When it comes to boosting athletic performance, taking steroids or other performance enhancing drugs is one thing, but could the same effect be seen with pot?
The answer could be a resounding Yes.
In hindsight, one of the most controversial cases involving marijuana use in sports dated back during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. When Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who won the game’s very first gold medal for Men’s Snowboarding, tested positive with THC, he was immediately disqualified and stripped off of his gold medal. The decision, however, was reversed because at that time, marijuana was not yet included on the list of banned substances.
With no further tests or doubts raised, the incident led the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to include THC on the list of the banned substances, albeit at a higher detected level than what was found in Ross Rebagliati blood at that time.
So, how does marijuana enhance one’s athletic performance? Even the question itself might be surprising to many given the relaxing and subtle highs that THC offers. And let’s face it: Getting stoned while driving isn’t the wisest thing to do.
So forget about NASCAR. Let’s talk about other sports then.
In a Men’s Journal (November 2014 issue) interview with elite triathlete and Colorado gym owner Clifford Drusinsky, he claimed to lead training sessions with individuals enhanced by marijuana-infused edibles. For Drusinsky, cannabis “relaxes” him and helps him “go into a controlled, meditational place, according to Men’s Journal. “When I get high, I train smarter and focus on form.”
In the February issue of Outside Magazine, correspondent Gordy Megroz said that even without having much experience with smoking marijuana, he’s been curious about his close friends, particularly skiers, who claim that cannabis actually enhanced their sports performance. And so he gave it a shot, trying out cannabis before skiing down the slopes. The effect on him was a “slight but functional high” and that he felt as if he was unstoppable and indestructible, gaining much confidence as he fearlessly went down the steepest slope.
But a word of caution though, as being fearless under the influence of marijuana could lead to miscalculations on your limits or what you can do especially when trying out risky sports or activities that are still new to you. A simple dangerous maneuver could be serious or, in some cases, fatal.
Keith Humphreys, a Stanford Medical School professor, said that our brains contain cannabinoid receptors, which, when hit by THC, activates a system in our brain that reduces anxiety levels. Thus, feeling more aggressive and fearless as a natural manifestation of reduced anxiety.
According to the World Anti-Doping Association, some studies suggest that marijuana works like a bronchodilator, which helps increase airflow to the lungs by decreasing the resistance in the respiratory airways.
To test this theory, Megroz conducted a self-experiment under the supervision of a physiologist. In his test, he ran on the treadmill preset to a pace of five miles per hour. Every two minutes, he would increase the angle by 2.5 percent. Then came the results, which showed he was able to keep running on the treadmill for 19 minutes. But after using cannabis, his treadmill run lasted about 30 minutes more. And that’s a significant difference in the athletic world. In addition, another effect he observed was less sore sensation after a heavy squat.
There is one physical activity though that Megroz said would be better done when sober: Mountain-biking. He claims that riding a bike is “flowy and fast” when doing it while free from THC influence.
Lack of Research
The problem with the anecdotal claims that marijuana does indeed improve athletic performance is that little research has been done to answer the same question directly. One of the reasons why researches avoid studying cannabis is that the Federal government still classify the herb as a schedule 1 drug, which has the same category as the deadly prescription drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. In other words, it would take special and a complex web of processes just to seek approval from the federal government.
But fortunately, we still draw some conclusion based on the existing research studies that focus on the effects of THC and other cannabinoids on our physical and psychological state.
One study featured by the National Geographic website suggests that THC has anti-inflammatory properties. And when a compound reduces inflammation in the body, there is reduced sensation of pain. And when there is less pain, there is greater performance. It is as if THC acts like endorphins that numb such sensation. But the problem with this compound is that it also gives you the highs, and in some more susceptible individuals, also hallucinations and impaired judgment.
So the study also examined other compounds found in cannabis — called cannabinoids — and their anti-inflammatory properties. Surprisingly, they did find one cannabinoid, the beta-caryophyllene (E)-BCP, to also have the same beneficial effects in our system. In fact, the same natural chemical has also been found in herbs basil, oregano, celery, carrots, lime and pepper. Interestingly, essential oils from marijuana, particularly those processed from the herb’s leaves and flowers, contain up to 35% of this cannabinoid.
For decades, the anti-inflammatory property of (E)-BCP had not been studied in part because everyone was focusing on THC. But now that more states are legalizing recreational marijuana, more researchers are already beginning to explore other chemicals found in cannabinoids. In fact, many medical experts admit that there are still so many things we might learn the moment we unlock the potential of these compounds found in marijuana. If we can extract the cannabinoid (E)-BCP and combine it with other drugs, its potential to boost athletic performance becomes more evident.
The Bottom Line
Although more research is needed to establish any direct effect of marijuana to athletic performance, anecdotal evidence does seem to show that to some degree, this herb does help athletes perform in some sports. Some physical activities that require precise judgment — such as taking the right maneuvers while biking or driving — are better done when free from the influence of THC. On the other hand, those that require more efforts than judgment such as running, skiing and swimming are better done with less fear, inhibition and anxiety — hence the favorable effects of the anxiety-reducing marijuana.
The bottom line? Vaporize marijuana before running. Get sober when driving.