’ve begun to make looks promising. It seems unlikely to me that the World Anti-Doping Agency will come to a consensus on the performance enhancing capabilities of cannabis anytime soon, but the jury is still out among the scientific community on that one as well, it seems. Outside of the jurisdiction of WADA and its Code, however, are regular people looking to have more fun and less pain during their workout, and to that I say: Pop a gummy and have a nice run!


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