Could Cannabis Be A Performance-Enhancing Drug?

Cannabis is stereotypically associated with lethargy, delayed reaction times and impaired concentration, and certainly not with notable athletic performance. But more and more, evidence is beginning to demonstrate that cannabis can in fact have significant positive benefits during times of exercise and exertion.
Jun 06, 2016

Cannabis Use In Sport Throughout History

Cannabis has been used to make warriors feel calm, confident and fearless throughout history, by cultures from all around the world.

In many historic cultures, the line between warriors and athletes was blurry – indeed, for much of history, athletic sports were an important way to prove one’s potential or ability as a soldier, and to keep the male population trained, unified, and fit for military service. In Ancient Greece, home of the original Olympic Games, both athletic sports and military service were compulsory for young male citizens.

Cultures that made use of cannabis in warfare may well have also allowed their athletes to use it. While there is no evidence of cannabis use in Ancient Greek warfare, there is certainly evidence that both soldiers and athletes used wine, hallucinogenic potions and herbs to enhance performance.

In India, bhang (traditional cannabis paste) has been used by both warriors and athletes for centuries, and is strongly associated with wrestler and bodybuilding castes to this day. It is also probable that various sub-Saharan African tribes known to make use of cannabis in warfare during the nineteenth century, such as the Zulu, also used it in their many competitive sporting events.

There is no direct evidence of this fact, but there is evidence that the Zulu made extensive use of other performance-enhancing substances during both battle and sport. In fact, the term “doping” possibly derives from a Zulu term, dop, which referred to a concoction of grape skins thought to give warriors strength in battle.

Cannabis Use By Present-Day Athletes

In recent years, cannabis use to enhance performance has become increasingly popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Research is also beginning to uncover intriguing information about the endocannabinoid system and its fundamental role in physiological processes related to exercise and fitness.

An article from the Guardian in May 2016 describes the case of Avery Collins, a 25-year-old ultramarathoner that makes extensive use of cannabis edibles during training, which he believes allows him to “stay in the moment and embrace what’s going on right then and there”. While he never uses cannabis during competitions, and does not feel that his success should be credited to cannabis, he believes that use during training enhances his experience considerably.

An excellent article from Men’s Journal in 2014 discussed the case of multiple triathlon winner Clifford Drusinsky. A Colorado gym owner, Drusinsky not only makes extensive use of cannabis during his own training, but also leads group sessions in which up to two dozen participants will train while under the influence of cannabis!

According to Drusinksy: “Marijuana relaxes me and allows me to go into a controlled, meditational place…When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form.”

His clients appear to be very much on board with Drusinsky’s approach to physical training. One client is reported as stating, “I work out longer high”; another states, “If I take a little bit before heavy training, I am totally dialed in”.

An interesting perspective is offered by journalist and ski enthusiast Gordy Megroz in a February 2015 issue of Outside Online. Megroz stated that he was not a habitual cannabis user, but had heard enough positive reports from other sports enthusiast friends that he decided to try it out one day.

After eating a medicated gummy chew, Megroz experienced a “slight yet very functional high”; he “felt invincible and proceeded to attack the steepest lines without fear”. This “fearlessness” may be akin to the reaction sought by ancient tribal societies who ritualised use of cannabis before battle.

Aggression, Fearlessness, Anxiety – What Role Does Cannabis Play?

For his article, Megroz took the initiative of contacting Stanford Medical School professor Keith Humphreys to find out why this may be. “We have cannabinoid receptors throughout our brains, and when the THC hits those receptors, it triggers a system that reduces anxiety,” Humphreys responded. “That you would feel more aggressive is a natural reaction to the drug.”

It seems arguable that aggression is a natural reaction to a reduction in anxiety. Cannabis is known the world over as an anxiety-reducing substance, and rather than being commonly known to induce aggression, it is far more well known for producing a state of contemplative relaxation.

So why is there such a discrepancy between the traditional stoner stereotype and this subset of cannabis-fuelled super-athletes – who, it must be noted, do not represent a new phenomenon, but rather a Western version of bhang-using Indian bodybuilders or African tribal warriors?

As Always, The Truth Is Complex

The answer almost certainly lies in the complexities of cannabinoid dose and ratio, along with personal variables such as individual genetics, state of health, and various other factors. Several cannabinoids have been seen to produce one effect at low doses while producing the opposite effect at higher doses, and when combined with other cannabinoids, the potential psychological outcome becomes even more variable – as this 2013 study on cannabinoids and anxiety highlights.

As well as dose, the effect of tolerance is crucial in cannabinoid science, and can mean that a substance such as THC can have markedly different effects between individuals of different tolerance. Furthermore, certain genetic traits may make certain individuals respond to an identical dose of cannabinoids in completely different ways – or it may even be the case that those in prime physical condition (as athletes mostly are) respond differently to the “average” or sick human.

Another layer of complexity to add to the scenario is the question of what makes a substance “performance enhancing”, and in which ways cannabis can be said to fulfil this role, particularly given its diverse and often opposite effects between individuals. Even for a specific individual, the effects of cannabis may be inconsistent, and could even be altered by such variables as fatigue or hunger.

Or an individual may find certain effects to be beneficial while other simultaneous effects are found to be detrimental. In Mergoz’ article for Outside Online, the author noted that cannabis provided a “flowy and fast” feeling that increased confidence and enabled him to endure for longer, but also caused a subjectively impaired ability to judge speed and distance.

What Does The Science Say About All This?

As is so often the case, we need to conduct a lot more studies on the effect of cannabis on physical exertion in humans before we can get a full understanding of what’s going on. The existing research on cannabis often consists of rodent studies, and may not always be relevant to humans, given the many differences between the expression and role of the endocannabinoid system between animal species.

However, we do have various pieces of research that are relevant, and which indicate that cannabis could indeed have a beneficial effect on athletic performance in humans. For example, we’ve known for many years that cannabis can certainly have an effect on anxiety levels. This effect may be positive or negative, depending on various factors, but there are plenty of people out there that rely on cannabis for its anxiety-alleviating effects, and it’s probably a big factor in enhancing the performance of many pro-cannabis athletes.

It is also well-known that several cannabinoids (including both CBD and THC) have potent anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. This fact not only means that the cannabis-using athlete can expect to feel fewer aches and pains the day after exercise, but may also mean that pain and muscle strain can be minimized during exercise too. In fact, plenty of NFL players have acknowledged using cannabis, and there is a strong argument that it works better (and is safer) for football-related pain and injuries than many existing painkillers.

We also know that cannabis can act as a bronchodilator, and increase airflow to the lungs. It is for this reason that cannabis has been investigated for its asthma-fighting properties – and it is yet another reason that it could help athletes enhance their performance. The heart, brain and muscles all need a steady supply of oxygen to work, and if oxygen supply can be boosted, the maximum performance of the entire body can be boosted as a result.

Another area of research throws up the intriguing possibility that endocannabinoids naturally produced by the body are involved in the “natural high” produced by exercise, a phenomenon that also involves endorphins (just as endocannabinoids are naturally-occurring cannabinoid-like compounds, endorphins are naturally-occurring morphine-like compounds). Thus, using cannabis can enhance that “natural high” and make exercise feel even more effective and empowering.

One fact that repeatedly stands out is the concept of cannabis allowing one to become “dialled in” and able to easily and exclusively focus on the exercise at hand. This echoes the concept of “hyperfocus” that has been discussed in relation to cannabis elsewhere on the Sensi blog, and implies that there is a psychological element to the performance-enhancing effect of cannabis that goes far beyond its known physical effects.

What about negative effects?

While it appears that there are various ways in which cannabis can enhance performance during exercise, there are also potential side-effects that may detract from one’s performance, and even prove dangerous in very rare cases.

Cannabis has long been associated with impaired reaction times and motor control, and it appears that there is some basis for this association (which again, appears to be a dose-dependent effect. The bigger the dose, the greater the degree of impairment). Anecdotal reports from athletes such as Gordy Mergoz do however indicate that it is an effect experienced by some. Thus, for sports which require fine motor control, such as cycling and skiing, cannabis may prove to hinder more than it helps.

Furthermore, cannabis use can lead to elevated heart rates in some individuals and may even increase the risk of heart attack in a small subset of susceptible individuals (again, this effect is not universal, and studies are inconsistent). Thus, athletes with known heart conditions should use extreme caution if attempting to exercise under the influence of cannabis.

As always, it is all but impossible to answer the question “could cannabis be a performance-enhancing drug” with a simple yes or no answer. The effects are too variable to make generalisations at this stage – but it may be in these specific, non-general effects that cannabis will prove to come into its own.

Every sport (and every individual playing sports) is different, and the possibilities for tailoring cannabis drugs for specific applications are endless. But before we can do that, we need to push forward with legalization and research so that we give ourselves the best possible chance of having all the facts.

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