When Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for a small amount of marijuana in his blood at the 1998 Japan games, his first-place finish was temporarily called into question.
But THC, the main mind-altering chemical in marijuana, wasn’t even included in the International Olympic Committee’s banned-substances list at the time (it is now, but at a much higher level than the one he tested at). Rebagliati was allowed to keep his victory and medal. (He is now in the medical-marijuana business.)
Even though it’s on the banned list now, does anyone really think of marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug in the first place?
After all, as Robin Williams later joked, “the only way it’s a performance-enhancing drug is if there’s a big f—ing Hershey bar at the end of the run,” right?
It turns out marijuana might actually help some people perform better at certain sports.
This may sound crazy. After all, we’re all familiar with the image of the couch-locked, Cheetos-covered stoner.
Yet there are people that say training while high has helped them unlock new performance gains.
In November of 2014, Men’s Journal interviewed elite triathlete Clifford Drusinsky, a Colorado gym owner who also leads training sessions fueled by marijuana edibles.
“Marijuana relaxes me and allows me to go into a controlled, meditational place,” Drusinsky told Men’s Journal. “When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form.”
Outside Magazine correspondent Gordy Megroz wrote in the February 2015 issue of that magazine that while he has never been much of a pot smoker, he heard enough close friends — especially skiers — say that getting high helped their performance that he decided to give it a shot.
Megroz first tried a cannabis gummy while on one of those snow-covered mountains and wrote that with a “slight yet very functional high,” he “felt invincible and proceeded to attack the steepest lines without fear” — ski-speak for feeling able to tackle the craziest parts of a mountain. It’s easy to see how this kind of fearlessness could be appealing to an expert skier, but could lead anyone — especially a novice — into making a dangerous decision.
Stanford Medical School professor Keith Humphreys explained to Megroz that there’s a scientific explanation for this. “We have cannabinoid receptors throughout our brains, and when the THC hits those receptors, it triggers a system that reduces anxiety,” Humphreys said. “That you would feel more aggressive is a natural reaction to the drug.”
In the World Anti-Doping Association’s current ban on competing while stoned, the organization cites studies that show marijuana can decrease anxiety and increase airflow to the lungs by acting as a bronchodilator, something that decreases resistance in the airways.
So Megroz decided to perform further tests, with the help (and under the supervision) of a physiologist.
The basic test was simple. He got on a treadmill, set the pace for five miles per hour, and then increased the ramp angle 2.5% every two minutes.
Sober, he could keep it up for 19 minutes. But stoned, he could last 19:30 — a “substantial performance gain,” according to the physiologist. He repeated the test twice more with similar results.
He also found that he got less sore after a heavy squat session.
In other words, getting stoned helped him perform and recover better.
But while testing mountain-biking performance, results weren’t quite as good. He writes that while he started off feeling “flowy and fast, [riding] much better than when” sober, he soon misjudged his speed and rode off the trail.
So what does the science say about marijuana and exercise?
Here, we have a big problem. There isn’t much research available yet on how pot affects performance. As long as marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, it’s incredibly difficult for researchers to study its effects. It’s becoming easier as states legalize medical and recreational use, but there isn’t a ton of research yet, and it’ll still be hard to do unless the government changes that policy.
And some research (along with the aforementioned anecdotal evidence) would seem to show that pot doesn’t help anyone do anything athletic.
Megroz cites a 1975 paper that found a 25% decrease in power output among study subjects after smoking marijuana — but there were only eight people in that study and they all had asthma, which means this tells almost nothing about the general population, especially since smoking could have triggered already-existing problems in asthma patients. Another 1977 paper he cites found some decreased motor control among a group of six experienced pot smokers when they got high, though they didn’t show significant changes in reaction time.
But the little evidence we have on pot also explains some potential performance gains. Researchers say that marijuana has an anti-inflammatory effect and that the chemical compounds that come from weed might mimic the body’s natural endorphins, which could help increase our pain threshold like a natural runner’s high and make it easier to push through a tough workout.
So there’s evidence that pot can help people deal with pain and inflammation while decreasing anxiety and improving mood, but it also has potentially risky motor-control side effects that could lead to an accident, especially in a sport where a wrong turn (like mountain biking or skiing) could be disastrous.
Anecdotally, both Outside and Men’s Journal found endurance athletes, professional fighters, and mountain athletes like skiers and rock climbers that say that pot can help them train — and there’s a big argument that NFL players might be better off using pot instead of painkillers to deal with their day-to-day injuries.
Yet decreased anxiety can lead to dangerous decisions. There is also a temporary elevated heart rate associated with consuming marijuana, which could be a negative side effect for athletes and a risky complication for anyone with a preexisting heart condition.
There just isn’t much research out there yet.
We should clarify that we don’t advocate going and exercising while high, as that’s illegal in most states and whatever effect it does have on performance, there is certainly the possibility that decreased motor control could lead to a serious accident.
But is this something that should be researched and discussed more as the wave of decriminalization and legalization continues to sweep across the country? Absolutely.
By Kevin Loira