Considering the stereotype of marijuana’s high — the relaxed muscles, slow thought processes and dopy happiness — it seems odd that athletes focused on improving performance would turn to cannabis, even in recreation. Indeed, marijuana doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to sports, as nearly all sports leagues have historically tested for cannabis and have disciplined athletes found using the drug.
However, research on the short- and long-term health impacts of cannabinoids are causing athletes at all levels to consider integrating the drug into their training regimen. Whether you are interested in using cannabis to improve your own athletic performance or you are intrigued by what other athletes are doing with the drug, read on.
Cannabinoids Mimic Compounds Necessary for Recovery
If you were asked to describe a marijuana high, you might use the words “euphoric,” “relaxed” and maybe “hungry.” Then, if you were asked to describe how you feel after an intense workout, like a long run or a heavy lifting session, you might also say “euphoric,” “relaxed” and probably “hungry.” The highs experienced from cannabis use and exercise are nearly identical.
This is due in large part to the endocannabinoid system, a natural system within the human body that helps various systems maintain balance and function properly. The endocannabinoid system produces compounds, called endocannabinoids, that communicate with the nervous system, the cardiovascular system and the digestive system and encourage them to behave in specific ways. One of the most well-known endocannabinoids is called anandamide, and it is released in high quantities after exercise to help your body relax and recover.
When you use marijuana, you take in cannabinoids, or compounds unique to the cannabis plant, that interact with the endocannabinoid system in different ways. THC, the most prominent cannabinoid, mimics anandamide and binds to endocannabinoid receptors around the body, resulting in the same physical and mental responses often with greater intensity. While training is necessary to improve strength, stamina and other elements of athleticism, cannabis could be useful in improving recovery by stimulating the endocannabinoid system in this way.
Cannabis Offers Several Different Physical Benefits
In its mimicking of anandamide as well as due to other vital cannabinoids, like CBD, CBC and CBN, cannabis elicits a few physical responses that majorly impact how an athlete recovers after strenuous exercise. Some of these include:
An increase in oxygen to muscles. Cannabinoids are known to relax blood vessels and increase blood flow, which makes it easier for oxygen to get to users’ muscles. The more oxygen available to muscles, the more fuel muscles have for movement and repair. Often, increasing oxygen and blood flow in general can reduce debilitating muscle spasms.
An improvement to vision and concentration. Various studies have found cannabis to improve vision in a variety of ways, from reducing vision loss to enhancing night vision and to boosting visual processing in the brain. Meanwhile, certain cannabinoids promote feelings of creativity and centeredness, which lend themselves to focus and concentration. Both vision and concentration can be vital to sport.
A reduction in memory related to training injuries. Many athletes struggle to progress due to fears related to past or potential injuries. Injury can stall or destroy an athletic career — but risk is also often necessary for athletic advancement. Because THC interferes with short-term memory, it can release athletes from injury-related fears and help them move forward in training.
A reduction in pain. The endocannabinoid system is largely responsible for regulating the sensation of pain. By using cannabis, athletes can take greater control of pain sensation, both by masking the sensation through THC and by encouraging healing with other cannabinoids. By reducing pain, athletes can recover faster and return to training sooner.
Athletes looking to experiment with cannabis for these purposes should be aware that different strains of marijuana and different products will likely yield different results. It is a good idea to consult with knowledgeable budtenders at a licensed Portland dispensary — or whatever legal recreational dispensary is nearby.
Marijuana Is Not Great for Competitions
It should go without saying that marijuana isn’t an ideal drug for enhancing performance on the field or in the gym. You shouldn’t smoke a joint and expect to reach a squat PR or reach your fastest marathon time. Cannabis is a recovery tool, meaning it should be used in times of rest — and even then, only athletes who are not at risk of cannabis drug testing should consider partaking. Whether you are a high-level athlete performing on a professional field or an amateur just getting used to the gym, you should consider talking to your doctor and your coach about marijuana use.